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Hutson Misrepresented?

I would like to call to your attention an egregious misrepresentation of my views in a story in the February Church & State ("Library Of Congress Curator Backs Off Jefferson Paper," People & Events).

Your writer, reporting on a paper I read at the Freedom Forum, Jan. 5, 1999, on Thomas Jefferson's Danbury Baptist letter, asserts that Hutson now "backs off" from the conclusions published about that letter in the Library Of Congress Information Bulletin (June 1998). This assertion is false.

In the introduction to the revised paper which I read to the Freedom Forum audience Jan. 5, I stated that it was "longer, more fully articulated and contains an appropriate scholarly apparatus, as its predecessor did not. It also responds to certain criticisms that the first paper generated. It does not, however, retreat from its original thesis: the Danbury Baptist letter must be understood in the political context in which Jefferson wrote it...." In fact, I buttressed that thesis with new evidence and reaffirmed other important, collateral points made in the June paper. It is impossible to understand how your reporter could assert that the paper represented a retreat, in whole or in part, from the thesis advanced in June 1998.

Statements in other parts of the article are, incidentally, at least as misleading as the main charge.

Readers wishing to see the revised paper and to reach their own conclusions about it should be advised that it will be published as the centerpiece of a forum in the forthcoming issue of the William and Mary Quarterly.

--James H. Hutson, Curator Library of Congress Washington, D.C.

Robed S. Alley Responds

Church & State asked Dr. Robert S. Alley, who attended Hutson's Jan. 5 presentation, to respond to the curator's letter. Alley, professor emeritus of humanities at the University of Richmond and an Americans United trustee, writes:

Dr. James Hutson, curator of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, has yet to comprehend his own befuddlement over the documents in his care.

Last June, in a paper he released to open the Library's exhibit on religion and the founding of the United States, he made an egregious misrepresentation of Thomas Jefferson's views on separation of church and state. Further complicating the matter was a portion of the exhibit which misrepresented Jefferson's views on Christianity.

Dr. Hutson was publicly taken to task July 29 by a group of 24 historians for his lapses in scholarship related to the 1801-1802 Danbury/Jefferson correspondence. That challenge led to the Freedom Forum gathering Jan. 5. Hutson chose not to enter into a serious dialogue with the scholars who attended that meeting, opting rather to read another paper because, as he said, there was "no time for research" on his previous essay.

Hutson read his lengthy new paper which was, he said, a result of more careful research. But he also informed us that he is not a religious liberty expert. The Freedom Forum's on-line publication free/interpreted what he said thus: "Scholar retreats somewhat from claims about Jefferson 'wall of separation letter.'"

Faced with a serious challenge, Dr. Hutson apologized for his sloppy research on the original paper and then sought to gain favor with his audience by informing them that he is, in fact, a liberal in religion. What that had to do with the subject at hand is unclear.

I must say that Hutson's letter to Church & State is strangely at odds with the facts. The curator demonstrates that on the subject of scholarship, he still doesn't get it. Your story never challenged the contention that the Danbury letter was political and the scholars' letter made that explicit. But they insisted that the Danbury letter was also a statement of principle. What none of us can abide is the conclusion by Hutson in his original paper that Jefferson's letter "... was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more." That specific assertion was omitted from Hutson's oral presentation Jan. 5.

Following his presentation, Hutson responded to questions. In that exchange he insisted that after 1780 there were no religious establishments in the United States and he knew of no one who was seriously promoting the idea. He was reminded that it was a Connecticut religious establishment that prompted the 1801 letter from the Baptists, who informed the president, "... [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights:...."

It was also obvious that Hutson was ill-informed about the Virginia General Assembly's decision to incorporate the Episcopal Church in 1784, an action intended to secure a perpetual title to the glebe lands and other property of the formerly established Anglican Church. In a letter to me dated Jan. 8, 1999, Hutson argued that an incorporation was different from an establishment, because Virginia would not be "paying preachers with public money."

In fact, the Virginia Incorporation Act "established" the Episcopal Church as a privileged entity. President James Madison confirmed that understanding when he vetoed an 1811 bill that would have incorporated the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia, citing the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. Madison concluded, "This particular church, therefore, would so far be a religious establishment by law, ..."

One last note is in order. When asked why the Library display failed to employ standard scholarly procedure relative to quotations from historic documents in its possession, Hutson agreed it had done just that, but he insisted that space constraints made it necessary to alter the record.
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Author:Hutson, James H.
Publication:Church & State
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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