Dear Commons Community,
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas describes slavery as a “necessary evil” in an attack on a New York Times project exploring the legacy of slavery in the US.
Cotton in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette defended a bill he intends to introduce to Congress, which proposes cutting federal funding to schools which adopt The Times’s 1619 Project as part of their history curricula.
The project was launched in a special edition of the Times magazine last August, marking the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in the US.
It seeks to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Cotton said he disputed what he claimed to be the premise of the project “that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable.”
He said: “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country.
“As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” he said.
“America is a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal. We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it,” he said.
The 1619 Project has generated political controversy amid America’s ongoing struggle with its history of racism. California Senator Kamala Harris praised it as “a powerful and necessary reckoning of our history.”
But it’s attracted criticism from Republicans who claim it is ideologically driven. Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and ally of President Donald Trump said in a 2019 tweet: “the NY Times 1619 Project should make its slogan ‘All the Propaganda we want to brainwash you with.'”
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who came up with the idea for the project and won a Pulitzer for her introductory essay on it, hit back at Cotton’s claims in a tweet on Sunday.
“If chattel slavery — heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit — were a “necessary evil” as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” she wrote.
Some historians have questioned whether any of the Founding Fathers said that slavery was a “necessary evil.”
Cotton subsequently claimed he had been describing “the views of the Founders,” rather than citing them with direct quotation.
But Hannah-Jones challenged him to repudiate the view he ascribed to the founders, that slavery was a “necessary evil.”
“Were the Founders right or wrong … when they called slavery a ‘necessary evil upon which the Union was built”? Because either you agree with their assessment of slavery as necessary or you admit they were lying and it was just an evil and dishonorable choice. Which?” she wrote.
Cotton’s statements are evil and dishonorable.