Sen. Tom Cotton Wants to Take ‘The 1619 Project’ out of Classrooms. His Efforts Have Kept it in the Spotlight

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, public history, Tom Cotton, 1619 Project

Nearly a year after “The 1619 Project” hit magazine stands, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is trying to start a congressional debate over the New York Times project reexamining slavery in U.S. history.

Last week, the conservative lawmaker proposed a bill seeking to ban schools from adopting the project as a part of their curriculum. The series of essays, poetry and fiction peddled the false notion, he alleged, that America is a “systemically racist country” with slavery irredeemably trapped inside its core.

“As the Founding Fathers said, it [slavery] was the necessary evil upon which the union was built,” he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette over the weekend. “The union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”

His comments ignited a war of words on social media Sunday, with politicians, media figures and journalists — including the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for one essay — accusing the senator of endorsing the idea that slavery was a “necessary evil,” as Cotton insisted that he was simply reflecting on what the Founding Fathers believed at the time.



Whether Cotton’s statements about slavery, the founders and history are accurate sparked another wave of debate.

In an interview with The Post, John P. Kaminski, a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said that many Southerners defending the practice did in fact refer to slavery as a “necessary evil.”

A number of mechanisms within the country’s founding documents, such as the three-fifths compromise, and the omission of the word “slavery” from the Constitution, he added, indicate that it was not supposed to last forever as an institution, but was placed second to the maintenance of the union.

“Any discussion that we would have of slavery and racial relations today has to be understood in the context of the 18th century, where racism is profound throughout the entire Western world,” said Kaminski, who edited the book, “A Necessary Evil? Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution.” “The country was pretty well divided at that time in many respects the way the country is divided today."


Later in the evening on Twitter, Cotton insisted that he was merely rehashing a historical perspective, rather than stating his own.

“Describing the *views of the Founders* and how they put the evil institution on a path to extinction, a point frequently made by Lincoln, is not endorsing or justifying slavery,” he wrote.

But Joshua D. Rothman, a University of Alabama history professor, countered Cotton’s argument, writing that slavery was neither a “necessary evil” nor destined for “ultimate extinction.” It was more nuanced than that, he said.

“Slavery was a choice defended or accepted by most white Americans for generations, and it expanded dramatically between the Revolution and the Civil War,” Rothman wrote.

Read entire article at Washington Post

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