Following is even more proof that self-styled “historian” David Barton is little more than a propaganda artist: now he’s rewriting his own history. Yet Barton’s distorted versions of history are still getting traction on the political right, as Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston demonstrated last week.
Let’s start with Barton.
The president of Texas-based WallBuilders, an organization dedicated to rewriting American history and rejecting separation of church and state, has faced a number of embarrassments lately. Last year a religious publisher halted publication of Barton’s book about Thomas Jefferson, citing factual errors throughout. That came just weeks after Christian conservative scholars panned Barton’s work. Earlier this year writer Chris Rodda discovered that Barton had used a Louis L’Amour novel as a source for historical claims about 1800s America. We also caught Barton spreading falsehoods, including his false claim last fall that President Obama had ignored “God” in his four Thanksgiving proclamations.
Now it looks like Barton is trying to paper over one of his biggest blunders: bogus quotations he has in the past attributed to some of America’s Founders and various other important figures in our nation’s history. He used those quotes to back up his arguments that the Founders intended to establish a Christian America with its laws and society based on the Bible (at least as Christian conservatives interpret the Bible). After scholars and others pointed out that there was no evidence backing up many of the quotes, Barton put up a page on his WallBuilders website that he hoped would make him look more like an honest scholar. (It didn’t.) Titled “Unconfirmed Quotations,” Barton essentially used the page to track whether or not he could find evidence that anyone really said the things he claimed they did. He started with 14 such “unconfirmed quotations” and over the years claimed to have “confirmed” a handful of them.
But sometime earlier this year, Barton must have decided that progress toward his self-vindication had been too slow. So he has revised his quotes page, actually striking through “Unconfirmed” and writing “Confirmed!!!” instead. In fact, he now lists five quotations as “confirmed” and three as still “unconfirmed.” But where are the other six? Those quotes have disappeared, apparently tossed down the memory hole. And what of the five supposedly “confirmed” quotations? Even there, Barton isn’t telling the full truth.
Two supposedly “confirmed” quotations — one for Benjamin Franklin and another for Thomas Jefferson — aren’t really confirmed. Barton instead cites accounts written after Franklin’s and Jefferson’s deaths that suggest the two said something like the quotes Barton attributed to them. A quote attributed to John Quincy Adams is partial (and not exact). And a quote he attributes to the U.S. Supreme Court was actually from an Illinois Supreme Court case in 1883. He notes that correction, but the header still identifies the quote as simply from the “Supreme Court” — which will mislead some readers into assuming that it comes from the federal court.
So of his original 14 unconfirmed quotations, Barton has confirmed one and corrects his sourcing of another. His evidence for three others is mixed at best, he still rates three as “unconfirmed,” and six he ignores altogether. For any real historian, that would be an awful record. For a phony historian like Barton, it’s par for the course.
Well, you might say, why does this matter? It matters because political activists and politicians still recycle Barton’s bogus quotes as evidence backing up various arguments. We have written about two Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) members who have done so, for example. (Religious-right members of the Texas SBOE adore Barton. The current board chair has even called him “a leading historian of our state, if not the nation.”) Last week Sen. Patrick also recycled one of Barton’s bogus quotes.
In a July 4 post on his Facebook page, Sen. Patrick (who is running for Texas lieutenant governor in 2014) noted a list of quotes he used in a talk the previous week at a Conroe Baptist church. The talk, he said, was “about how our Founding Fathers understood we were a nation founded on the Word of God of the Old & New Testament. They knew that if we turned our back on God the future of our nation would be in great peril.”
Among the quotes he uses is one attributed to Patrick Henry:
“It can not be said too strongly that this nation was founded by not religionists, but by Christians, not on religion, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a book worth more than all the other books that were ever printed.”
That quote is one of the three even Barton still acknowledges as “unconfirmed” on the WallBuilders website. So Patrick provides yet another example of how Barton’s distorted historical claims have become part of the political discourse on the right.
Barton, by the way, complains on his “quotes” webpage that calling those quotations “bogus” wrongly implies that he simply made them up. Actually, we don’t think he just made them up, but they’re not real quotes. Credible historians are far more careful about the words they attribute to the people they claim to study. Moreover, we acknowledge that just getting something wrong doesn’t make you a fraud. Even honest people make mistakes. But if you continue to portray things as true when you know they’re not, or if you present yourself as an expert when your work demonstrates that you’re not, that’s fraud. And fudging the numbers on your scorecard so that they look more favorable to you only makes it worse.