Did David Barton fabricate quotes and attribute them to the founding fathers?

On the Arkansas Times Blog on June 17, 2012 I noted:

Google the phrase ” David Barton fabricated quotes” and you will get many websites that claim this is true and Rob Boston’s 1996 article “consumer alert” in the Church and State Magazine is what prompted this reaction throughout the country. As a journalist you would think people like Max would call Boston out on this. An apology should have been issued by Boston years ago.

Hopefully today when you google that phrase you will be taken to my website, www.thedailyhatch.org, and you will not have to read all those lies that were prompted by Rob Boston about David Barton.

If you go to http://www.youtube.com and type in “Rob Boston Fake Quotes” you will get a 6 min, 47 sec clip with Rob Boston being interview on February 10, 2010 on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. The origin of this “fake quote scandal” was my 1996 encounter with Rob Boston. Looking back I think it was my trusting nature that got me in trouble.  (I should have known that Boston could be quite rude at times and that should tipped me off to a character flaw.)

It all started because I was involved in a series of correspondence with  Boston who is the senior policy analyst at the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) and a board member of the American Humanist Society. 

(Portions of this below appeared in an article I did for the Freedom Writer in May/June 1997 issue which is a publication friendly to Boston and not to me but they felt the record should be set straight concerning the misleading article that Boston had written in 1996 in Church & State titled “Consumer Alert.”.)

Let me start from the very beginning. As an evangelical Christian and a member of the Christian Coalition, I felt obliged to expose a misquote of John Adams’ I found in an article entitled “America’s Unchristian Beginnings” (Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1995, p.B-9) by the self-avowed atheist Dr. Steven Morris. However, what happened next changed my focus to the use of misquotes, unconfirmed quotes, and misleading attributions by the religious right. 

In the process of attempting to correct Morris, I was guilty of using several misquotes myself. Dr John George  coauthor (with Paul Boller Jr.) of the book They Never Said It! (Oxford University Press, 1989) set me straight. George pointed out that George Washington never said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.” (They Never Said It! pp. 126-127). I had cited page 18 of the 1927 edition of Halley’s Bible Handbook. This quote was probably generated by a similar statement that appears in A Life of Washington (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835) by James Paulding. Sadly, no one has been able to verify any of the quotes in Paulding’s book since no footnotes were offered. 

After reading They Never Said It! I had a better understanding of how widespread the problem of misquotes is. Furthermore, I discovered that many of these had been used by the leaders of the religious right. I decided to confront some individuals concerning their misquotes. WallBuilders, the publisher of David Barton’s The Myth of Separation (published in 1989), helped me further by providing me with their “Questionable Quote” list. The list contained a dozen quotes of the founders that Barton could only confirm with secondary sources. 

Proverbs 19:25 states, “…rebuke a discerning man, and he will gain knowledge.” Since I was rebuking fellow Christians, I felt certain they would all gladly quit using unconfirmed or questionable quotes. The religious right leaders I contacted had three different responses. 

The first was the reaction that I expected. Several thanked me for bringing these corrections to their attention. They agreed that it is wrong to use disputed quotes as if they were authentic.  

The second, which was the most common response, was to claim that their critics were biased skeptics who find the truth offensive. The premise of this argument is, “We know our critics are 100% wrong all the time, so who cares what they have to say anyway. We are the only unbiased ones.” 

And the third response was from one who defended his method of research and his method of confirming sources. Furthermore, he said that he pursued his graduate education in order to improve his level of scholarship. Nevertheless, that respondent never provided me with his original sources.

There are some misquotes used commonly by separationists, but evidently the religious right has a much more widespread problem. One illustration demonstrates just how widespread the problem is among religious right lay historians. When David Barton wrote The Myth of Separation he used many secondary sources for the 500 quotes that appeared in his book published in 1989. After an effort to find primary sources for these quotes, Barton complied the “Questionable Quote” list with the 12 quotes that could only had confirmation through secondary sources. None of these questionable quotes originated with Barton.  

After confronting over thirty religious right authors, I turned my attention to individuals from the separationist point of view. During this time I provided Rob Boston, of Americans United, with the “questionable quote” list in the hope that he would confront some individuals on his  side of the ideological fence. I even included my correspondence from several religious right leaders such as the late D. James Kennedy. Nevertheless, based upon the “Questionable Quote” list that I provided to him, Boston wrote the slanted article for Church & State titled “Consumer Alert.” (July /August 1996). In this article he implies that Barton made up the dozen quotes on the “Questionable Quote” list.  

In “Consumer Alert,” these words appeared in bold print: “Mything in action: David Barton’s ‘Questionable Quotes.'” Barton was called a “double fraud.” 

