Pseudo-historian David Barton, best known for his misquoting of our country’s founders to promote the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation, also has a habit of telling some pretty tall tales about his own life. There was his claim of being a college basketball star, his claim of having been a translator for the Russian women's national gymnastics team, and most recently his claim of having an earned doctorate. But while most of Barton’s bio-embellishing claims have either been proven to be false or are so far-fetched that they are just impossible to believe, there is one that is unfortunately all too true – that he advises many members of Congress on historical subjects. This isn’t just another bogus claim made up by Barton to exaggerate his achievements and impress his audience. It has been repeatedly confirmed by members of Congress who have praised Barton by proclaiming that he is their go-to guy when they need historical examples to use in their arguments on current issues and legislation.
So, who are these members of Congress who run to David Barton when they need historical “facts” to justify their political agenda and legislation? Well, they are almost exclusively members of something called the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a House caucus founded in 2005 by former congressman Randy Forbes, with the help of David Barton — a caucus whose numbers have ranged from ninety to well over a hundred members since its founding.
When Forbes (who was defeated in the 2016 Republican primary and is no longer a member of Congress) was the chairman of the Prayer Caucus, he always had a list of the caucus’s members on his congressional website, but the caucus’s new chairman, Sen. James Lankford (one of a few senators who were members of the caucus as congressmen and have remained members as senators) does not have a list on his website, so the exact number of members in the current Congress is not known. But it is at least ninety, assuming that all of the members from the last Congress who didn’t either retire or get defeated in the last election are still members of the caucus, and possibly more if any newly elected members of Congress have joined. But even at ninety members, that’s a fifth of our House of Representatives — a significant voting bloc that bases its positions and voting decisions on the Bible and the notion that America is a Christian nation, whether it’s on the obvious church/state separation issues or any of the other various issues, such as women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, climate change, etc., in which the personal religious beliefs of these lawmakers are the deciding factor in their opinions and how they vote.
Quite a few members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus have regularly appeared on David Barton’s WallbuildersLIVE! radio show, including none other than our current vice president Mike Pence, who, as a member of Congress, was also an active member of the Prayer Caucus. Pence appeared on Barton’s radio show at least eight times during his time in Congress, sometimes on topics where the connection between fundamentalist Christian religious beliefs and the issue being discussed was obvious, such as the defunding of Planned Parenthood, but other times on topics where there was no apparent connection to religion. But what people need to understand is that Barton and his disciples in Congress believe that the answer to any question or problem facing America today can be found in the Bible. For example, the description on Barton’s radio show website for one of Pence’s appearances in 2008 was: “Today, David Barton, Rick Green [Barton’s co-host], and Congressman Mike Pence discuss Biblical principles in regards to the energy debate.” Yeah, that’s right — even something as completely unrelated to religion as energy policy can somehow be based on “Biblical principles”!
But what these members of Congress rely on David Barton for even more than his contorted biblical arguments is his expertise in American history, or, more accurately, his expertise in distorting American history to make it fit their agenda. Barton is their guy when they need examples from history to bolster their arguments — particularly quotes from our country’s founders that would appear to support their positions. And David Barton is very good at providing the perfect quotes, even if he does have to edit the hell out of them to make them say the opposite of whatever the founder he’s quoting actually said.
A perfect example is a Thomas Jefferson quote that Barton has come up with for two of the biggest current issues — immigration and healthcare.
On a recent episode of his radio show, titled “Immigration: What Founding Fathers Of America Thought About It,” Barton attempted to make the bizarre case that immigration was really a state, and not a federal, issue, actually saying that “the feds didn’t have all that much to do with immigration; the states did.” He also claimed that, while the founders “were absolutely okay with people immigrating from anywhere,” there were “certain requirements you had to meet when you got here.” And what were these requirements according to Barton’s convoluted arguments? That immigrants assimilate by learning to speak English and, of course, be Christian. To support his claim that immigration in the days of the founders was a state and not a federal issue, Barton used a so-called quote from Jefferson — a quote that he had previously used in an article on his website to argue that the federal government had no business being involved in healthcare, but is now using for immigration as well as healthcare.
This is how Barton introduced and presented his so-called Jefferson quote on his radio show:
“Actually, I pulled up a couple of quotes that I think fairly interesting. First off, with immigration and with healthcare both, it’s kind of interesting to see what the federal role in this — let me read a Thomas Jefferson quote on what the federal government’s to do with this combination of immigration and health care. He says, quote:
“‘The federal government is to certify with the exact truth for every vessel sailing in from a foreign port the state of health on that vessel, which prevails from which country she sails, but the state authorities are charged with the care of the public health.’”
