When I first read The Jefferson Lies, I rated it at four stars, but noted at the time that this was tentative. I wanted to read the other side of that controversy, which I have now done. In the overall exchange, I think that Throckmorton and Coulter got the best of it, but not entirely. I downgraded Barton’s book to three stars, and give this book four stars. That said, I am much closer to Throckmorton and Coulter in their final assessment of Jefferson himself than I am with Barton. That said, Barton still says some things worth reading, particularly when it comes to how “secularism” has changed.
There are four things to say. I read Barton’s book, read the Throckmorton/Coulter book, and then looked over Barton’s intro to the paperback edition (in which he responds to Getting Jefferson Right), and that leads to my first point. Given that the subject of this controversy was Thomas Jefferson, it is beyond a shame that Barton’s book was pulled from publication. It is clear to me that it required an answer, but it is not clear to me that it required policing.
Second, one of the things I appreciated greatly about Getting Jefferson Right is that they quoted a lot, and they quoted extensively. They successfully demonstrated at a number of points that Barton has a tendency to touch things up a bit — not so much by what he says, as by what he leaves out. There were a number of places where a quote with an expanded context left quite a different impression than that same quote with the ellipses.
Third, at the same time, there were a number of points of dispute that were simply paradigm issues, or issues that depended on your knowledge of the broader context. For example, Barton cites Jefferson’s role in some legislation concerning the Sabbath. Throckmorton and Coulter point out that the sabbatarian revisions that Jefferson supported were “much more lenient than prior laws on the Sabbath,” but the two exceptions they point to in the laws were actually making the laws more confessional — lenience was a by-product. And the central point that Barton was advancing, that Jefferson, paragon of secularism, supported sabbatarian laws, was a telling point. I believe that Barton successfully made the point that at a number of places a Jefferson policy would have been sued by the modern ACLU. And Throckmorton and Coulter successfully show that the cancer of unbelief was all through Jefferson’s thought, and this means (in my book) that the folks at the ACLU are not wrong to recognize a kindred spirit in Jefferson. The genesis of the American apostasy was complicated.
I guess my fourth point is actually a reiteration of my first point. Having said this much, with a number of their criticisms, Barton was not left with mouth agape. He did have some intelligent rejoinders. This should have been the subject of a debate, not of blacklisting. And if the debate went anything like the books, I would have decided against Barton — but against Barton the partisan historian, not Barton the clown.