The following roundtable was held in response to news of conservative pundit Glenn Beck’s plans to hold a “history training camp” with author David Barton in the summer of 2017. Barton is known for self-publishing a number of bestselling books that argue that the United States is a fundamentalist Christian nation. Most notable among these books is The Jefferson Lies, which was widely criticized for its inaccuracies, falsehoods, and misinterpretations. As we outlined in our editorial response to this news, Beck and Barton’s plans raise a number of questions for activist historians and professional historians more generally. In an effort to find answers to those questions, we began a conversation with past contributors and colleagues who have received professional training in early American history from accredited universities about what Beck and Barton’s forays into history mean for the field. What follows is the discussion that unfolded as we explored the implications of Beck and Barton’s message for historical understanding and sought to redress their worst excesses.
David Barton is famous for characterizing the founding generation as devout Christians that deliberately endeavored to establish the Unites States as a Christian nation. To what extent is he correct or incorrect?
James Feenstra: To say that the founding generation deliberately endeavored to establish the United States as a Christian nation is deeply misleading. At heart, perhaps, it contains a kernel of truth. The United States was established on Christian principles insofar as the entirety of western culture is founded upon such principles. But to say that the founders deliberately did so implies a sort of intentionality that is lacking in evidence. Cherry-picked passing references to religion can certainly demonstrate that the founders operated in a largely religious world, but it’s a pretty big leap to make the claim that it represents a deliberate effort.
Gabriella Angeloni: I agree, James. To a certain extent, no doubt, some Founders were devout Christians, but it’s essential to look at the context and environment in which they lived. We’re talking about the 1780s and 1790s, not the 1690s and the Salem Witch Trials. The Founding generation, while certainly reading those religious works that remained bestsellers throughout the eighteenth century and no doubt witnesses to or participants in the First Great Awakening, were all very much based in the age of Enlightenment. They were likewise well-versed in its focus on rational debate and observation. That’s not to say religion and enlightenment could not and did not live side-by-side, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to say the Founders were deeply, overtly, and purposefully interested in establishing a Christian government. Just off the top of my head, in 1787, you had Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Unitarians, Lutherans, Huguenots, Moravians, Catholics, Jews. The number of denominations, many of which fundamentally disagreed with one another, would have made one unified Christian government impossible. The generation likely viewed religion as a largely individual check on personal conduct—something markedly more private than a state religion to be forced upon people through law, à la Montesquieu.
Alex Burns: James and Gabriella both make very good points. The eighteenth century was indeed a very religious place, much more religious than the United States of today. I would add, however,that what Barton does is remake the founding fathers into his own image, so to speak. He attempts to show that their views mesh with the views of modern evangelical Christians. Sometimes that may be accurate, often it is not. I would also add, on the other hand, that atheists should not attempt to recast the founding fathers in their image either. Christopher Hitchens published a book titled, Thomas Jefferson: The Author of America, in which he suggests that Jefferson was an atheist. That is another example, in my opinion, of trying to recast the past in the image of today. “Knowing” the state of a person’s religious beliefs is difficult, as they are often in a constant state of change. Jon Butler, in his book, Awash in a Sea of Faith, maintains that eighteenth-century “atheism’s breadth and social significance remain difficult to ascertain” (20). I think he may well be correct, even if we can point to deism among certain members of the founding generation.
David Barton has been criticized in the past for refusing to submit his publications for peer review, choosing to instead self-publish. Is peer review important? How might peer review impact Barton’s work?
AB: To answer in a way that might seem terribly insincere, peer-review is incredibly important. I manage my own historical blog, which has been a rewarding experience. Despite that I would never attempt to claim that my blog is as historically valuable as a peer-reviewed publication. The peer-review process is not designed to establish some sort of official “truth,” but rather to ensure that statements historians make are verifiable. Considering the nature of Barton’s own historical work, some independent review might have been helpful. More mainstream historians frequently criticize Barton for including inaccurate quotations from the founding generation. The peer-review process might have forced Barton to seriously evaluate the credibility of those quotes.
