Is Senator Tom Cotton trying to justify slavery by attempting to block federal funding for the 1619 project?


Fact Box

  • The 1619 Project” from The New York Times explores how slavery has shaped every aspect of American culture. This May, “The 1619 Project” won a Pulitzer Prize.
  • At the end of the year, the Times published an extraordinary letter from renowned historians McPherson, Oakes, and Wood, as well as Sean Wilentz of Princeton and Victoria Bynum of Texas State University, demanding “prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in the 1619 Project.”
  • On Sunday, Sen. Tom Cotton faced criticism after he claimed that the Founding Fathers viewed slavery as a 'necessary evil' as part of the country's founding while discussing his bill that would reduce federal funding for any school that includes The New York Times's “1619 Project” in its curriculum.
  • Sen. Cotton’s proposed legislation, Saving American History Act of 2020, “would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts.”
  • Sen. Cotton responded with, “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.”

Bill (No)

Sen. Tom Cotton is not trying to justify slavery by blocking funding for schools that incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculums. Instead, Sen. Cotton is doing the following:

  1. Advocating the correct reading of slavery's history in our country's founding, carefully studied within the context of the era in which it occurred, including its eventual abolition.
  2. Pointing out the faulty premise of the 1619 Project (i.e., that our country was NOT founded in 1619, but rather in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was signed).
  3. Drawing attention to and discouraging a proposed American history curriculum based on the distorted and biased view of the New York Times 1619 Project that has drawn criticism from many historians across the aisle.

Sen. Cotton's 'Saving American History Act of 2020' seeks to preserve some key truths about the founding of our nation, namely: that the principles espoused in the Declaration of Independence of justice, freedom, independence, and self-determination formed the cornerstones upon which we built our government. While slavery did not end upon our nation's founding, its demise was foretold by the bedrock values and rights that the founding fathers enacted.

The 1619 Project curriculum seeks to reframe the narrative of the story of our country from striving to live up to the lofty values of our founding documents through centuries of political and racial struggles juxtaposed with momentous advancements in civilization and technology. By making slavery the focus of the American History curriculum, the 1619 Project distorts the truth and presents a divisive and bleak picture of the birth of our nation, which is why it's many leading historians have widely criticized it.

Kevin (Yes)

Though the 1619 Project has itself been criticized for historically inaccurate statements, this should have no bearing on the question at hand, as this is a separate issue from the underlying attitude exposed by previous and current statements made by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

When discussing his proposed bill to block the project's federal funding with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Senator Cotton chose to make a statement about slavery being a 'necessary evil,' apart from any comments made on the project's accuracy. The senator has attempted to defend himself, claiming he was 'Describing the views of the Founders' and by casting aspersions on the 1619 Project. However, as pointed out by former Hillary Clinton advisor Zac Petkanas, the context in which the statement appears does seem to imply that he was personally justifying the use of slavery, since he used the phrasing 'As the Founding Fathers said,' and gave no further clarification. Defenders of the senator have pointed to another part of his statement to add context, but this defense falls flat since, in their own words, it still paints slavery as a 'necessary evil.'

If this were a single incident, perhaps this particular phrasing could be viewed as merely a slip, but this is not the first time that Senator Cotton has come under fire for racism. Cotton has a fairly long history of troubling statements and actions. Of particular relevance to this discussion are statements published in a June 2020 article by Politico, in which the senator denied the existence of systemic racism in law enforcement.

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