A recent interview appeared to confirm the worst: Is a sitting U.S. senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a defender of the horrific institution of race-based slavery?
On Monday, headlines roared: “Tom Cotton Calls Slavery ‘Necessary Evil’ to ‘Development of Our Country,'” screamed New York magazine; “Tom Cotton calls slavery ‘necessary evil’ in attack on New York Times’ 1619 Project,” The Guardian claimed; “Tom Cotton describes slavery as a ‘necessary evil’ in bid to keep schools from teaching 1619 Project,” CNN insisted.
Yet Tom Cotton did not say he himself considers slavery a “necessary evil.” Rather, he was describing the position the Founding Fathers took on an institution he later condemned, in no uncertain terms.
“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,” Cotton reportedly told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in an article published Sunday. “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.”
This comment inspired no small degree of backlash.
“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 [Tom Cotton] says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end,” tweeted Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of The New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” which aims to redefine America as being founded with the arrival of the first slaves rather than with the Declaration of Independence.
Robert Reich, secretary of Labor under former President Bill Clinton, suggested Cotton’s remark was so beyond the pale that it alone necessitated a Democrat takeover of the Senate in November.
“This, my friends, is today’s GOP. Make sure they lose control of the Senate on November 3. In fact, make sure they lose control of everything. They’ve lost the right to govern,” Reich tweeted.
The rapper Ice Cube claimed that Tom Cotton himself is an “unnecessary evil.”
It appears that Hannah-Jones, Reich, and Ice Cube were interpreting Cotton’s remarks as a defense of slavery. Yet Cotton did not defend slavery. In fact, he told Fox & Friends that the Democrat-Gazette had misquoted him.
Addressing Brian Kilmeade, who quoted the Democrat-Gazette article, Cotton said, “Well, that is fake news, Brian. That’s not what I said.”
“What I said is that many founders believed that only with the Union and the Constitution could we put slavery on the path to its ultimate extinction. That’s exactly what Lincoln said,” the senator explained.
Then he condemned slavery in no uncertain terms.
“Of course, slavery is an evil institution in all its forms at all times in America’s past or around the world today. But the fundamental moral principle of America is right there in the Declaration–all men are created equal. And the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle,” Cotton explained.
“That’s a history we ought to be proud of, not the historical revisionism of the 1619 Project, which wants to indoctrinate America’s kids and teach them to hate America. To believe that America was founded not on human freedom but on racism. To think that slavery was not an aberration but the true heart of America,” the senator argued.
“That why leading historians, like James McPherson or Gordon Wood, have debunked the 1619 Project. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to ensure that federal tax dollars don’t go to teaching it,” Cotton added. “The New York Times should not be teaching American history to our kids.”
Tom Cotton never suggested that slavery was morally acceptable, he merely noted that the Founders compromised on this issue in order to enshrine the principles of equality before the law that eventually led to the eradication of slavery.
Matt Spalding, a professor of government at Hillsdale College, explained what the Founders meant when they spoke of slavery as a “necessary evil.”
“That was the Founders’ prudent position,” Spalding told PJ Media. The Founders viewed slavery as “evil in principle but still necessary in practice for gaining the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and all the principles and institutions, as Lincoln later explained, that were the keystones to the abolition of slavery. For the vast majority of the Founders, the consensus view was that slavery was an evil that under the immediate circumstances had to be tolerated in the short term.”
The Founders faced a practical situation where slavery “existed on the ground and could not be abolished immediately without thereby preventing the founding of a country dedicated to human liberty and equality.”
Spalding noted that while the Founders made certain compromises in the Constitution, they did not endorse slavery, and, as James Madison explained in the Constitutional Convention and again in The Federalist Papers, kept the idea of “property in men” out of the Constitution.
While race-based chattel slavery was a horrific evil in America, the Founders’ vision of human equality and inalienable rights ultimately prevailed. In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln suggested that the mighty scourge of the Civil War was God’s just punishment for the horrific practice of slavery.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”
It is in this spirit that Thomas Jefferson, lamenting the existence of slavery in America, wrote, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.”
Yet, on the other side of the Civil War, slavery was abolished. The long struggle for civil rights culminated with equality before the law. America is not perfect, but it has made important strides in this direction.
The Founders compromised on slavery, and America paid bitterly for that compromise. But that compromise does not erase the nobility of America’s founding ideals, nor should it lead Americans to reject the values of liberty and justice for all that America was founded upon.
The 1619 Project takes one painful aspect of America’s past and uses it to condemn the entire American project, reading racism and oppression into everything from the nuclear family to the limited government of the Constitution to the free-market system that has unleashed an unprecedented degree of prosperity. Tom Cotton is right to denounce the 1619 Project, and he is right to honor America’s Founders.
In no way did he intend to defend slavery, as his remarks made painfully clear. Rather than demonizing Cotton and defending an anti-American reading of history, Democrats should celebrate the Founders and condemn the lawlessness in American cities like Portland.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.