David Barton, Kids, Guns and Historical Fiction
Dr. Warren ThrockmortonWarren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He is the author with fellow Grove City College professor, Michael Coulter, of the book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Over 200 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at email@example.com.
- 2013 Mar 01
It's true. David Barton really did present a story from a fiction book as an historical fact on the Glenn Beck Show. Researcher Chris Rodda pointed this out recently and I wondered the same question aloud. Barton admitted his use of the story from L'Amour fiction novel Bendigo Shafter in an article on the Wallbuilders website. Barton says he used the story because Louis L'Amour said the story was based in fact.
L'Amour introduced an audio version of his book Bendigo Shafter with a story about the West. During the introduction, L'Amour said this (in italics):
There’s a case I use in one of my stories; I use it in the story called Bendigo Shafter. All the kids coming to school used to hang their guns up in the cloakroom because they were miles from home sometimes, and it was dangerous to ride out without a gun. And this is taken from an actually true incident. I use it in my story and tell the story, but it really happened. Now a man came to kill the teacher. It was a man. And he came with a gun, and all the kids liked the teacher, so they came out and ranged around him with their guns. That stopped it. But kids twelve and thirteen used to carry guns to school regularly.
The story changed from the Shafter book to Barton's retelling of it on the Glenn Beck Show. Here is what Barton said on the Beck Show (in italics):
The great example, in the 1850s you have a school teacher who’s teaching. A guy — he’s out in the West — this guy from New England wants to kill him and find him. So he comes into the school with his gun to shoot the teacher, he decides not to shoot the teacher because all the kids pull their guns out and point it at him and say, ‘You kill the teacher, you die.’ He says, ‘Okay.’ The teacher lives. Real simple stuff. Saved the life of — there was no shooting because all the kids — we’re talking in elementary school — all the kids pull their guns out and says, ‘We like our teacher. You shoot our teacher, we’ll kill you.
The gunman in Shafter was from San Francisco, but on the Beck show the assailant was from New England. Barton said the kids were elementary school kids; they were early teens in L'Amour's novel. If there really is a basis in fact here, it is a fair question to ask: how much more did the story change from the original source to L'Amour's book? L'Amour doesn't claim to be an historian and doesn't say which details were based on the account he used or what he added to make an entertaining novel. Clearly the reason one does not do history this way is because the narrative can change dramatically from the first telling to the last. It would make a great Hallmark movie but as historical fiction, not history.
The problem is that those who consume Barton's materials think he is bringing them the real deal, the hidden history that mainstream historians don't know or don't want the public to know. However, because he doesn't tell them until challenged, they are not aware of the nature of the evidence being presented.
I grew up believing that George Washington chopped down his father's cherry tree and could not tell a lie about it.
The evidence for that story is also hearsay and came from Mason Weems, a clergyman who wrote a popular biography of Washington in 1800. About the source of his story, Weems wrote in the 1833 edition (in italics):
Some idea of Mr Washington's plan of education in this respect may be collected from the following anecdote related to me twenty years ago by an aged lady who was a distant relative and when a girl spent much of her time in the family. (p. 11)
This unnamed relative allegedly told Weems several stories about Washington. After one anecdote, also about honesty, Weems wrote (in italics):
The following anecdote is a case in point [about honesty]. It is too valuable to be lost and too true to be doubted, for it was communicated to me by the same excellent lady to whom I am indebted for the last.
When George said she was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond and was constantly going about chopping every thing that came in his way. One day in the garden where he often amused himself hacking his mother's pea sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry tree which he barked so terribly that I don t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning, the old gentleman [Washington's father] finding out what had befallen his tree which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author declaring at the same time that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him any thing about it. Presently, George and his hatchet made their appearance. "George," said his father, "do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?" This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father with the sweet face of youth, brightened with the inexpressible charm of all conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie. Pa, you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet. -- "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms, glad am I, George, that you killed my tree, for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold. (pp 13-14)
In context, this and other anecdotes were supposed to illustrate the superior upbringing Washington received as well as Washington's resulting impeccable character. However, can we trust this story and the source? Historians, with good reason, have rejected the story as an anecdote that cannot be verified.
The story and source for the kids with guns story illustrates how Barton's methods differ from the historians he has criticized as academic elitists. The L'Amour story is interesting and could be the trigger for a search for what happened but is not proof and should not be presented as fact.
Barton has criticized evangelical historians such as Mark Noll and John Fea for referring to secondary sources and yet he asks evangelicals to trust him when he uses historical fiction.
Historical fiction is entertaining and sometimes inspiring but it is not history and should not be portrayed as such.
The Beck Show clip is here with the L'Amour story coming at about 6 minutes into the clip.