The Left Hook! Archive


Tues., Oct. 15, 2002

David Barton Strikes Again

Reactionary Propagandist Maligns James Madison

On Sept. 4, Left Hook! reported on an appearance on Fox News Channel's Hannity & Colmes program by Michael Newdow, a California atheist who is challenging the constitutionality of paid congressional chaplains. In that program, Newdow was viciously attacked by program co-host Sean Hannity for suggesting that James Madison would have opposed congressional chaplains. Now, it seems, Wallbuilders' David Barton, religious right propagandist extraordinaire, has taken up this attack on Newdow's assertions about Madison[1]:

"In recent days, Michael Newdow... has filed suit against the use of chaplains in the U. S. House and Senate. In his public appearances defending this newest pursuit, Newdow cites James Madisonís quotes from his 'Detached Memoranda' as his authority in opposing chaplains. Did Madison actually oppose chaplains in Congress? Yes, and no."

Actually, the answer is just "yes." As noted in the Sept. 4 Left Hook! article, Madison, in what is refered to as the "detached memoranda," very explicitly repudiated the idea of congressional chaplains:

"Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?"[2]

Madison goes on at some length about this and other issues. This represents a fairly high hurdle for charlatans like Barton, who want to rewrite Madison's history to suit their own purposes. Throughout his piece, Barton falsely suggests that the document is somehow phony or is unrepresentative of Madison's actual views. He calls it a "long unknown ex post facto document" (without bothering to explain what that means), and says using it, "in preference to those concurrent with the framing and implementation of the First Amendment" represents "a flagrant abuse of historical records." He goes further:

"Significantly, the 'Detached Memoranda' was 'discovered' in 1946 in the papers of Madison biographer William Cabell Rives and was first published more than a century after Madisonís death by Elizabeth Fleet in the October 1946 William & Mary Quarterly. In that work, Madison expressed his opposition to many of his own earlier beliefs and practices and set forth a new set of beliefs formerly unknown even to his closest friends. Since Madison never made public or shared with his peers his sentiments found in the 'Detached Memoranda,' and since his own public actions were at direct variance with this later writing, it is difficult to argue that it reflects the Foundersí intent toward religion."

As we shall see, there are some truly outrageous lies contained in these passages. The "detached memoranda," far from being "at variance" with Madison's "earlier beliefs and practices," are, in fact completely consistent with Madison's earlier views. They don't, in any sense, advance "a new set of beliefs formerly unknown even to his closest friends"; they prove that his views on these matter--which, contrary to Barton's insistence, were expressed openly and repeatedly through the years--never changed at all.

Barton kicks off his treatise by insisting that "an understanding of Madisonís religious views is complicated by the fact that his early actions were at direct variance with his later opinions." To back this up, he offers, in chronological order, six examples, none of which show anything of the kind, but which do show Barton to be grossly misleading at best and a shameless liar at worst.

He begins by quoting a pair of letters from Madison in which "he encouraged his friend, William Bradford (who served as Attorney General under President Washington), to make sure of his own spiritual salvation." He goes on to say that "Madison even desired that all public officials--including Bradford--would declare openly and publicly their Christian beliefs and testimony." The clear impression is that Madison was writing to the Attorney General on his opinion of how Bradford and all public officials should behave. Barton then quotes from the second letter, to make the point:

"I have sometimes thought there could not be a stronger testimony in favor of religion or against temporal enjoyments, even the most rational and manly, than for men who occupy the most honorable and gainful departments and [who] are rising in reputation and wealth, publicly to declare their unsatisfactoriness by becoming fervent advocates in the cause of Christ; and I wish you may give in your evidence in this way."

Barton misrepresented quite literally everything about this. This letter was written in 1773--three years before independence had even been declared (the first letter, only peripherally relevant, was written a year before that). Bradford had just turned eighteen, and the youth was seeking advice on a choice of career. Madison's reference wasn't to those in "departments" of government, but to those in positions of prominence in society. Bradford wouldn't become the Attorney General until 21 years after that letter. Nothing in these exchanges contradicts Madison's sentiments as expressed in the "detached memoranda."

Barton's second example is that Madison had been a member of the committee that drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, and thus "approved of its clause declaring that: 'It is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.'" This is a reference to Article 16 of that document. The entire article, which Barton wisely declined to share with his readers, says:

"That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other."[3]

It is, in other words, a declaration of religious liberty. Not only is it wholly consistent with the views expressed in the "detached memoranda"; Madison even references the Virginia Declaration of Rights in those later documents, saying Virginia is a state "where religious liberty is placed on its true foundation and is defined in its full latitude. The general principle is contained in her declaration of rights, prefixed to her Constitution..." Thus can be seen the beginings of Barton's fraudulent claim that the "detached memoranda" completely contradicts Madison's earlier sentiments and that it "set forth a new set of beliefs formerly unknown even to his closest friends."

Barton's case looks even worse as Madison continues on the subject of Virginia:

"[Religious liberty] is unfolded and defined, in its precise extent, in the act of the Legislature, usually named the Religious Bill, which passed into a law in the year 1786. Here the separation between the authority of human laws, and the natural rights of Man excepted from the grant on which all political authority is founded, is traced as distinctly as words can admit, and the limits to this authority established with as much solemnity as the forms of legislation can express."

