If I were the envious sort, I would probably be a bit envious of David Barton. After all, I have worked reasonably hard as a serious academic and have never been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Show, or Mother Jones. However, I will endeavor to keep this non-existent envy from impacting my assessment of his work.
Barton’s main theme is that America is actually a Christian nation. While he has made the “big news” only fairly recently, he has been advancing these thesis for about twenty years. It was not, however, until he was blessed by Gingrich, Bachmann and Huckabee that he achieved national fame. He has, as noted above, been rewarded for his efforts with considerable attention.
Academic historians (that is, professionals) have been extremely critical of his scholarship. Critics also point out that he has no academic credentials and is not a trained historian. While this does raise questions about his expertise, it is not decisive proof against him. After all, there are other paths to expertise other than the academy. As such, I am not inclined to dismiss his claims on that basis. To do so would, in fact, be to fall into a logical error. However, to be suspicious of his claims in the field because of his lack of credentials in the field would be quite reasonable. These concerns would, of course, be settled by considering factors beyond his qualifications.
When pressed about his credentials, Barton essential makes an appeal to the originals. To be specific, he seems to be claiming that his substantial collection of first edition works of the founders provides him with a special understanding of American history that academic historians lack.
While it is tempting to dismiss his reply as a silly “I don’t have a doctorate, but I have a lot of documents”, his reply is actually worth considering. As Hume (who was a historian as well as a philosopher) noted, a key part of empirical history involves tracing things back to the originals. If Barton’s historical documents do, in fact, contain information that is relevant to re-assessing theories about American history, then they would certainly be well worth considering. After all, this sort of thing is a legitimate method in academic history and has, in fact, been done when original documents and other evidence has been unearthed to change the received view. As such, the basic method of taking into account original documents is a legitimate method.
However, Barton goes beyond simply using original documents as a basis for historical research. He also claims that the meaning of the texts is somehow self-contained and no additional context is required for their interpretation. As such, he is highly critical of academics who do not cite the primary sources but instead make use of other sources. He also holds that the original text somehow has a plain meaning that is distorted by academic scholars.
One of the main problems with his view is that the original texts generally do not have a plain meaning that is the only obvious and plausible interpretation. While I am not an historian, I have read a significant number of original texts from the founders, primarily their political (and philosophical) writings. I have also studied original texts in my area of professional expertise, namely philosophy.
My experience has been that the original texts that are substantial in nature generally do not have a plain meaning. Rather, the texts can be interpreted in various plausible ways. This is hardly shocking, given that language is an imperfect medium for conveying the ideas of imperfect beings. However, there is no need to take my word for it. Get copies of some of the founder’s substantial documents (like the Constitution) and gather around you a diverse group of people. Then have everyone try to find the plain meaning of the document.
It is also well worth considering that the founders did not put forth a monolithic view. If you return to the original documents, you will find that they contain considerably disagreement on key points. As such, even if one could find what the founders really meant, one would find many things.
Why, then, does Barton hold to the view that there is a plain meaning that he can see and that others distort? One obvious explanation is that people naturally take their view to be the plain view. Any view that differs must then be a distortion of the correct view. This outlook is maintained and fed by accepting only evidence that supports one’s interpretation and rejecting (or re-interpreting) any evidence to the contrary.
However, as with religion, what seems plain and obvious to one person is regarded as a distortion by another. Being critical about history requires being able to take into account the fact that everyone see’s history through their own distorting lenses. While these lenses cannot be eliminated, it is possible to correct for their distortion. However, Barton’s view seems to be based on the assumption that he sees plainly while everyone else is viewing through distorted lenses. How wonderful it must be to be unique in this manner.