David Barton, Christopher Columbus and the Potential Costs of Myth-Making
When I was in elementary school we were taught all about Christopher Columbus in Kindergarten; then, for the next six years, we were retaught all about him each fall. Because of this constant educational reinforcement (underscored by years of assigned readings, essays, dioramas and finger puppet plays) I can recite the whole lesson from memory decades later:
Columbus was from a poor family that lived in an Italian fishing village. One day, he noticed that ships would gradually slip away under the horizon, and from that he deduced that the world must be round. Everyone laughed at him, but that didn’t stop Columbus from telling anyone who would listen that the Earth was not flat. Eventually in his travels spreading the Good News of the third dimension, he pricked the ears of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. They liked the cut of young Columbus’s jib and gave him three ships to sail westward to China, asking him if he wouldn’t mind picking up some bulk cinnamon while he was there. After a hard voyage – and just moments before his crew of little faith mutinied – Columbus discovered America. He later died a poor and pious man, back in the fishing village where he grew up.
I would later learn, of course, that almost every part of this tale is a complete fiction. Columbus did not grow up poor. The spherical nature of the world was not in question; Europe had figured this out centuries before. Columbus turned his Brave New World into a series of very profitable imperialist ventures – including slave trading. He became very, very wealthy, and for a time was Governor of the Indies. He died in the middle of a lawsuit demanding from Spain 10% of all profits coming from the New World, even the profits of those ventures with which he had no connection. And as if this wouldn’t have been enough to grey the hair of Mrs. McFadden (my second grade teacher who oft boasted of her fellow Catholics’ disproportionate impact on history) there is strong evidence that suggests he may have been a Marrano Jew.
The Columbus my generation was taught was a whitewash, deliberately crafted to fit more seamlessly with the myth of America’s founding we wished were true. It magically erases both slavery and imperialism, and it replaces them with the iconic American entrepreneur: poor, wretched and outcast by the rest of the world before making something of himself with little more than cleverness, moxie and elbow grease. I do not know where this Columbus myth comes from, or even how old it is. It may have started out as a Wilsonian attempt by our government to inspire nationalism. Or perhaps it was penned by some captain-of-industry busybody, a la Albert Spalding and Abner Doubleday. As I said, I do not know.
What I do know is that when my generation eventually went on to college and learned the more accurate history of Columbus, it did not react so well. It became fashionable to rewrite Columbus as a villain – not simply a product of his time but one of history’s great monsters. For a while in the late 1980s and early 1990s, an actual liberal vs. conservative Columbus controversy boiled over on the political landscape. Were we to teach our children that Columbus was the first Saint of American Exceptionalism, and condemn Euro-revisionist histories that dared mention his slave trade business? Or were we to teach that Columbus was the precursor to Stalin and Hitler, bending history toward an evil that would have been avoided had he not been given the keys to the Santa Maria?
I have been thinking about this controversy since I read Burt’s post on Columbus this morning. It seems clear that attempts to favor an American history filled with Rainbows and Unicorns over transparency ultimately backfired. As people went to college and began to learn that what their parents’ generation had promised them was True was in fact a Lie, they rebelled and – perhaps – overcompensated. Push came to shove, as incompatible narratives competed for supremacy. Culture war battle lines were drawn, with the Myth Believers on one side and the Anti-Myth Myth Believers on the other. Fringe historians that catered to either of these views became Beltway toasts. (The majority of historians – those that recognized that neither view held up to scholarly scrutiny – were largely ignored and left to continue to work in peace. Which was just fine with them.) This seems like a natural and human reaction to discovering you’ve been hoodwinked by history, so much so that it probably deserves its own law:
When a lie of history is revealed it creates an angry backlash; this backlash will embrace competing lies just as easily as facts and scholarship.
(If this isn’t already a named law, I’m hereby dubbing it Catherine’s Law, after my favorite historian in the whole world. And I’m shelving it right next to the Tom Cruise Rule and the Augusta National Rule.)
I’ve been thinking about Catherine’s Law these past few days as I’ve been researching a piece on PBS. This research has necessitated a fair amount of reading up on David Barton.
For those not familiar, David Barton is an amateur historian and the founder of Wall Builders, a non-profit organization devoted to “educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country.” According to Barton, the Founding Fathers envisioned a Christian nation, and the documents they left (including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) are a testament to this mission. Social conservative politicians have embraced Barton’s work as a necessary cog in their argument that secularism is anathema to America and its Constitution. When you hear the Family Research Council’s Bryan Fischer state that the First Amendment was only meant to apply to Christians, and that the Constitution demands that we strip those rights from non-Christians, it is Barton’s work that he is citing; Barton has in fact filed amicus briefs on this matter.
For his part, Barton argues that his scholarship is superior to those of professional and academic historians. He says this is partially because by not being peer reviewed he is not censored, and partially because he only uses original documents – he eschews others’ scholarly work. He points to a collection of hundreds of thousands of documents he has collected over the years from which he derives most of his research.
