Tom Cotton sparks controversy with comments on slavery, history

Obviously, describing slavery as "evil" was appropriate, but suggesting that slavery was once "necessary" is something else altogether.
Sen. Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for a vote on July 23, 2020.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Donald Trump recently sat down with Fox News' Chris Wallace, who reminded the president that he's argued that U.S. schools are teaching people to "hate America." The Republican insisted that his assessment is accurate, and when pressed to support the claim, Trump said, "I look at school. I watch, I read, look at the stuff."

The president added, "Now they want to change 1492, Columbus discovered America. You know, we grew up, you grew up, we all did, that's what we learned. Now they want to make it the 1619 Project. Where did that come from? What does it represent? I don't even know."

It fell to the host to remind Trump that the 1619 Project was a New York Times initiative, published about a year ago, marking the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship to reach what would become the United States. As the president's comments reinforced, the newspaper's project was not well received by many on the right, who are still complaining about it 12 months later.

In fact, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is going even further than Trump, introducing legislation last week that would impose a federal prohibition on public schools using the 1619 Project in curricula.

The Republican senator's bill isn't likely to gain traction anytime soon, but Cotton nevertheless took his case to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, telling the newspaper the 1619 Project is "left-wing propaganda," "revisionist history," and “a distortion of American history.”

And if that was all the Republican had said, there probably wouldn't have been much in the way of follow-up. Cotton, however, went a bit further.

“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. Instead of portraying America as “an irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country,” the nation should be viewed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind,” Cotton said.

Not surprisingly, it wasn't long before a controversy ensued over Cotton's use of the phrase "necessary evil." Obviously, describing slavery as "evil" was appropriate, but suggesting that slavery was once "necessary" is something else altogether.

The Arkansan, who makes little effort to hide his ambitions, seemed to recognize fairly quickly how much damage a story like this could do, and Cotton published multiple tweets yesterday arguing that he didn't see slavery as a "necessary evil," he was simply summarizing the beliefs of the nation's framers. (The senator took his case to Fox News this morning, too.)

Part of the problem, of course, is the context. Look at the quote again: "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...."

This doesn't look like a politician taking issue with the framers' beliefs on the matter.

Yes, in the next part of the quote, Cotton says the Founding Fathers also put slavery "on the course to its ultimate extinction," but that's highly dubious. As Jon Chait noted, the institution of slavery expanded for generations after the nation's founding, and far from being destined to collapse, it took a civil war to actually put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.

That was, incidentally, a conflict that produced Confederate leaders whose names Cotton appears eager to protect.

As for the far-right Arkansan's contention that slavery was an evil "upon which the union was built," ironically that was one of the central points of emphasis in the 1619 Project that Cotton finds so offensive.