July 2010 – This month we celebrate the 234th birthday of America. From grade school, we are taught what happened on July Fourth and on the days leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But were we taught the truth? AFA Journal sat down with noted historian David Barton, founder of Wallbuilders (www.wallbuilders.com) and author of several books, to talk about the true history of the Declaration of Independence.
AFA Journal: We know Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration. We are taught he was a deist, a person believing in a distant, non-personal God. Is this true?
David Barton: Jefferson, when you go by his actions, was absolutely pro-Christian his entire life. He started church services at the U. S. Capitol in 1800. By 1857, the largest church in the U.S. was the one he helped start. He also started church services in the War Department and the Treasury Department on Sundays. When we bought the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, there were several Christian schools in New Orleans. Many of them wrote the president asking if they would have to shut down since they now belonged to America. Jefferson wrote them back saying no, they would still get the patronage of the government to help run their Christian schools.
AFAJ: So where does the idea he was a deist come from?
DB: We have 19,000 of Jefferson’s letters. In 6 of those letters, he raises some questions as to the divinity of Jesus. We are talking 6 out of 19,000, and that is what everyone focuses on. Beyond that, Jefferson admits while he was in France he studied the writings of David Hume, an atheist philosopher. He later states, “In my youth, I studied Hume’s writing and it has taken decades to get his poison out of my system.” You can look at periods in Jefferson’s life and find things that look kind of anti-religious in his writings. You cannot find that in his actions.
AFAJ: Did he believe in a personal God?
DB: Absolutely. He wrote David Rush, signer of the Declaration, a letter stating, “I am a Christian.” He was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society, he made sure the University of Virginia had a huge collection of Christian literature. He also invited several denominations to establish seminaries on the University of Virginia campus. When he signed presidential documents, he signed them, “In the year of our Lord Christ,” unlike the way the Constitution did, which was, “In the year of our Lord.” He put Jesus Christ right in his signature.
Now, do I think he was orthodox? I doubt it. He had a definition of Christianity different from what orthodox people have. But, as far as he is concerned, he is a Christian. He did nothing to inhibit the growth of Christianity. He helped spread it everywhere he could. He was a strong believer in Jesus. He believed Jesus was sent by God and He was the best teacher that ever came to man. He questioned whether Jesus was the Son of God in 6 out of 19,000 letters. So we really don’t know what his final belief system was, but we do know he was never hostile to Christianity.
AFAJ: Since we now have an idea of what the writer believed about God, how did Christianity influence the Declaration of Independence?
DB: Alice Baldwin, history professor and dean at Duke University in the 1950s, came out with a phenomenal book called New England Clergy in the American Revolution. She read through hundreds of public sermons preached in government. Every year leading up to the Declaration, state governments started with a sermon from a minister preaching about what God wants in government. Baldwin discovered all the rights found in the Declaration had been preached in American pulpits prior to 1763. What that means is that the Declaration is nothing more than a listing of what Americans had been hearing in sermons leading up to the Revolution.
Clinton Roster wrote a book titled Seedtime in the Republic. He identified six of the greatest intellectual forces in shaping the American government. Out of the six people in that book, four are ministers of the gospel. One example is Rev. John Wise. He was a preacher in Massachusetts in the 1680s. He preached a sermon looking at the different forms of taxation in the Bible. He showed that taxation without representation is tyranny. He preached a sermon looking at different forms of government in the Bible and said it is clear God’s government is the consent of the governed. He preached a sermon where he said all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. Remember he lived in the 1600s. In 1772, the Founding Fathers took his sermons, reprinted them and spread them all over America. They were reprinted again in 1774. Two years later, they wrote the Declaration and it had all sorts of lines right out of his sermons. It is easy to show the Bible’s influence.
AFAJ: Christianity may have influenced the writer of the Declaration, but he only used terms such as Nature’s God, Divine Providence, etc. Aren’t these references to a deistic God?
DB: This is the Father of Jesus. Again, half these guys were ministry trained; 95% of the signers were what we would call evangelical Christians. Even though many people call Franklin and Jefferson deists, they do not fit the definition. A deist is one who believes in an impersonal God. Franklin is the one who called for daily prayer at the convention because he said God answered their prayers and they saw it during the Revolution.
The other thing these knot-heads miss is that sermons by the leading Christian theologians of the day used the exact same terms in their sermons. Just because today’s Christianity uses a different set of terms doesn’t mean those [old terms] were not Christian. In the case of George Washington, he used 84 different ways of describing God. He used terms such as Good Shepherd, Divine Disposer of Events and Divine Author of our blessed religion.
AFAJ: Some who see that the writers were followers of Jesus and that God is mentioned in the Declaration will argue that it is not a legal document that should be considered when making public policy today.
DB: That is untrue. Article VII of our Constitution incorporates the Declaration into the Constitution. You will find that every act of the president of the U.S. from George Washington to now is not dated to the year of the Constitution, it is dated to the year of the Declaration of Independence. So, the acts signed this year by President Obama will say, “In the year of our independence, 234.”
Furthermore, all states come into the union through what is called an enabling act. That is what allows a territory to become a state. The enabling act requires every state that wants to become part of the union to adhere to the Declaration and the Constitution as conditions of entry into the U.S.
You also find in the U.S. Code annotated, which is our federal law code today, Page 1 says there are four organic laws to the U.S. An organic law is a law upon which all other laws are based. Those four organic laws are the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Northwest Ordinance.
AFAJ: Why have most of us never heard these things in our history classes?
DB: We use an approach in history today called deconstruction and post-structuralism. Deconstruction points out all the negatives and makes the exception into the rule. Post-structuralism divides people into groups and makes them part of the group rather than part of the full unit.
For instance, out of the 56 signers of the Declaration, textbooks will only mention Jefferson and Franklin. They will point out the least religious and say all the Founding Fathers were like those two. That’s the exception, not the rule.
We are taught the Founding Fathers were rich, elitist, land owners. This isn’t true. Sam Adams was so poor he didn’t even have a suit to wear in Congress. His friends had to take a collection so he could buy his first suit.
Then there is post-structuralism. We don’t teach all the black founders who were there during the Revolution. We don’t show all the pictures of whites and blacks together. We don’t point out that the heroes of Bunker Hill and Yorktown were black soldiers who received more commendations than any others. We don’t point out Massachusetts never had a time when blacks could not vote, or that women voted throughout the colonial period. Back then, we were all Americans. Whether black or white, man or woman, red or brown.
AFAJ: How can people educate themselves?
DB: The best way to educate yourself is to read books before progressives got ahold of textbooks. They got into the education system in the 1920s. If you want to get a good historical view, you have to read any book prior to 1900. The good thing about Google books is that you can read all these great books online. Groups like Wallbuilders and others are reprinting history books that have been used for generations because they are unbiased.
AFAJ: Do you think America can get back to the ideals of the Declaration?
DB: Absolutely. I’m convinced of it. I have more optimism today than I’ve had in 30 years. Look at the best sellers right now. They are things like David McCullough’s book John Adams. Americans are willing to pay money to learn what they were supposed to learn in school. All the information in that book used to be in the textbooks. Now we are willing to pay good money on the free market, and that’s very healthy. We are getting back to a hunger for knowledge of who we were, what made us who we are and knowing the men who started our country.
So read the old stuff. I recommend everyone read George Washington’s Farewell Address. We used to require that in public schools. In that, Washington says you cannot have political prosperity if you separate religion and morality from politics. That’s what seculars are trying to do, and it will destroy our political and economic prosperity.