Barton then continued with his explanation of his so-called Jefferson quote:
“So we are the feds — we get to do healthcare only for ships carrying immigrants coming to the United States and we see what the health conditions were when they left, what they are when they get here, everything else belongs to the states on healthcare. And immigration was very much the same.”
The problem with Barton’s so-called Jefferson quote? Well, Jefferson wasn’t talking about immigrants. He wasn’t even talking about ships coming to America from other countries. He was talking about the exact opposite — ships that were sailing from America to Europe!
The quote that Barton butchers so completely to make it say the exact opposite of what Jefferson was actually talking about comes from Jefferson’s 1805 message to Congress (what we today call the State of the Union address).
At the time there was an intense fear of yellow fever in Europe, with recent yellow fever epidemics, particularly devastating in Spain, having killed thousands of people. The obsessive fear of the disease among Europeans, which was causing ships sailing into European ports to be quarantined and their crews and passengers to be subjected to absurd medical tests, was described by Washington Irving in his Notes and journal of travel in Europe, 1804-1805, in which he recounted what he experienced upon his arrival at the Sicilian port of Messina in early 1805:
“The people in these countries carry their dread of the fever to the most ridiculous lengths. They Quarantine vessels from every port tho never so healthy – and tho we came direct from Genoa where there has been no instance of the fever known, yet they use so much precaution with us and avoid us with equal care as if we has just left a city reeking with infection.
“I had a hearty laugh at the apprehensions of one of the men of the health office. A small window over the lower steps of the stoop was opened, and he was sent to the door to tell our captain that he must talk thro this window to the people within. The captain not understanding Italian thought that he was told to come in the house and was advancing up the stoop when the fellow half frightened to death sprung to the other end of it and hallood for him to keep back. The captain stopped short in astonishment. The fellow made several attempts to pull shut the iron wicket of the stoop but as the captain stood close by it, he was violently apprehensive and as often as his fingers almost reachd the door he started back again as if the rails were red hot. At length he succeeded in jerking it shut and immediately run into the house trembling at the risk he had run of taking the fever from our honest captain who in circumference of body and rosiness of complexion seemed the picture of health itself.
“We had afterwards to go in a body — sailors and passengers, to the Lazaretto to be examined. There we found the commandant of the Lazaretto and a physician or two. We had to stand at some distance and answer their enquiries, after which we were ordered to take off our cravats and open the collars of our shirts that the doctor might see our necks & breasts. It appears, the sage geniuses imagined that it was possible to perceive whether people had the infection lurking in their veins by taking hasty looks at their necks & chest at ten or fifteen feet distance. We were then told to whack our arms together, like our labourers do on a cold day to warm themselves after which we were dismissed as healthy men. Tomorrow they will let us know how long we are to be quarantined.”
There had also been yellow fever epidemics in the United States throughout the 1790s, the worst of which had hit Philadelphia in 1793, and outbreaks of the disease had continued into the early 1800s, including the summer of 1805, when the disease hit both New York and Philadelphia.
Although outbreaks of yellow fever only hit America’s port cities in the warm summer months, and there was no risk during the rest of the year, the fear among Europeans of American ships bringing new epidemics to their shores prompted Jefferson to make this the first order of business in his December 1805 message to Congress, saying (emphasis added):
“In taking a view of the state of our country we in the first place notice the late affliction of two of our cities under the fatal fever which in latter times has occasionally visited our shores. Providence in His goodness gave it an early termination on this occasion and lessened the number of victims which have usually fallen before it. In the course of the several visitations by this disease it has appeared that it is strictly local, incident to cities and on the tide waters only, incommunicable in the country either by persons under the disease or by goods carried from diseased places; that its access is with the autumn and it disappears with the early frosts. These restrictions within narrow limits of time and space give security even to our maritime cities three fourths of the year, and to the country always. Although from these facts it appears unnecessary, yet to satisfy the fears of foreign nations and cautions on their part not to be complained of in a danger whose limits are yet unknown to them I have strictly enjoined on the officers at the head of customs to certify with exact truth, for every vessel sailing for a foreign port the state of health respecting this fever which prevails at the place from which she sails.”
