Here is what he told the paper: “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. 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.”
Cotton’s plainspoken demonstration of racist rationalizing to the Arkansas paper began after he tried to use his position as a US Senator to cancel and smear the groundbreaking 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that forced readers to see this nation’s founding anew, through the eyes of the enslaved and those who came after them — instead of through the eyes of the enslavers, as most traditional histories of America have done. Cotton wants to deny federal funding to schools who use the 1619 Project as a teaching tool. Several schools have adopted it; others plan to. I’ve used it in my journalism classes at Davidson College and will again this fall.
But that he attacked the 1619 Project in particular is telling. The project is an unapologetic series of essays and other works that has upended America’s foundational story like little else. Its authors, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, didn’t treat the founders as near god-like wise men. Instead, they told the truth about what it means for a nation to have been built on a contradiction: that all men are created equal but that Black people needed to be in chains and shackles. They explained why Black people decided to love a country that hated it and why it took Black people to make real the words the founders wrote but didn’t live up to.
The project, released in 2019, explored historical connections between capitalism and slavery and showed why racism — slavery’s most obvious legacy in this country — is one of the primary reasons we don’t have a universal health care system like most of the developed world. The project raised the kinds of questions — and presciently provided historical references and citations — students need to grapple with during a time such as this.
They want the genie put back in the bottle because if it isn’t, it will make their jobs more difficult. It won’t be as easy to sidestep the nation’s current efforts to confront racism.
Recall, again, what Cotton told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
“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.”
I’m not sure if we should call that a lie or just delusional.
He went on: “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. 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.”
Such logic can’t withstand serious scrutiny. That’s why Cotton would rather hold fast to myths. They are easy. Grappling with this country’s racial history is hard.