Ben Carson: Does he have a Thomas Jefferson problem?

Following some controversy over statements about his personal history, Carson is now being challenged on his knowledge of US history, specifically of Thomas Jefferson and the US Constitution.

Chris Keane/Reuters
US Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks during the 20/20 Club Presidential Justice Forum at Allen University in Columbia, S.C., on Saturday.

When Ben Carson took a surprise lead in the Republican presidential campaign last month questions arose about his accounts of his personal history. Now he is coming out with a book about the US Constitution, his knowledge of American history is being questioned as well.

The retired pediatric neurosurgeon now sits a comfortable second, behind fellow political newcomer Donald Trump, in most national polls released on Sunday, despite a spate of inaccurate statements – be they historical or cartographical – that began to surface when he took the lead in the polls last month.

First came reported inaccuracies in Mr. Carson's personal history, including controversy over whether he was offered a scholarship to West Point and slight changes in a childhood story he has frequently told of once trying to stab a boy in a fit of rage.

More recently, the Carson campaign released a map earlier this month in support of 31 state governors who had announced they would not be accepting refugees from Syria in the wake of the Paris attacks. There were some notable mistakes in the map – particularly in New England, where Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine were moved northeast by about 150 miles, and Connecticut was seemingly cut out entirely.

Today, Carson has come under fire for making inaccurate statements about Thomas Jefferson. In an interview with C-SPAN on Sunday, he praised Jefferson because he "tried to craft our Constitution in a way that it would control peoples' natural tendencies and control the natural growth of the government."

Jefferson was not directly involved in drafting the US Constitution in 1787. He did send thoughts on the document to the document's authors – and his objection to the lack of any bill of rights in the final document led to their subsequent addition as amendments. However he is not considered to be an author of the Constitution.

Indeed, Carson himself – writing in his new book "A More Perfect Union" – acknowledges that Jefferson was "missing in action" during that period of American history while serving as minister to France.

And this is the second time Carson has falsely attributed something to Jefferson. In an interview with Fox’s Neil Cavuto after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, Carson told Cavuto: "Thomas Jefferson himself said, 'Gun control works great for the people who are law-abiding citizens and it does nothing for the criminals, and all it does is put people at risk.' " 

The statement is derived from a quote in Jefferson's "Legal Commonplace Book":

"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms…disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one."

However, the passage is actually from Cesare Beccaria's "Essay on Crimes and Punishments," according to the Monticello web site – a fact Carson acknowledges in a footnote in his book according to The Washington Post.

[Editor's note: Additional information has been added to the original text to include Jefferson's input on the Constitution through correspondence.]

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