The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Another Jefferson Quote Debunked

The Quote

Thomas Jefferson supported Bible reading in school; this is proven by his service as the first president of the Washington D. C. public schools, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymns as textbooks for reading.

Research by Jim Allison


On page 130 in his The Myth of Separation, David Barton makes the following claim:

Thomas Jefferson, while President of the United States, became the first president of the Washington D. C. public school board, which used the Bible and Watt's Hymnal as reading texts in the classroom. Notice why Jefferson felt the Bible to be essential in any successful plan of education:

I have always said, always will say, that the studious perusal of the sacred volume will make us better citizens.

Barton's reference for Jefferson's service on the Washington D. C. school board is J. O. Wilson, "Eighty Years of Public Schools of Washington," in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. 1, 1897, pp. 122-127. Barton's quotation from Jefferson is taken from Herbert Lockyear, The Last Words of Saints and Sinners, 1969.

Apparently, Barton wants us to conclude that, since Jefferson was president of the board for a school system that used the Bible for reading instruction, he must have approved of using the Bible in this manner. In fact, some readers of this web site have claimed in their e-mail correspondence with us that Jefferson requested the Bible to be used for reading instruction. But nothing in Barton's source supports either of these claims. In fact, Barton's source suggests that someone other than Jefferson was responsible for introducing the Bible into the schools, and that this policy was adopted after Jefferson had left Washington for retirement in Virginia. Here are the facts:

On September 19, 1805, toward the end of Jefferson's first term as President of the United States, the board of trustees of the Washington D. C. public schools adopted its first plan for public education for the city. Given its resemblance to a similar plan proposed several years earlier by Jefferson for the state of Virginia, Wilson (Barton's source) suggests that it is likely that "he [Jefferson] himself was the chief author of the...plan." The plan called for the establishment of two public schools in which:

As you can see, there is nothing in this plan that mentions religious education or the use of the Bible in reading instruction. Nor, we might add, was the Bible mentioned in any of Jefferson's plans for public education in the state of Virginia, either before or after his presidency (check out an extract from Leonard Levy's book Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side for documentation on this point). There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in Barton's source that connects Jefferson to the practice of Bible reading. So how did the Bible come to be used in the Washington public schools? Remarkably, Barton's own source provides an answer to that question.

In 1812 the board of trustees established a school that used a curriculum developed by the British educator Joseph Landcaster, who's system of education was becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Wilson describes Landcaster as an "enthusiastic but somewhat visionary schoolmaster, who adopted an inexpensive method of educating, especially the masses of the poor. The curriculum of his schools included reading, writing, arithmetic, and the Bible." In an 1813 report to the board of trustees, Henry Ould, the principle of the Landcasterian school, related the progress his students had made in reading and spelling:

In other words, the first mention of the use of the Bible and a Christian hymnal in the Washington public schools is in connection with a curriculum adopted in 1812, three years after Jefferson has left Washington and the school board for retirement in Virginia. Contrary to Barton's implied claim, Jefferson was not president of the school board when the Bible was being used for instruction. Barton simply omits information he doesn't want his readers to know, and so allows them to draw an conclusion that his own source refutes. Barton, we conclude, is either sloppy or dishonest in his use of evidence. Either alternative should cause the reader to question the soundness of Barton's scholarship.

So what about Barton's quote from Herbert Lockyear's The Last Words of Saints and Sinners? We tracked down the book and discovered that it had no footnotes that direct the reader back to either Jefferson's own writings, or to secondary accounts of Jefferson's life; the quote, in other words, is untraceable. Moreover, we've never seen this quote referenced in any scholarly work on Jefferson's attitude toward religion, or in any account of Jefferson's death (the context of Lockyear's book). If Jefferson uttered these words, it has apparently escaped the notice of most historians.

We have simply never encountered a legitimate scholar that reports an unfootnoted quotation from a secondary source writing some 140 years after the fact as the truth, especially when that quotation seems not to be known to other scholars. If Barton wants us to accept this quote as authentic, he should be able to indicate where it can be found in Jefferson's works, or else point us to a secondary source that provides the relevant documentation. Barton does neither. It's hard to resist the conclusion that this quote was fabricated by Lockyear, and that Barton reports it knowing full well that there are questions as to its authenticity. [Newsflash: Barton now admits this quotation is fabricated! Check here for details.]

Finally, we draw your attention to a last, nagging inaccuracy in Barton's passage. While it's true that Jefferson was elected president of the Washington public school board in 1805, Wilson (Barton's source) goes on to note that Jefferson was "prevented from ever discharging its duties by others of paramount concern." Once again, Barton misreports his source; he leaves out information that indicates that Jefferson was not as involved in the work of the school board as the title "president" suggests. There is no good reason for Barton to omit this information unless, of course, he wants to mislead his readers.