This is a reference the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a proposal penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1779,[4] then slightly rewritten and pressed through the Virginia legislature by Madison himself in 1786.[5]  As the quoted passage demonstrates, Madison, at the time he wrote his "detached memoranda," was just as much in agreement with these sentiments as when he pushed them through the legislature. This, too, is completely excluded from Barton's account.

Also excluded is Madison's 1785 remonstrance against religious assessments. The Virginia legislature, at the time, was considering a bill aimed at "establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion." This, wrote Madison, was "a dangerous abuse of power," and he led the charge against it, describing his opposition to the bill in details that would, again, be echoed years later in his "detached memoranda."[6]  In his article, Barton simply pretends as though these very public acts never existed at all. Not a single reference anywhere.

Next, Barton says "Madisonís proposed wording for the First Amendment demonstrates that he opposed only the establishment of a federal denomination, not public religious activities." Unfortunately, this attempt by Barton to posthumously read the mind of Madison is immediately undercut by the fact that Madison, in fact, pushed through what became and what remains today the First Amendment.

For his fourth example, Barton says that, "in 1789, Madison served on the Congressional committee which authorized, approved, and selected paid Congressional chaplains." A warped and just as inaccurate version of this factoid was the example used by Sean Hannity that sparked the earlier Left Hook! article. Madison did, in fact, serve on that committee, but he opposed the appointment of chaplains. Years later,[7] he wrote of this in a letter to Edward Livingston:

"I observe with particular pleasure the view you have taken of the immunity of religion from civil jurisdiction, in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or the public peace. This has always [emphasis added] been a favorite principal with me; and it was not with my approbation that the deviation from it took place in congress, when they appointed chaplains, to be paid from the national treasury."

For his fifth example, Barton writes that "in 1812, President Madison signed a federal bill which economically aided a Bible Society in its goal of the mass distribution of the Bible." In his footnotes, Barton is foolish enough to quote the actual bill in question, which reveals his own duplicity--it did nothing more than waive import duties on printing plates the Society in question had imported the previous year.

And number six: "throughout his Presidency (1809-1816), Madison endorsed public and official religious expressions by issuing several proclamations for national days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving." In the "detached memoranda," Madison explained why he issued such proclamations:

"During the administration of Mr Jefferson no religious proclamation was issued. It being understood that his successor [Madison himself] was disinclined to such interpositions of the Executive and by some supposed moreover that they might originate with more propriety with the Legislative Body, a resolution was passed requesting him to issue a proclamation.

"It was thought not proper to refuse a compliance altogether; but a form & language were employed, which were meant to deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly on the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as well as voluntary performance of a religious act on the occasion."

The proclamations, then, were a carefully drafted compromise.[8]  On the basis of these six "examples," Barton falsely describes Madison's later writing on the subject as a full retreat from his earlier positions: "In later life Madison retreated from many of these positions, even declaring in his 'Detached Memoranda' his belief that having paid chaplains and issuing presidential prayer proclamations were unconstitutional." In reality, Madison nowhere argues that the proclamations are unconstitutional--he essentially agrees with those who argue that they are an improper imposition, and sprout from the same root as such unconstitutional acts by the legislature as paid chaplains.

In a sure sign that he recognizes the weakness of his own pathetic excuse for a "case," Barton then begins to downplay the significance of Madison in history. Madison may be the Father of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but, to Barton, he becomes just another guy who was present for the proceedings; one who "opposed a bill of rights" and only adopted its cause when faced with "the grim political reality that without one, it was unlikely the new Constitution would receive widespread public acceptance." One would think, from Barton's description, that Madison never had much of a role in anything. He continues, at some length, denigrating Madison's contribution to history and further mangling many other historical events in order to do so. His conclusion, after such a dismal performance, is one of the most mind-staggering jaw-droppers ever to emerge from a pen of a propagandist who specializes in jaw-droppers. Even knowing Barton's long history of mendacity,[9] seeing these words on the page left this reader breathless:

"Newdowís use of James Madison is typical of most revisionists: it gives only the part of the story with which he agrees and omits the part with which he disagrees."

What can you say to something like that?

 [1] Barton's essay, "James Madison and Religion in Public, is avialable here:

 [2] The relevant excerpts from Madison's "detached memoranda" are available here:

 [3] The Virginia Declaration of Rights is available here:

 [4] Jefferson's original draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, here:

 [5] The version of the statute Madison saw through to adoption is here:

 [6] The entire text of Madison's Memorial & Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments is available here:

 [7] The relevant portion of the July 10, 1822 letter can be found here:

 [8] The Livingston letter, referenced in note 7, also details these points.

 [9] ...and it is, indeed, a LONG history. Here are some sources with the dope on the fraudulent Mr. Barton:
which is part of a site with a long index of articles debunking Barton, here:
Another long series of articles on Barton and his phony "scholarship" is available here:

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