Sen. Tom Cotton under fire for comments on slavery

Cotton cited the Founding Fathers as calling slavery a "necessary evil," but it's unclear exactly what he was referring to.
Sen. Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arrives in the Capitol for a vote on July 23, 2020.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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By Rebecca Shabad

WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is coming under fire for recent comments he made about U.S. history in which he claimed that the Founding Fathers considered slavery a "necessary evil."

Cotton made the comments Friday in an interview with The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which published them Sunday in an article about his efforts to target an initiative by The New York Times. The initiative, the 1619 project curriculum, proposes that schools reframe U.S. history by marking the nation’s founding as 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Cotton, however, told the Democrat-Gazette that he’s proposing legislation that would withhold federal funding to schools that embrace the 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. 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 said in the interview.

It's unclear exactly who or what Cotton was citing in calling slavery a necessary evil, and the comment immediately drew criticism.

"Slavery was not a necessary evil. It was a crime against humanity — anchored in kidnap, rape, torture, lynching as the systemic oppression and enslavement of people of African descent century after century after century, and we’re still living with its legacy today," Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said on the House floor Monday.

Jeffries, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, also tweeted: "It was a Crime Against Humanity. History. Lesson. Over."

Another member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., tweeted Sunday that Cotton should either correct his statement and apologize or resign from Congress.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., responded to his GOP colleague on Monday in a tweet.

"'Necessary evil' suggests slavery was worth it. Millions of white people achieved prosperity, so it's ok millions of Black people were bought, sold, raped, whipped? Let me be clear, slavery was not necessary in any context—& absolute evil in every context,” he said.

Cotton on Sunday rejected the characterization of his comments, however, and called the reports about the interview "fake news."

"This is the definition of fake news," he tweeted. "I said that *the Founders viewed slavery as a necessary evil* and described how they put the evil institution on the path to extinction, a point frequently made by Lincoln."

But Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern University, took issue with Cotton's characterization.

"There was certainly a diversity of views about the issue of slavery, about the future of slavery, among the Founding Fathers, but to say they all thought it was a necessary evil is not true," she said Monday in an interview with NBC News.

She said it was "also not true" that the Constitution "put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction," as Cotton claimed.

"There was nothing in the Constitution that would bring slavery to an end," she said. "It took the Civil War to end that.”

Corky Siemaszko contributed.