Stephen Mansfield's "Ten Tortured Words" -- A Book Review (Part 1)
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Aug 13, 2007 at 04:01:17 PM EST
After reading Don Byrd's post on Stephen Mansfield's USA Today op-ed, I decided to get a copy of this best-selling author's latest book, Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America and What's Happened Since. Given the assertions made by Mansfield in his op-ed, which included the ridiculous claim that Thomas Jefferson "insisted upon the Bible as part of the curriculum at the University of Virginia," I thought I knew what to expect from his book. Ten Tortured Words, however, surpassed even my lowest expectations.

When I got the book on Saturday, the first thing I did was turn it over to read the description on the back of its jacket, which begins:

It was the steamy summer of 1787, as America's founding fathers fashioned their Constitution, they told the most powerful institution in their new nation what it must not do:


What??? This seems to be saying that the First Amendment was written in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. I must have misread this, I thought, and proceeded to reread it several times. No, I read it right the first time. It really does say that the First Amendment was written at the Constitutional Convention. My next thought was that this jacket text wasn't written by Stephen Mansfield himself, but by some history ignoramus at the publishing company. Mansfield, a New York Times best-selling author, writing an entire book on the First Amendment, couldn't possibly be unaware that this amendment was written two years later by the first Congress. Well, reading the book quickly proved that the benefit of the doubt I was giving Mansfield for this erroneous jacket text was completely undeserved. In fact, I didn't need to read any further than the introduction to realize this.

On pages xv-xvi, Mansfield says of Thomas Jefferson's January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (emphasis is mine):

It did not matter that Thomas Jefferson wrote this letter some fourteen years after the First Amendment became law. It did not matter that Thomas Jefferson was not even in the country during the convention that drafted the First Amendment. ...

This is even worse than the jacket text. Fourteen years after the First Amendment became law??? The First Amendment, drafted by the first Congress in the summer of 1789, didn't become law until December 15, 1791. This, of course, would make Jefferson's writing of his letter to the Baptists almost exactly ten years after the amendment became law, not fourteen years. And, again, Mansfield calls the body that drafted the amendment "the convention."

On page 65 of his book, Mansfield not only gets this wrong again, but isn't even consistent with the version in his introduction, in this case indicating that he not only doesn't know that the amendment was written by the first Congress, but doesn't realize there was a two year gap between its writing and its becoming law. According to Mansfield:

Also, he wrote the Danbury letter nearly a decade and a half after the First Amendment was written. ...

Remarkably, in other places in his book, Mansfield does have the first Congress drafting the First Amendment, as if he copied this information without it even dawning on him that it contradicts his other statements and timeline.

But, gets better. Mansfield apparently doesn't understand that the Constitutional Convention and the Continental Congress were two separate bodies, with the Congress continuing to meet in New York while the Convention was taking place in Philadelphia. This is blatantly apparent in his description of how the Northwest Ordinance, also written in the summer of 1787, came about. On page 14, he has Manasseh Cutler pitching his Ohio Company proposals to the Constitutional Convention.

On July 13, 1787, when the Constitutional Convention was but seven weeks along in its great task, a Massachusetts war hero, medical doctor, and clergyman named Manasseh Cutler asked the Convention to approve a plan for establishing a colony in the Ohio Territory. ...

Even a person with a rudimentary knowledge of this period of American history, let alone a person passing themselves off as an authority by writing a book on it, should certainly be expected to know that the Constitutional Convention's sole purpose and work was the Constitution, and that the regular business of the country was simultaneously proceeding at the Congress in New York, which, of course, is where Cutler took the proposals for the Northwest Ordinance. Mansfield makes David Barton, whose masterpiece of historical revisionism, Original Intent, is listed in the bibliography of Ten Tortured Words, almost seem by comparison to be the real historian he claims to be.

On pages143 to 148 of his book, Mansfield presents a list of twenty quotes, the purpose of which is to argue against the idea that, while many of the founders were personally religious, the government they created was secular. Some of these quotes are accurately presented, but most are either out of context, complete fabrications, or in some other way deceptive. One of the twenty even appears on David Barton's "Unconfirmed Quotations" list. For those unfamiliar with this list, these are quotes that even a history revisionist as bad as David Barton urges his minions to refrain from using.

I'll be writing much more over the next few weeks about the numerous instances of Christian nationalist revisionism found in Ten Tortured Words, but will end for now with a striking example of Stephen Mansfield's own brand of word torturing, in the form of the following Madison "quote," found on page 146.

Religion is the basis and foundation of government. -- JAMES MADISON

Where does this quote come from? Well, according to Mansfield's note, Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Here is the untortured paragraph from that document, with the words assembled by Mansfield to create his quote in bold.

15. Because finally, "the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience" is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the "Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government," it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis.

Stephen Mansfield has no doubt said all sorts of exciting things.

Maybe we can dub such a level of textual torture, in Mansfield's honor, "to Mansfield" - meaning : to pluck individual words and textual bits from the body of a much larger quote and glue them together into bold new pseudo-quotes that can be foisted on an unsuspecting public, to advance a covert political agenda.

George Bush's January 23, 2007 State of The Union Address is fun to "Mansfield" :

"Our enemies are quite explicit about their intentions. They want to
overthrow moderate governments and establish safe havens from which to
plan and carry out new attacks on our country. By killing and
terrorizing Americans, they want to force our country to retreat from
the world and abandon the cause of liberty."

Then again, sometimes "Mansfielding" can bring out an underlying truth:

"I did not have sex with that woman" - Bill Clinton.

Regardless, it's never historically justifiable.

by Bruce Wilson on Mon Aug 13, 2007 at 04:40:03 PM EST

Mansfield makes David Barton, whose masterpiece of historical revisionism, Original Intent, is listed in the bibliography of Ten Tortured Words, almost seem by comparison to be the real historian he claims to be.

It doesn't get much worse than David Barton, but I believe Mansfield has managed to pull it off.

Though it probably helps that most of their readers wouldn't know the difference, anyway -- and that the few who do wouldn't care.

by moiv on Tue Aug 14, 2007 at 02:02:41 AM EST

I personally think we should all mail Mansfield copies of Chris's book, Liars for Jesus, so that he can have USA Today print a retraction. I have noticed several columns on their Religion page that are so historically inaccurate that it is not funny! They had one on George Washington that had me gritting my teeth. I wrote to the author, but got no reply. What really frosts me is that USA Today has such a wide audience and people assume that the historical claims written by many of these writers must be true history because the paper wouldn't print them otherwise. Maybe Chris could think about an op-ed that does a general debunking of all those awful religion page essays.

by LindaJoy on Tue Aug 14, 2007 at 02:15:00 PM EST

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