Professor Fritz Detweiler of Adrian College’s religion and philosophy department responded to this controversy in his weekly column stating that Barton “made up quotes and attributed them to James Madison, Patrick Henry, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and other leading Americans…. Barton’s fabricating quotes to serve his purpose is particularly disturbing on two fronts. First, Barton was not content to let the record speak for itself because it didn’t say quite what he wanted it to say. Second, the fraudulent construction of quotes poses a particular problem for [historians] seeking to verify their accuracy.” 

In response to that article, David Barton wrote in WallBuilders‘ summer 1996 newsletter that “the article,  “Consumer Alert”‘ is agenda driven. Our honest efforts to clear the ‘world’s rhetorical rivers,’ as we casually stated in the earlier draft, were twisted and misconstrued to sound as if we created the quotes… We regret that the unconfirmed quotations have been circulated over the last century-and-a-half, and WallBuilders acknowledges the errors of using secondary sources for primary historical figures. (These quotes have been purged from our materials wherever possible.) David Barton went on to make clear that his current level of scholarship as of the early 1990’s was not to use founders quotes unless they are documented by a primary source.  

I had the opportunity to talk to Rob Boston on the phone about this on November 19, 1996. I told him that people all across this country have been writing letters to the editor of their local newspapers blasting David Barton because of Boston’s article and many more have been posting articles on the internet.) Boston said he was very glad people were on to Barton. 

Then I pointed out to Boston that many of these people were accusing Barton of knowingly using bad quotes. Furthermore, one individual accused Barton of “creating quotes.” These people could be sued for libel. Boston replied, “No malice can be proved. I don’t know much about law, but I at least know that much.” Shortly after that Boston hung up on me, but not before he claimed “poetic license” and said he was glad that Barton’s reputation had been damaged. (Blair Scott, Alabama State Director, American Atheists, Inc. has since claimed, “David Barton was cornered and he admitted to fabricating the quotes, okay he actually called them “spurious,” but we all know that means he made them up.”)

Later I got several board members of Americans United to contact Boston on my behalf and voice their opinion of how unfair Boston had been to Barton in his article  “Consumer Alert”. On March 7, 1997, I spoke with Barry Lynn the executive director of Americans United. Lynn was very gracious on the phone and  promised to consider an article from me in response to the slanted  “Consumer Alert” article Boston had written earlier. Americans United board member Dr. Paul Simmons of Louisville helped me write the aritcle, but ultimately it was never published.  

The real scandal is that this same lie caused by Boston’s article about Barton is still today being spread throughout the world on youtube and on TV. On Feb 10, 2010 on MSNBC’s show Countdown with Keith Olberman, Rob Boston was the guest and Olberman opened the show with these words: 

“What happens if you want your audience to believe that the the founding fathers did not want the separation of church and state when obviously and clearly and repeatedly they did. Well you make up quotes defending your position and dishonestly attribute them to the likes of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson… More on Mr Barton and those quotes in a moment.” 

Then Olbermann and Boston go on to criticize  Barton throughout the remainder of the program. However, in this interview Boston never says that Barton manufactured quotes, but he doesn’t stop Olbermann from telling the same old lie about Barton that came from this 1996 scandal. Boston knew that his article  “Consumer Alert” from 1996 was responsible for Olbermann’s inaccurate words about Barton, but Boston didn’t lift a finger to set the record straight. In 2009 Boston finally admitted concerning Barton “Unconfirmed Quote List”: “He didn’t make the stuff up, he just relied on bad sources.” Boston should have admitted this in 1996 and apologized and then tried to correct the record anytime he saw it on the internet.

Furthermore this youtube video clip has received over 75,000 hits. The clip was put on youtube by a person going by the username “JesusSavesAtCitibank” whoever that is. If you click on the username you will be provided several links to articles. The first link will bring you to Boston’s 1996 article  “Consumer Alert”.  

David Barton has tried to raise the level of scholarship in the debate concerning the founders by committing to use only quotes that have been confirmed by primary sources. Dr. John George has commented, “While not agreeing with Barton concerning separation of church and state, I must say he has done everyone a service by circulating the ‘Questionable Quote List.’ Especially gratifying is his encouraging those in his own Religious Right camp to cite only primary sources for the quotes they utilize. Unfortunately, a sizable minority will ignore the advice.”  

Many separationists like Dr. George praised Barton for challenging others to a higher level of scholarship concerning these unconfirmed quotes. Instead, of complimenting Barton when I provided this information to Boston in 1996, he chose to imply that Barton was guilty of making up quotes.  

Now Barton is being attacked on the Arkansas Times Blog June 15, 2012 by the username “Deathbyinches”for making up quotes and attributing them to the founders and another blogger even provided a link to the People for the American Way website which includes many criticisms of Barton concerning these quotes. Last year when Barton was scheduled to come hold a seminar for state legislators and constitutional officers on Jan 25 and 26 in Little Rock,one liberal media person (Max Brantley) in Arkansas associated with Americans United had called him the “bogus Texas historian.” That is when I knew I had to set the record straight concerning Rob Boston’s fake quote youtube clip.

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