What Tom Cotton Gets So Wrong About Slavery and the ConstitutionRoundup
tags: conservatism, slavery, teaching history, Tom Cotton, 1619 Project
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton. His most recent book is No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding. (May 2020)
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.
(As this article went to press, Cotton supported his argument by citing me along with several other liberal historians who have criticized the 1619 Project; with my colleagues, I have fundamental publicized objections to the project, but these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.)
None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a “necessary evil.” Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of New York, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would “never concur in upholding domestic slavery,” that “nefarious institution” based on “the most cruel bondages”—“the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.” The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.
James Madison, the most influential delegate at the convention, explicitly repudiated the idea of building the union on slavery, stating that it would be “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” Though himself a slaveholder, Madison wanted to guarantee that the Constitution, while it might tolerate slavery in the states where it existed, would neither enshrine human bondage in national law nor recognize it as legitimate.
A minority of the Framers, from the lower South, disagreed, but they believed slavery was no evil at all. “If slavery be wrong,” Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared, “it is justified by the example of all the world.” Far from a necessary evil, Pinckney thought slavery was a necessary good, as it had been for time immemorial. “In all ages,” he claimed, “one half of mankind have been slaves.”