Thursday, April 26, 2012

Vindication for Jefferson: Criticism of Modern Scholarship

Thomas Jefferson was a very charismatic individual. In his own day and even today people have very strong opinions about him. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton covers six distortions of Jefferson's beliefs and actions. Thomas Jefferson:
  • Fathered Sally Hemings' children
  • Founded a secular university
  • Wrote his own Bible and edited out the things he didn't agree with
  • Was a racist who opposed equality for black Americans
  • Advocated a secular public square through the separation of church and state
  • Detested the Clergy
  • Was an Atheist and not a Christian
Barton does an excellent job of refuting these misconceptions by quoting from primary sources and giving an accurate description of what the culture was like in the 1800s. He makes the point that Jefferson was a complex personality, and his views changed over time. He was a good man who tried to apply rational thinking to very complex problems. It's one of the attributes of Jefferson's correspondence that makes them worth reading in the original.

Barton also makes the point that modern scholarship is lacking in a number of areas. I think the most important criticism is that scholars no longer, except in rare cases, go back to primary sources and study the cultural differences between today and the period when Jefferson lived. For me, this is a very serious criticism. Generations of children and young adults are receiving sloppy instruction. I have no problem with people having political agendas, but I do think it's wrong to distort history to prove one's bias.

I highly recommend this book. Both the scholarly presentation of information about Jefferson and the argument that too many scholars are dangerously cutting corners in their research are well worth considering. Whether you agree, or disagree, this book will make you think.

I reviewed this book as part of the Amazon Vine Program.