The Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton has called the enslavement of millions of African people “the necessary evil upon which the union was built”.
Cotton, widely seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2024, made the comment in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published on Sunday.
He was speaking in support of legislation he introduced on Thursday that aims to prohibit use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project, an initiative from the New York Times that reframes US history around August 1619 and the arrival of slave ships on American shores for the first time.
Cotton’s Saving American History Act of 2020 and “would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts”, according to a statement from the senator’s office.
“The entire premise of the New York Times’ factually, historically flawed 1619 Project … is that America is at root, a systemically racist country to the core and irredeemable,” Cotton told the Democrat-Gazette.
“I reject that root and branch. America is a great and noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal. We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it.”
He added: “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 [Abraham] Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay to the 1619 Project, said on Friday that Cotton’s bill “speaks to the power of journalism more than anything I’ve ever done in my career”.
On Sunday, she tweeted: “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 Tom Cotton says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.
“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.
“So, was slavery foundational to the Union on which it was built, or nah? You heard it from Tom Cotton himself.”
Cotton responded: “More lies from the debunked 1619 Project. 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. No surprise that the 1619 Project can’t get facts right.”
In June, the Times was forced to issue a mea culpa after publishing an op-ed written by Cotton and entitled “Send in the troops”. The article, which drew widespread criticism, advocated for the deployment of the military to protests against police brutality toward black Americans.
Times publisher AG Sulzberger initially defended the decision, saying the paper was committed to representing “views from across the spectrum”.
But the Times subsequently issued a statement saying the op-ed fell short of its editorial standards, leading to the resignation of editorial page director James Bennet.