So, you see what Barton did, with his typical complete audacity, to change the last sentence of the above quote to transform Jefferson’s words about ships sailing from America to Europe into a so-called Jefferson quote about immigrants coming to America?
“The federal government is to certify with the exact truth for every vessel sailing in from a foreign port the state of health on that vessel, which prevails from which country she sails …”
What Jefferson really said:
“I have strictly enjoined on the officers at the head of customs to certify with exact truth, for every vessel sailing for a foreign port the state of health respecting this fever which prevails at the place from which she sails.”
So, what about Barton’s misquoting of this same Jefferson quote to argue that the federal government has no business being involved in healthcare? What Barton does for that is to selectively pluck a few words from a little further on in Jefferson’s message to Congress, and tag those out-of-context words onto the end of his butchered quote (emphasis added):
“The federal government is to certify with the exact truth for every vessel sailing in from a foreign port the state of health on that vessel, which prevails from which country she sails, but the state authorities are charged with the care of the public health.”
This is what Jefferson actually said as he continued explaining his yellow fever policy (emphasis added):
“Under every motive from character and duty to certify the truth, I have no doubt they have faithfully executed this injunction. Much real injury has, however, been sustained from a propensity to identify with this endemic and to call by the same name fevers of very different kinds, which have been placed among those deemed contagious. As we advance in our knowledge of this disease, as facts develop the source from which individuals receive it, the State authorities charged with the care of the public health, and Congress with that of the general commerce, will become able to regulate with effect their respective functions in these departments. The burthen of quarantines is felt at home as well as abroad; their efficacy merits examination. Although the health laws of the States should be found to need no present revisal by Congress, yet commerce claims that their attention be ever awake to them.”
As you can see, Jefferson very clearly said that addressing the issue of yellow fever was both a state and a federal matter, most obviously because the federal government had authority under the Constitution over both interstate and international commerce, which the big healthcare crisis of that era was certainly affecting. But, more importantly, look at Jefferson’s words in the last sentence of the above quote — “Although the health laws of the States should be found to need no present revisal by Congress …” Clearly, by the words “revisal by Congress,” Jefferson was saying that the federal government did have the authority to overrule the health laws of the states if the state laws were inadequate to protect the national interests.
And Jefferson wasn’t the first president to be of this opinion. In his 1798 message to Congress, John Adams, who also made the issue of yellow fever epidemics his first order of business, called on Congress to establish regulations “in aid of” the health laws of the individual states, also citing the Constitution’s commerce clause as the authority to do so (emphasis added):
“But when we reflect that this fatal disorder has within a few years made repeated ravages in some of our principal sea ports, and with increased malignancy, and when we consider the magnitude of the evils arising from the interruption of public and private business, whereby the national interests are deeply affected, I think it my duty to invite the Legislature of the Union to examine the expediency of establishing suitable regulations in aid of the health laws of the respective States; for these being formed on the idea that contagious sickness may be communicated through the channels of commerce, there seems to be a necessity that Congress, who alone can regulate trade, should frame a system which, while it may tend to preserve the general health, may be compatible with the interests of commerce and the safety of the revenue.”
But David Barton, by his blatant butchering of Jefferson’s words to create a fake Jefferson quote about immigration, and further misquoting Jefferson by leaving out the part where Jefferson said that this health crisis was both a state and a federal issue, has, in his typical fashion, created just the kind of perfect (and perfectly bogus) founding fathers’ quote that his disciples, both in Congress and elsewhere, count on him to provide them with.
And, while the fact that we have many members of our Congress relying on David Barton for their historical information is frightening enough, there is something even more scary than that. As I wrote quite a bit about in my most recent book, Barton’s brand of Christian nationalist history has already made it into our public schools via the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) curriculum, a curriculum chock full of Barton’s history lies (not surprising since Barton is on the NCBCPS’s advisory board), with this Barton-inspired curriculum already being taught in 2,900 public high schools in 39 states according to the NCBCPS website. But it gets worse than that. Barton has now come out with a new history curriculum, set to be released this August, which is also potentially destined to end up in our public schools.
A final note: This post is being published (not by design, but merely by coincidence) on the fifth anniversary of the release of David Barton’s 2012 book The Jefferson Lies — a book voted the “Least Credible History Book in Print“ by readers of the History News Network. Barton’s book was pulled by its publisher, the Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson, but has since been republished last year as a new edition by WorldNetDaily, with the new edition still containing virtually all of the lies as the original. And, as you can see from this post, Barton is still at it, continuing to create even more Jefferson lies.