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Did Sen. Cotton say slavery was a “necessary evil”?

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a potential future GOP presidential contender, is drawing fire for describing slavery as a “necessary evil,” although he did so in the context of how he believes the Founding Fathers viewed it. He used the words in floor remarks about a bill he introduced to withhold federal funding from schools that use the the New York Times “1619 Project” in their curriculum. Read story here.

Primarily, it’s an effort by a U.S. senator to dictate what’s taught in local schools. But it also reflects Cotton’s extremely conservative views. Cotton has been highly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, comparing them to Confederate rebels, and calling for use of troops against protesters and “no quarter” for violent protesters (i.e., killing them). Cotton has denied there’s racism in policing or the criminal justice system.

CBS News says, “The 1619 Project is a series of essays and other works reexamining the history and legacy of slavery in the United States. (1619 refers to the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the American colonies.) It won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for commentary, but some conservatives, including President Trump and Cotton, have condemned it.” (Link above.) Cotton has been a loyal supporter of Trump.

“In an interview with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton called the 1619 Project a ‘racially divisive, revisionist account’ of history,” CBS News continued, and quoted Cotton as saying “the New York Times should not be teaching American history to our kids.”

Wikipedia describes the “1619 Project” as

“an ongoing project developed by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 with the goal of re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States and timed for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony. It is an interactive project directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for The New York Times, with contributions by the newspaper’s writers, including essays on the history of different aspects of contemporary American life which the authors believe have ‘roots in slavery and its aftermath.’ It also includes poems, short fiction, and a photo essay. Originally conceived as a special issue for August 20, 2019, it was soon turned into a full-fledged project, including a special broadsheet section in the newspaper, live events, and a multi-episode podcast series. The New York Times has said that the contributions were deeply researched and arguments verified by a team of fact-checkers in consultation with historians. However, historians Gordon S. Wood, James M. McPherson, Richard Carwardine, James Oakes and Victoria Bynum have criticized the 1619 Project, stating that the project has put forward misleading and historically inaccurate claims. Historian Leslie M. Harris, who served as a fact-checker for the project, contends that the authors ignored her corrections. The Times replied, ‘We don’t believe that the request for corrections to The 1619 Project is warranted.’ Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the 1619 Project.”

(Click here for Wikipedia article.)

Gordon S. Wood (himself a Pulitizer winner), James W. McPherson, Richard Carwardine, and James Oakes are reputable academics. Wood teaches at Brown University, McPherson at Princeton, Carwardine at Oxford University in England, and Oakes at City University of New York. They are leading specialists on Civil War-era history. Victoria Bynum is best known as the author of “Free State of Jones.” Harris is a scholar of African-American studies at Northwestern University.

As a general principle, I believe what’s taught in public schools should be accurate. Journalism is different from scholarship; it’s faster-paced, operates under publishing deadlines, and reports the best information available at press time (or, at least, should strive to). Scholars are expected to be, and can be, much more meticulous — and fastidious about accuracy. So a series developed for newspaper publication, even though it wins journalism honors, isn’t necessarily the best source of curriculum materials (although schools for many decades have made limited use of news stores for engaging students with current events). Generally, you expect to find more inaccuracies in journalist-created materials than those coming from academia.

But I’m not personally familiar with the “1619 Project,” so I really can’t comment on it in any specific terms. In general, I expect textbooks and course materials used in schools to be written by trusted scholars in the respective fields of study, although I see nothing wrong with supplementing these materials with information and ideas from other sources, presented in proper context.

I will say, however, that what’s taught in schools isn’t written in stone, and there’s nothing wrong with re-examining the teaching of history, or standardized history curricula, in light of changing societal mores and expectations. For example, generations of schoolchildren have been taught that Columbus “discovered” America (which isn’t exactly true) while glossing over the dark sides of his “discovery” (genocide, slavery, etc.) and the fact he was a rather evil man.

Let me make clear I’m not a fan of Tom Cotton. I wouldn’t vote for him. I consider many of his views not only extreme, but repulsive. Nor do I share his opinion of the New York Times, or support his bill to ban their work on slavery from schools (that should be up to schools). But did he say slavery was “a necessary evil”? Or did he merely argue the Founding Fathers considered slavery “a necessary evil,” which I believe is accurate, in the sense they concluded that compromising with slavery interests was required to combine the colonies together into a union of states.

(This is perhaps too generalized a statement. The Founding Fathers were not of one mind on the issue, and the above represents the collective result of their debates and decisions as they drafted a Constitution for the new country they were created. I doubt they all thought it “necessary” as some opposed slavery, and I doubt all considered it “evil” as others were themselves slave owners.)

But whether Cotton is right or wrong in his characterization of the views of the Founding Fathers, the question before us is whether it’s their views he’s talking about, or his views he’s expressing, or a combination of both.

As to the first, it’s certainly plausible that many people of that time saw slavery as “necessary” to the South’s tobacco and cotton based agrarian economy, when mechanized agricultural still lay in the future and few if any people foresaw the field labor provided by slaves being replaced by machines. The South viewed it as necessary enough to fight a bloody civil war to preserve it.

As to the second, here’s the evidence of what Cotton intended to convey: “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.” (Italics added.)

That sure sounds to me like he not only believes the Founding Fathers considered slavery “a necessary evil,” but agrees with their view (if that’s what it was) that it was.

Thus, the criticism of Cotton’s remarks seems justified.


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