GA: Alex is right, it would certainly jeopardize Barton’s claim that his interpretation of the sources is correct, wouldn’t it? Much like his unwillingness to debate. Not to psychoanalyze the guy, but it clearly demonstrates a level of professional insecurity on his part.
Does anyone really like peer review? I doubt it. It’s nerve-wracking to submit something you’ve dedicated months or years to, only to be questioned or ripped apart by faceless reviewers. But, at the end of the day, peer-review keeps writers—not just academic historians—honest about their sources and conclusions. As Alex points out, it’s not about a singular truth, but in keeping the method honest and replicable (whether or not the exact same conclusion is reached). History is not objective, but peer-review is one of the ways to keep it honest.
JF: As Alex and Gabriella both said, peer review is crucially important, especially so in a field where objectivity is impossible. It maintains professional standards in the historical profession by ensuring that conclusions are based on evidence that has been carefully researched and not misconstrued.
As for his reluctance to submit to peer view, the whole of David Barton’s enterprise with the WallBuilders is to create an almost shadow historical profession, to provide a pseudo-intellectual framework for the “traditionalist” side of the culture war. To submit to peer review would be to lose that oppositional position. He would become part of the academy he purports to offer correctives against.
The Activist History Review is dedicated to providing a space for historians and other scholars to more directly engage with public and political conversations. This summer, Glenn Beck and David Barton led a training camp designed to prepare conservative high school graduates for debates with their liberal college professors. Is that activist history? How are their efforts different from our own?
GA: I suppose it’s “activist” in the sense of actively lining their pockets… Charging $375 a head for two weeks of “training”? I’d be curious to see what sources these students are actually being directed to in order to prepare for these showdowns. Are they reading them on their own, or being spoon fed a certain interpretation? No doubt the sources are hand-selected by Barton, too, if not drawn solely from his own “archive.”
If that’s how some college-bound students want to spend their summer, more power to them. But these consumers (let’s call them what they are) in attendance probably aren’t the open-minded, fresh-faced students one likes to imagine sitting in the classroom, day one of first year fall semester. While questioning how history is depicted—and, yes, even questioning the professor at the front of the lecture hall—is important and valuable, doing so just for the sake of the clearly biased and agenda-based history Barton is peddling seems entirely wrongheaded to me.
AB: I certainly agree with Gabriella’s assessment of the training camp, but to play devil’s advocate, it is expensive to receive an accredited degree in history. Are first year students at universities offering these degrees any less consumerist?
At the end of the day, though, what matters is availability and openness when it comes to sharing sources and information. Since Barton’s camp is not interested in evaluating all of the historical evidence, it may be “activist,” but I would say it is not “history.”
JF: I feel it would be a stretch to call what they’re doing history, let alone “activist” history. They’re beginning with a blanket assumption that everything an academic professor will tell you will be wrong, and that’s deeply problematic. And given the structure of much of the WallBuilders website I expect that much of the lesson material would just be an endless stream of if-then scenarios: if they bring up the Treaty of Tripoli stating that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” then say that that only represents the views of one man (Joel Barlow) who drafted the treaty; if they bring up the Constitution forbidding religious tests, then say that only counts at the national level, etc. etc. I suppose you could consider that right-wing activism, but history it isn’t.
Is David Barton a historian? If so, why? If not, what is he?
AB: It’s funny you should ask this particular question. A week ago, in an online forum, a professor of history at Temple University took an employee of Colonial Williamsburg to task for claiming that he (the employee) was a “professional historian.” In the modern United States, there is no clear consensus about what makes someone a “historian.” One way of defining a professional historian is to evaluate whether or not they work in a history-related field full time. Sadly, Barton seems to fit that definition, even if it is in a marginal way. On the other hand, possessing professional and terminal degrees in history from accredited institutions is another important benchmark. The professor at Temple I mentioned above indicated that publishing a peer-reviewed article makes one a historian. Checking all of these boxes (full-time employment, professional degrees, and peer-reviewed scholarly publications) might be a good place to start in crafting our definition of what it means to be a professional historian. By this benchmark, Barton falls well short.
