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Strange History

GOP Sen. Tom Cotton argues America's founders believed slavery to be a 'necessary evil'

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) isn't opposed to having students study America's history of slavery, he told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette in an interview published Sunday. But he proposed legislation that would cut funding from any public school that taught a curriculum based on The New York Times' 1619 Project, he said, because the "factually, historically flawed" collection of essays is based on the premise "that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable."

The 1619 Project, which won a Pulitzer for its mastermind Nikole Hannah-Jones, considers what U.S. history would look like if the nation viewed the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 as America's foundational "birth year," not 1776. The curriculum Cotton opposes was put together by the Times and Pulitzer Center.

In explaining his bill, Cotton, a rising GOP star, made his own factually, historically questionable statements about America's founders and President Abraham Lincoln. "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."

It's possible some of the people who wrote America's founding documents — which counted enslaved Black people as three-fifths of a human — believed slavery was "a necessary evil" with a built-in expiration date, though Cotton did not elaborate so it's not clear which founders he was referring to. But the Lincoln line about "ultimate extinction" is from his "House Divided" speech in 1858, and Lincoln did not argue then that the founders built the union in such a way that slavery was sure to be eliminated. In fact, Lincoln was warning that the U.S. was moving toward making slavery "lawful in all the States."

Hannah-Jones tweeted at Cotton: "Imagine thinking a non-divisive curriculum is one that tells Black children the buying and selling of their ancestors, the rape, torture, and forced labor of their ancestors for PROFIT, was just a 'necessary evil' for the creation of the 'noblest' country the world has ever seen." Cotton spokesman James Arnold refuted the idea that Cotton himself thinks slavery was a "necessary evil," telling TPM, "As his quote makes clear, that view was held by some founding fathers."