Tom Cotton Says Founders Believed Slavery Was ‘Necessary Evil,’ So Checkmate, 1619 Project!
Arkansas GOP Senator Tom Cotton is obsessed with The 1619 Project, which the New York Times published almost a full year ago, and which makes the controversial, reality-based claim that slavery existed and was fundamental in the formation of our nation.
Cotton introduced snowflake legislation last week that would prevent school districts from using federal tax dollars to teach a curriculum based on the project, which "includes essays, poems, photographs and short fiction by a variety of contributors." If Cotton wanted ideological balance, he could just insist schools also teach the musical 1776, but no, his "Saving American History Act of 2020" is unyielding.
During an interview Friday, Cotton used his best words to explain his Nineteenth Century mustache-twirling villain position. He claimed that The 1619 Project is "racially divisive," but he does concede that students should probably have to learn about slavery.
COTTON: 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.
Only a stone cold sociopath suggests that the suffering of others is "necessary" for their personal success. It's not like America held annual lotteries to determine which children — Black or white — would endure a lifetime of bondage. This was a sacrifice only Black people made. We were never intended to enjoy America's freedom and prosperity.
Imagine thinking a non-divisive curriculum is one that tells Black children the buying and selling of their ancesto… https://t.co/fK8gbPOyUw— Ida Bae Wells (@Ida Bae Wells)1595789459.0
“Necessary evil" is a term people use to rationalize horrible, selfish acts, but what defines a true "necessary evil"? Does that include invading Poland or is it restricted to brutality against Black bodies?
Cotton believes it's wrong to teach that America is "at root, a systemically racist country," when the facts are obvious that it was a "great and noble country" that willingly chose to enslave other human beings and profit off their labor, even selling their own children out from under them. He keeps insisting America was founded on "the proposition that all mankind is created equal," but the Constitution literally said otherwise.
The "free" states made concessions with the slave-holding states to form the US. That's a moral choice and a moral failing that condemned millions to enslavement. Cotton's fairytale argument that agreeing to slavery was part of some long game to end slavery isn't supported by logic. Slavery expanded over the years, and preserving the balance of slave and free states was considered so important to the preservation of the Union that states were usually admitted in pairs (one footloose and fancy free, the other chock full of “necessary evil"). The enslaved population grew from 500,000 at the nation's founding to about four million by the Civil War.
Fugitive Slave Act & Uncle Tom's Cabin www.youtube.com
The Fugitive Slave Act in of 1850 threatened to make the entire country a slave nation, with the federal government responsible for finding, returning, and trying Black people who escaped slavery, even if they resided in a free state. America before the Civil War was as close to exterminating slavery as the Corleone family was to becoming "completely legitimate" at any point during The Godfather trilogy.
Cotton alludes to Abraham Lincoln's comment during his 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas: "I say in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction."
It's a romantic sentiment but not one that reflects the reality of the period. The founders didn't put America on a path toward ending slavery — quite the opposite, in fact, and it would take the bloodiest war in US history before slavery was abolished.
From author and historian Gordon Rhea's 2011 Address to the Charleston Library Society:
The South felt increasingly beleaguered as the North increased its criticism of slavery. Abolitionist societies sprang up, Northern publications demanded the immediate end of slavery, politicians waxed shrill about the immorality of human bondage, and overseas, the British parliament terminated slavery in the British West Indies. A prominent historian accurately noted that "by the late 1850's most white Southerners viewed themselves as prisoners in their own country, condemned by what they saw as a hysterical abolition movement."
As Southerners became increasingly isolated, they reacted by becoming more strident in defending slavery. The institution was not just a necessary evil: it was a positive good, a practical and moral necessity. Controlling the slave population was a matter of concern for all Whites, whether they owned slaves or not. Curfews governed the movement of slaves at night, and vigilante committees patrolled the roads, dispensing summary justice to wayward slaves and whites suspected of harboring abolitionist views. Laws were passed against the dissemination of abolitionist literature, and the South increasingly resembled a police state. A prominent Charleston lawyer described the city's citizens as living under a "reign of terror."
Perpetuating this "necessary evil" meant that America was a fascist state for Black people. White Americans became more paranoid and arguably even more brutal toward the enslaved as their numbers grew. In some parts of the South, the Black population outnumbered whites, which is inconvenient if the people you've tortured all your life are suddenly free. Even if they're willing to forgive and forget, they'd still want land and jobs. Sharing the nation with the people who helped build it was never in the game plan.
Donald Trump supporters and Fox News viewers probably also consider themselves “prisoners in their own country," as a movement for racial justice occurs around them. Tom Cotton attacks The 1619 Project and history in general on their behalf. But people like him already lost once. They'll lose again.
Stephen Robinson on Twitter.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).