GA: I might go further than Alex. Barton certainly is not an academic historian by any measure. But the general public has a very different view of what makes a historian—and it’s a much lower bar. Anything from genealogical research, ticking off a museum or battlefield checklist, reenacting, or simply not being bored by history seems to make a historian these days. But I think (hope, really) that even those history buffs with no formal training are willing to have a discussion and are really willing to dig into sources—perhaps with some help.
Take, for example, this NPR piece on Barton’s career. The fact that Barton would look at what is essentially a pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank government document and insist that Jefferson personally and purposefully closed his own writings, “in the year of our Lord Christ” with the flourish of his quill is problematic to me. The fact that Barton would not provide that information from the start makes me think of him more as a, for lack of a better term, quack-historian. For a real historian—academic or not—sources are essential. His work is taken up and consumed by those who seek it out to affirm their own views—much like how he himself approaches historical evidence. God forbid his readers might read something else and have a change of mind.
JF: Definitions are tricky things, and as Gabriella rightly points out, they mean different things to different people. From the perspective of the academy David Barton is most certainly not an academic historian. He holds no professorship. He holds no advanced degree in any field, let alone history. He does not submit any of his publications to peer review. He studiously avoids open debate. And he is quite clear that he not only works outside of the realm of academic history, but also in stark opposition to it. Yet to a distressingly large segment of the population, this lack of qualifications does not disqualify David Barton as an historical authority. I would be hesitant to say that David Barton’s audience would call him an historian. Truth-teller, in their eyes, may be a more appropriate descriptor for what they believe him to be. Historians, after all, are the people that David Barton insists have been lying to them about the past. This is what makes him particularly dangerous, not just his misrepresentations of the past, but his insistence that all other contrary opinions should be dismissed as a liberal conspiracy.
David Barton has been criticized for the numerous inaccuracies in his work. Which do you consider most damaging for historians’ efforts to educate the public?
AB: You know, I really don’t know that I am familiar enough with all of his specific inaccuracies to comment, so I’ll defer to Gabriella and James.
GA: Oh, where to start? Barton’s argument that Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a racist is wild. While I unabashedly believe it’s a waste to spend time morally judging people two-hundred years dead by 2017 standards, it is absolutely false to make that claim. The America in which Thomas Jefferson lived—well, the western world, actually—was racist. You don’t even have to read Jefferson’s writings to see this. Look at slave auction advertisements in period newspapers (available and searchable online) and read the ways in which merchants describe these human beings like livestock. It’s disturbing and uncomfortable for us today, but Jefferson and other slave owners certainly did not bat an eye. Indeed, they reaped the financial benefits of such a system while explaining it away, as so many others did in the Americas and Europe at the time. To completely ignore the broader intellectual, social, and cultural context is most egregious to me.
JF: Like Gabriella, I struggle to know where to begin chipping away at the edifice David Barton has constructed, and so I’m tempted to say that I find his whole project to be the most damaging for the historical profession. The fundamental problem with David Barton’s approach is that he is not doing history, he is abusing it. History, properly done, should be evidence-driven. Assumptions should be malleable and subject to change if the evidence found suggests alternative conclusions to the ones expected. David Barton’s approach is that of rigidly-held assumptions in search of evidence. It is, in essence, an exercise in confirmation bias.
David Barton’s presentation of evidence to the general public is particularly insidious as well, as it is presented as a sort of archive with which the general public are invited to do their own research and draw their own conclusions. But of course, all the documents on the “Library” portion of the WallBuilders website are curated to ensure that the conclusions to be drawn are all pre-ordained, giving people the illusion that they’ve done the research. This is the most maddening thing about the whole enterprise. David Barton places himself squarely opposite to the profession on the one hand, and then on the other uses the trappings of historical scholarship (or pseudo-historical pseudo-scholarship) to establish credibility for his viewpoint on the other hand.
Barton’s work reveals a public desire to understand America’s founding in contemporary terms. How might we harness this desire to engage readers and broaden their understanding of our country’s origins?
