Put A Quarter In, Get History Out: David Barton's American Past
Who says there are no history jobs? Why not go to work writing the history that will help politicians forward their ideological agendas instead? According to the New York Times (May 4 2011), a Texas entrepreneur named David Barton has done just that and become a popular author and apparently well-paid consultant for right wing power brokers. Described by the Times as "a self-taught historian," Barton's books are cited "by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies." Read the full article here.
Barton has become, in effect, a political consultant whose "research" demonstrates that the Founders intended the United States government to be a Christian state, and that they anticipated every important issue that we face today. Part of how he is able to make this language is by projecting contemporary language into the past. As an example of this, the Times quotes Barton's link between our current ideological divisions over economic policy and the policy foundations of an emerging eighteenth century republic:
I keep being amazed at how much the founders wrote about issues that we’re dealing with today,” Mr. Barton said in his library the other day, in this small town west of Fort Worth. “Can you believe it, James Madison opposed a bailout and stimulus plan in 1792!” he said, pointing out a Congressional debate over subsidies for the codfish industry.
Early Americanists should do their best not to have a heart attack trying to explain why General Motors is not the same as the codfish industry, which was not industrial in the modern sense . The part that is actually similar -- which Barton misses entirely in going for a heavily ideological point, is that -- like the survival of General Motors -- the survival of the cod industry had enormous symbolic, as well as economic, significance to a new nation whose survival might depend on its capacity to compete successfully in a global market. In 1733, England had passed the Molasses Act, a tax designed to disrupt the profitable dried cod trade that had developed between New England and the West Indies sugar plantations. This graphically underlined a breach in economic interests between Parliament and its American colonies that would later express, and mask, itself in a language of universal rights and freedoms and provide the legal basis for revolution. The struggle over this particular industry was also important in the sense that the cod fishing issue created an ideological link between the interests of a consolidating New England creole merchant class and the interests of ordinary, and politically unorganized, Americans. The lives of this latter group were either more or less precarious depending on whether the Western hemisphere was flooded with European dried fish, but they also might have been reluctant to risk fighting a war over it if the alternative was buying cheap British fish. One also might make the point that Southern slave owners probably didn't care who they bought their dried cod from either, as long as they continued to have a cheap source of protein for a captive labor force
In other words, the problem here is the differences and the similarities between past and present that Barton makes here are lost in an insistence that everything was the same, and that history doesn't really represent change over time after all. I wish the New York Times would make a little effort to make such a point because it isn't really that sophisticated or difficult for a general audience to understand. The only other fault I would find in this piece is the snobby inference that Barton's incompetence stems from having been educated at Oral Roberts University. So was queer literary theorist and early Americanist Michael Warner, and he managed to find another path in his intellectual life.
Readers interested in another excellent reading of originalist interpretations used to forward conservative political agendas should go to Ronald Dworkin's "More Bad Arguments: The Roberts Court and Money in Politics," New York Review of Books (April 27 2011) and Saul Cornell's "New Originalism: A Constitutional Scam," in Dissent (May 3 2011).
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