Rowe Hammers Barton Again

Jon Rowe has an excellent post once again blasting David Barton for his utterly irrational historical revisionism in regard to religion and the constitution. He points to a document I've never seen before, an affidavit that Barton filed in the McCreary ten commandments case. You have to read this document. The illogic is absolutely breathtaking. He points again and again to early colonial laws that were completely opposed to freedom of thought and religion as being the key to understand the nation's founding. For instance:

In an effort to substantiate this position historically, critics often point to the Rhode Island Colony under Roger Williams and its lack of civil laws on the first four commandments to "prove" that American society was traditionally governed without the first "tablet." However, they fail to mention that the Rhode Island Colony was the only one of the thirteen colonies that did not have civil laws derived from the first four divine laws -the so-called first "tablet." Significantly, every other early American colony incorporated the entire Decalogue into its own civil code of laws.

Which is true, but it actually conflics with his argument. The US constitution absolutely forbids such laws from being passed today. Just look at the examples he cites:

The Ten Commandments are a smaller part of the larger body of divine law recognized and early incorporated into America's civil documents. For example, the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut-established in 1638-39 as the first written constitution in America and considered as the direct predecessor of the U. S. Constitution -declared that the Governor and his council of six elected officials would "have power to administer justice according to the laws here established; and for want thereof according to the rule of the word of God."

Yes, he is seriously arguing that a state constitution that gave the government authority to enforce Biblical law is the "direct predecessor" of a constitution that absolutely forbids such laws 150 years later. And he cites other blatantly theocratic and oppressive provisions in colonial charters and constitutions from long before the US constitution established religious freedom as the touchstone of American law:

A subsequent 1641 Massachusetts legal code also incorporated the thrust of this command of the Decalogue into its statutes. Significantly, the very first law in that State code was based on the very first command of the Decalogue, declaring:

1. If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the Lord God, he shall be put to death. Deut. 13.6, 10, Deut. 17.2, 6, Ex. 22.20.

Can you think of anything more contrary to the US constitution than a law of this type? It's precisely the sort of barbaric and liberty-destroying law that our constitution was intended to overthrow and explicitly forbids. Yet Barton cites this as important in interpreting the constitution itself as pro-theocracy document. How does one make such an irrational argument with a straight face, for crying out loud? He continues with yet another example and a conclusion:

22. The 1642 Connecticut law code also made this command of the Decalogue its first civil law, declaring:

1. If any man after legal conviction shall have or worship any other god but the Lord God, he shall be put to death (Duet. 13.6 and 17.2, Ex. 22.20).

23. There are numerous other examples affirming that the first commandment of the Decalogue indeed formed an historical part of American civil law.

No David, this demonstrates that the first commandment was an important part of early colonial law, not American law. There was no America in the 1640, there was only a bunch of separate colonies, most of them with brazenly theocratic and oppressive governments that literally hung people or burned them to death for being the wrong religion, even the wrong brand of Christianity. The constitution is completely contrary, demanding and establishing religious freedom, something that was non-existent in those religious dictatorships you love so much. You would be no more ridiculous if you quoted King George himself on how our constitution should be interpreted.


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This whole argument that these documents from the theocratic royal colonies are "founding documents" of the United States denies or ignores the simple fact that the American Revolution was a revolution. We overthrew all thirteen royal colonial governments and replaced them with republican secular governments. We replaced the crown, which authorized those theocratic govenments with the Constitution.

Maybe we should stop calling the theoocratic right Dominionists, Christian Reconstructionists, or whatever and start referring to them as Tories.

I've always found the appeal to early colonial law funny because if early colonial law can be used to define modern American law, then we'd all be subjects of the British Crown.

"I've always found the appeal to early colonial law funny because if early colonial law can be used to define modern American law, then we'd all be subjects of the British Crown."

No, no, you've got it all wrong. You just have to interpret the law like fundamentalist Christians interpret the bible- you focus on the parts you agree with, and ignore the rest.

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 29 Sep 2006 #permalink

Somewhat off-topic, but not irrelevant: I recently read Gary B. Nash's The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who thinks their schoolbooks (and the leftist view that "it was all a scheme by the richest colonists for their own benefit") left out major aspects of what was going on. Workers, tenants, small farmers, slaves, free blacks, multiple Native tribes, women - all played important roles, often on their own initiative, and Nash tells their stories clearly and in context.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 29 Sep 2006 #permalink

What is Pierce talking about? I teach history in a public school and have never seen a textbook that presents the American Revolution as purely a matter of the rich pursuing their self interest. Books include all the other things he mentions, albeit in very superfical and attenuated form. The ones I have seen are anything but leftist, unless noting the contribution made by self interest is in itself leftist. There is a lot wrong with how history is presented in American schools, but leftism is rarely much of a contributing factor.

People like Barton leave out the "colonial" aspect of pre-1776 American law. Their Christian nation mythology is based on the assumption that American history was only a continuation of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth rock. In their version the Pilgrims were trying to get away from the King of England and George Washington finished the job.

By Bill Jarrell (not verified) on 29 Sep 2006 #permalink

David: I was not claiming that leftist ideology is found in US public school textbooks (unless you adopt a really broad definition of leftism that includes milquetoast liberalism).

I was pointing out that there are people who make the claim that the Revolution was essentially a matter of top-down manipulation (which I think is true, in part). Nash's book - please read it! - debunks that as thoroughly as it does the more-common myth of the Founders as enlightened & idealistic saints.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 01 Oct 2006 #permalink