GA: For one, I think most people want well-written history. They also want to feel a human connection with the past, beyond the “boring” facts. There is something reassuring in knowing that for all the hero-worship of, say, Thomas Jefferson, for example, the man had a high-pitched voice and a crippling fear of public speaking. And I think that’s why “Hamilton” has been such a hit—it translates and humanizes. Yes, a knowledge of the past is essential and we can learn a lot from it, but the majority of Americans are not going to go to wake up tomorrow morning, visit their nearest windowless archive to pick up a letter that begins, “My Dear Sir, Per my letter of the 16th instant…” and ends, “Your Most Obedient and Humble Servant.” That’s daunting and, to be honest, a little crazy. So the historian has to translate and make it relevant, all the while being careful not to unfairly or inaccurately twist the evidence.
For those of us in the field, we ended up here for a reason. Because some thing, some place, someone resonated with us. And, to a certain extent, the history we do on an individual level reflects us, our own interests and personal experiences. But I think a lot of that initial passion and enthusiasm gets lost in the mundane jargon, the theory, the tables and charts, and maybe even a desire not to come across as a history “nerd”—that would be far too unprofessional. But there’s no shame in that, just like there’s no shame in reading David McCullough’s latest work. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if more academic historians read and emulated a more digestible, reader-friendly style of writing. It’s not belittling, in my view, to talk about history in a way the average, curious person strolling the shelves at Barnes & Noble would understand. It’s not selling out, either. The general public—whether or not they ultimately pick up your article or book—should always be a target audience.
AB: I think on some level you are correct, Nathan, but we shouldn’t overestimate the public’s desire to engage with the past. The public is engaged in things which matter to them: in the case of Barton, showing support for conservative political positions. By the same token, Gabriella’s example of Hamilton shows a public tangentially interested in the past, but more engaged in popular modern media which seeks to confirm their experience and their view of the world.
However tangentially real curiosity towards the past figures into these interests, they can still form a “gateway drug” to inform the public about the reality of past events and how we interpret them today. Academics should indeed try to keep the “average” person in their sights, even as they converse with other scholars in their work.
JF: Gabriella and Alex are absolutely on point about the responsibility of academics to keep the “average” person in their sight. There is absolutely no reason why academic historical writing shouldn’t be approachable to a lay reader, and every reason that it should. To complain that the lay reader couldn’t possibly comprehend the ideas laid out in their work is a failure on the part of the academic (who hasn’t properly explicated those ideas to their audience), not the fault of the reader. History is perhaps unique in its position among the academic fields of study in its approachability to the general public. History is, after all, storytelling—the stories we tell ourselves about our past. And what’s vitally important for all of us to understand, is that these stories are going to be told whether academic historians choose to weigh in on a particular issue or not. It’s the role of the academic historian to ensure that the stories that are told give justice to the past, celebrating what ought to be celebrated, criticizing what ought to be criticized, appreciating the complex legacies of the past in all their intricacies, and avoiding neat oversimplification.
Gabriella Angeloni is a PhD candidate in History at the University of South Carolina researching personal libraries and material culture in the Revolutionary era. Her dissertation allows her unparalleled access to many leather-bound books and rich mahogany. When not hard at work researching and writing, she can alternately be found curating the Miles Brewton House and selling old books in Charleston. She can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @GAinSoCarolina.
When he is not dabbling in Greek history and modern politics, or writing for one of his two blogs, Alex stays busy with his coursework at West Virginia University, where he is a second-year doctoral student researching U.S. and European military history. Specifically, Alex’s research examines the British and Prussian armies of 1740-1815, and their views on ethnic groups outside of western and central Europe. Alex recently published his third article, “A Matter of Doing it Quickly:” Essential Qualities of North Germanic Infantrymen, 1740-1783″ in the spring issue of the Journal of the Seven Years’ War Association. He can be contacted here.
James Donald Feenstra is a doctoral candidate at George Washington University and currently works at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He can be contacted here.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.