Not surprisingly, over the years historians have been as dismissive of Barton’s work as he has been of theirs. The most universal criticism has been that Barton relies too much on prooftexting, and consequently makes wildly inaccurate interpretations. (Prooftexting is the method of taking lines out of a document to stand on their own, without regard to the document’s original context.) What’s more, it is not always easy for another historian to determine the context of quotes in Barton’s work. Though his works are famously well footnoted, many of the sources are part of his own personal library and have not been available to other scholars for review.
(I should probably take the time to acknowledge what will be seen by those familiar with Barton as the giant elephant in the room. Most of Barton’s Internet critics point accusingly to Barton’s past associations with extreme-fringe white separatist and anti-Semitic movements. It is true that these associations are well documented. However, they appear to cease in the mid-to-late 1990s, around the time when Barton’s works were first becoming a mainstream conservative Christian product. I could find no records that Barton himself made any such radical statements while speaking at these conferences. There is certainly no indication that I can find that suggests that these are beliefs he holds now, if in fact he ever did.)
For the non-academic layperson, the battle between Barton and the academics was… well, academic. It showed up to most as a He Said/She Said, and people tended to look at the politics behind the debate and decide accordingly which side they believed. And then back in August, the wheels fell began to fall off Barton’s bandwagon.
In April of this year, Barton published The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson. Due to both grass roots marketing and daily pitches by Glenn Beck on his radio show, the book skyrocketed to the top of the NY Times Best Seller list. However, its success made many Christian scholars take a look at the work, and they found Barton’s scholarship to be shockingly lacking. Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of the conservative Christian Grove City College quickly published Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, where they detailed the incredibly long list of erroneous facts and unsupportable conjectures. Other Christian historians began to review the work as well, and all declared it as bad (or worse) than Throckmorton and Coulter had.
Eventually Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest publisher of Christian books and the publisher for The Jefferson Lies, stopped the printing and sale of the book on the basis that they had no confidence in its accuracy.
Predictably Barton accused the conservative Christians who panned his book of being liberals, and Glenn Beck – who was already contractually bound to publish Barton’s next book – defended the work. By this time, however, the cat was out of the bag and the hunt for inaccuracies was on.
For example, an oft-made claim by Barton is that the Constitution is made up of “direct quotes out of the Bible. You look at Article 2, the quote on the president has to be a native born? That is Deuteronomy 17:15, verbatim.” Which might indeed be a compelling argument for some… unless they bothered to actually check:
Constitution: No person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any Person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty-five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.
Deuteronomy: Thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother.
And it wasn’t simply Barton’s Biblical or historical scholarship that came under scrutiny. Over at First Things, Greg Forster went back and reviewed a scholarly article Barton penned on John Locke, and agreed that Barton’s work was full of “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims.” Christian scholars everywhere were piling on, exposing the naked emperor behind the David Barton empire.
You’ll remember I said above that once his poor scholarship was exposed, the wheels came off David Barton’s bandwagon.
(For dramatic effect. I’m a writer, sue me.)
The truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been a setback for Barton at all. His book is now being distributed by Glenn Beck’s publishing arm, and it continues to have monster sales. Sure, Barton’s terrible scholarship doesn’t necessarily negate the anti-secular claims made by social conservative pundits and politicians. On the other hand, there’s no need to muddy those waters, and so they continue to identify him as the world’s foremost US historian to their constituents.
The conservative Christian egghead set was never Barton’s audience. If they had been, they’d have called him out years ago. As I noted in my Values Voter Summit essay, Barton’s actual audience doesn’t see these trips to the woodshed by academic scholars as a red flag; if anything, they see them as further proof that he must be telling the Truths that the liberal media doesn’t want them to hear. If anything, being called out by a bunch of elites on these “embarrassing factual errors, suspiciously selective quotes, and highly misleading claims” will simply make his audience love him more. And all over America, there will be parents, teachers and school boards that will rush to teach David Barton’s new American creation myths to their children.
But sooner or later, those children will grow up – just like the kids that learned about the Columbus myths did. And many of them will go to college – just like the kids that learned about Columbus myths did. And when they get there, actual scholars – even Christian ones – will patiently explain to them why the “facts” that had been told to them so earnestly are actually considered to be an embarrassment. Those kids will learn scholarship, and they will rebel against the myths they were raised on – just like the kids that learned about the Columbus myths did.
This is why transparency is good in education and scholarship. Our Founding Fathers may or may not have wanted us to be a Christian nation. If they did, there may or may not be a good argument for abandoning secularism and remaking this country in Jesus’s image. Social conservatives that wish for such change would be wise to do so on the merits of that scholarship, and by the strength and persuasiveness of those arguments.
Going the David Barton route is great for making you feel good about yourself and your beliefs – in the short term, anyway. In the long term, it’s a recipe for having the next generation label your heroes history’s greatest monsters. Just ask Columbus.
 An concrete example of prooftexting out of context is a story told by Barton that praises Thomas Jefferson’s tireless work as President to get Congress to rescind John Adam’s Alien & Sedition Acts. Barton does indeed quote a line of text that can be interpreted in a way that backs up the story he tells. However, historians point out that the Acts were actually written to expire on the last day of Adam’s term; they had already been rescinded before Jefferson took office.