A couple weeks ago, many people were introduced to Christian nationalist pseudo-historian David Barton when Jon Stewart had him on The Daily Show to interview him about his New York Times bestseller The Jefferson Lies. People were apparently quite curious about who this Barton guy was -- so much so, in fact, that he became the #1 Google trend the next day.
Right now, I'm scrambling to quickly write a little book specifically debunking all the lies in Barton's new book. I hadn't planned to post any excerpts of what I'm writing until my book was closer to being done, but yesterday I came across one particular lie from Barton that is so incredible that I just have to share it. For anyone who's ever wondered just how far Barton will go, I think this one answers that question.
This particular lie comes from the section of Barton's book where he's trying to convince his readers that Jefferson rejected all of the secular Enlightenment writers, and only embraced the Christian ones. He first goes after David Hume, taking a quote from Jefferson completely out of context to make it look like Jefferson's problem with Hume was his religious views, when Jefferson's real problem with Hume was that he was a history revisionist. What Barton quotes out of context for his Hume lie is something that Jefferson wrote specifically about his disapproval of Hume's History of England, and had absolutely nothing to do with Hume's religious views.
But it's the next lie, in which he pulls a similar trick to make it appear that Jefferson had a problem with Abbé Raynal because of his religious views, where Barton really outdoes himself. Seriously, you ain't even gonna believe this one!
From Barton's book:
Jefferson was similarly forthright in his criticism of other secular enlightenment writers, including Guillaume Thomas François Raynal (known as Abbé Raynal). Jeferson described his works as "a mass of errors and misconceptions from beginning to end," containing "a great deal of falsehood" and being "wrong exactly in the same proportion." He even described Raynal as "a mere shrimp."
As with Hume, Jefferson was referring to a particular work, and it was a work that had nothing to do with religion. Raynal had written a history of the American Revolution that was full of errors, and these errors had been copied from Raynal's book into another work. That is what Jefferson was referring to in the first two quotes that Barton uses.
But it's the third quote that he uses - that Jefferson called Raynal "a mere shrimp" - that really shows Barton's astounding level of dishonesty and just how far he will go when taking things out of context. The "mere shrimp" comment had nothing to do with Raynal's writings at all. It was referring to the man's height!
Jefferson was recounting some of Benjamin Franklin's anecdotes to author and publisher Robert Walsh for an article that Walsh was writing about Franklin. Here is the one that the "mere shrimp" comment comes from:
The Doctor told me, at Paris, the two following anecdotes of Abbe Raynal. He had a party to dine with him one day at Passy of whom one half were Americans, the other half French & among the last was the Abbe. During the dinner he got on his favorite theory of the degeneracy of animals and even of man, in America, and urged it with his usual eloquence. The Doctor at length noticing the accidental stature and positions of his guests, at table, 'Come' says he, 'M. L'Abbe, let us try this question by the fact before us. We are here one half Americans, & one half French, and it happens that the Americans have placed themselves on one side of the table, and our French friends are on the other. Let both parties rise and we will see on which side nature has degenerated.' It happened that his American guests were Carmichael, Harmer, Humphreys and others of the finest stature and form, while those of the other side were remarkably diminutive, and the Abbe himself particularly was a mere shrimp. He parried the appeal however, by a complimentary admission of exceptions, among which the Doctor himself was a conspicuous one.*
Yes, my friends, that is how far David Barton is willing to go with his misquotes - claiming that a comment about someone's height in a story told by Benjamin Franklin was a "vehement denunciation" by Thomas Jefferson of the religious opinions in that person's writings!
* Thomas Jefferson to Robert Walsh, December 4, 1818, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 12, (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905), 110-111. (This is the same source that Barton lists in his endnotes, so he was looking at exactly the same thing as I was looking at.)