Parson Weems and David Barton–Traveling Salesmen/preachers

I have a fondness for the absurd, and there are few things more absurdly enjoyable than the collected writings of Mason Locke Weems. Parson Weems, as he dubbed himself, was not actually a parson, but rather a printer, traveling books salesman, entrepreneur, and fabulist of the highest order. He had an eye for opportunity, making his name (though his fame was unaccompanied by fortune) by publishing his masterpiece, A History of the Life, Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), a few weeks after his hero’s death. The good parson circumnavigated the southern United States peddling his biography of Washington—I say “biography,” but Parson Weems’s writing hardly meets the modern definition. Weems has the dubious distinction of being the originator of the story of little George chopping down his father’s prized cherry tree, and then owning up to his sin by piously intoning “I can’t tell a lie, Pa, you know I can’t.” Parson Weems made that story up out of whole cloth, as he did so many others about Washington and his other subjects (Francis Marion, Benjamin Franklin, and William Penn).
Weems had a habit of recreating the colonial and revolutionary American world for his readers, and he did it, I think, to show readers a lost world of religiosity and virtue, and to urge them to begin that lost world anew. Weems was a prophet of the past as well as the future, fashioning each to suit his vision of what America was and would be yet again.
Weems was much on my mind this morning, since my twitter feed and email inbox overflowed with the New York Times story about David Barton. Mr. Barton, the Times tells us helpfully, “is a self-taught historian who is described by several conservative presidential aspirants as a valued adviser and a source of historical and biblical justification for their policies.” I have long familiarly with Barton; he has been a thorn in the side of progressive educators in Texas for decades. (I myself am the product of public education in Texas.) Barton, autodidact and spiritual advisor, is also the founder of Wallbuilders, a dominionist organization whose goal “is to exert a direct and positive influence in government, education, and the family by (1) educating the nation concerning the Godly foundation of our country; (2) providing information to federal, state, and local officials as they develop public policies which reflect Biblical values; and (3) encouraging Christians to be involved in the civic arena.” Barton sees the hand of God clearly in the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and in the country’s early history, and he also sees a present in which secularists and atheists are destroying the fabric of God’s kingdom on earth. In a well-publicized controversy last year, Barton was hired by the Texas State Board of Education as an evaluator of the state’s social studies curriculum; he billed himself an “expert reviewer” (though his formal education, from Oral Roberts University, is in religion) and offered factually, er, unreliable recommendations to increase schoolchildren’s knowledge of the virtue and religion of the founding generation.
I have long thought that Parson Weems, nineteenth-century fantasist, and David Barton have much in common. Like Weems, Barton criss-crosses the country selling his version of the past to all comers. Like Weems, Barton excels at cherry-picking quotes from the hallowed Founders, often folks like George Washington, to suit not the art of historical inquiry, but rather to bring about a future that matches the past—or the past as he remembers it to have been. David Barton’s American history is untainted by nastiness—it is a peaceful place, inhabited by industrious, pious, Christian white people who brought the light and wonder of God to the new world. In return, God granted them a biblical Republic and His protection—a protection that Barton darkly believes will soon be withdrawn if the United States does not change course. In this past, there was no violence, imperialism, slavery, or racism. Such blemishes do not become a vision of the past perfect.
Weems looked upon the past in similar terms, creating a history that would be a model for the future. Weems, writing about Washington’s virtue: “And truly Washington had abundant reason, from his own happy experience, to recommend Religion so heartily to others. For besides all those inestimable favours which he received from her at the hands of her celestial daughters, the Virtues; she threw over him her own magic mantle of Character. And it was this that immortalized Washington. By inspiring his countrymen with the profoundest veneration for him as the best of men, it naturally smoothed his way to supreme command; so that when War, that monster of Satan, came on roaring against America, with all his death’s heads and garments rolled in blood, the nation unanimously placed Washington at the head of their armies, from a natural persuasion that so good a man must be the peculiar favourite of Heaven, and the fastest friend of his country. How far this precious instinct in favour of goodness was correct, or how far Washington’s conduct was honourable to Religion and glorious to himself and country, bright age to come and happy millions yet unborn, will, we confidently hope, declare to the most distant posterity.”
David Barton might have written something like that, perhaps in a less flowery way. And Barton would have found a way to work supply-side economics into it, but the sentiment is the same.
Weems and Barton, prophets of the past and the future. Their concerns are the same, though separated by two hundred years: that the nation is losing its virtue, its religion, and its place in God’s favor. The “most distant posterity” they both fear, will lose God’s blessings and squander the Founders’ efforts. Yet that past remains a mystery for Barton, as it did for Weems. As Barton told the Times, “We haven’t had the time to read through even 5 percent of these things,” he said, opening a sheaf of 18th-century newspapers. “You never know what you’ll find.” And I wonder what would happen if Barton read, truly read, those newspapers. Is he prepared for what he might learn?