Republican Sen. Tom Cotton attempts to defend his remarks calling slavery a "necessary evil"

Cotton has targeted schools which use the New York Times "1619 Project" with recently-filed federal legislation

Published July 27, 2020 11:49AM (EDT)

Sen. Tom Cotton (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Sen. Tom Cotton (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is attempting to defend remarks in which he called slavery a "necessary evil."

Cotton first made the controversial comment in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview published Sunday.

"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," he said. "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."

Cotton was defending legislation he proposed, which would withhold federal funds from schools that use the New York Times' "1619 Project" as part of their history curricula.

"The 1619 Project" explores the legacies of racism and slavery, and the contributions Black Americans have made to the national narrative. It defines slavery as the central American story and argues for making America's birth year 1619, or the year in which the first slaves arrived from Africa.

Though the project won a Pulitzer Prize, conservatives have criticized the work as politicized and ideological. Cotton attacked the paper's "premise" that America was "irredeemable" and racist "to the core."

"The entire premise of the New York Times' factually, historically flawed 1619 Project . . . is that America is at root a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable. I reject that root and branch," Cotton 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."

The comments drew widespread backlash, including from historians and the project's founder, Nikol Hannah Jones.

"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 tweeted.

But Cotton denied that he was calling the enslavement of Black people a "necessary evil," merely offering his own analysis of the Founding Fathers views.

Hannah-Jones challenged him to disavow those views.

"Were the Founders right or wrong, @TomCottonAR, when they called slavery a 'necessary evil upon which the Union was built'?" she asked on Twitter. "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?"

Cotton has not responded. 

Cotton's attack on the New York Times comes one month after catching backlash for his "Send in the military" op-ed, in which he argued that U.S. cities needed federal troops to come in and help quash civil unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

The paper was blasted online by liberals and some of the paper's own staff, many posting the line "Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger" on Twitter. Hannah-Jones also pushed back on her paper.

The fallout led to the resignation of the Times' opinion editor, James Bennet, as well as the release of an editor's note saying Cotton's op-ed fell "short of our standards" and "should not have been published."

Cotton referenced that note Saturday in another tweet attacking The Times.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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1619 Project Aggregate Arkansas New York Times Politics Racism Republicans Slavery Tom Cotton