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WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., came under fire over the weekend for comments he made in an interview published Sunday, in which he said that the country’s Founding Fathers believed enslaving Black people was a “necessary evil.”
He made the claim in a Friday interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette while discussing his proposed legislation that would prohibit federal funding for schools from going toward teaching The New York Times’ 1619 Project as part of their curriculum.
“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 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.”
The Arkansas Republican was criticized online by those who viewed his remarks as an endorsement of the idea that slavery was a “necessary evil.” Cotton later pushed back by saying he was only stating what the founders believed, not what he believes.
In his interview, Cotton claimed that the 1619 Project, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of slavery’s beginning in America, framed the U.S. as an “irredeemably corrupt, rotten and racist country” and that it would teach students to “hate America.”
The 1619 Project was published in August of 2019 and outlined the role and legacy of slavery from the first date enslaved Africans stepped foot in what would later be established as the United States of America through its lingering effects in the present day.
Conservatives have said the project unfairly posits that the country’s very foundation was racist. But Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the 1619 Project and won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary, said on Twitter, “The fight here is about who gets to control the national narrative, and therefore, the nation’s shared memory of itself.”
Hannah-Jones said on Twitter Sunday that, “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 @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.”
Cotton replied that describing the founders’ views is “not endorsing or justifying slavery.”
Hannah-Jones argued, as did many other critics, that the word “as” in Cotton’s statement “denotes agreement.”
“Were the Founders right or wrong, @TomCottonAR, when they called slavery a ‘necessary evil upon which the Union was built’? Because either you agree with their assessment of slavery as necessary or you admit they were lying and it was just an evil and dishonorable choice. Which?” Hannah-Jones said.
The Pulitzer Center put forth a collection of resources to help bring the 1619 Project’s findings into school classrooms, in an aim to “reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.”
According to Hannah-Jones, “the curriculum is supplementary and cannot and was never intended to supplant US history curriculum (which is pretty terrible but none of these folks seem concerned about that.) Teachers have used it in English, social studies, art, foods classes.”
Cotton said, “The New York Times should not be teaching American history to our kids.”
Cotton has recently railed against The New York Times after its editorial page director James Bennet resigned in June over an op-ed the outlet published written by the Arkansas senator. A review after its publication by the Times found the op-ed “fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”
The op-ed, titled, “Send in the Troops,” argued that President Donald Trump should invoke the Insurrection Act to quell demonstrations against racism and police brutality that had in some cases become violent across the country. The 1807 act would allow the president to use active-duty forces when governors request assistance to put down an insurrection.
In a statement, Times spokesperson Jordan Cohen told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the resource put forth by the outlet and the Pulitzer Center was meant to address concerns from teachers that the history of slavery is not adequately taught.
“We believe it is important for American students to understand the truth about their country’s history. To paraphrase the historian Alfred F. Young, we should not be so protective of the achievements of equality that we are unwilling to come to grips with inequality,” Cohen said.
Cotton was asked about his comments on Monday morning’s Fox & Friends. Host Brian Kilmeade read Cotton’s quote about the Founding Fathers as published by the Arkansas paper directly, adding, “Some say that was insensitive.”
“That is fake news, Brian, that is not what I said,” Cotton responded without clarifying what part he believes was a misquote. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette later published the audio recording of Cotton’s interview, which included the quote.
“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,” Cotton continued.
“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 told Fox & Friends.
“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.”
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