WASHINGTON — A day after the publication of his comments on slavery sparked a firestorm of criticism, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas denied Monday he was insensitive, saying he had been recounting the views of the Founding Fathers — not his own — that slavery was a “necessary evil” toward creating the Union.
Appearing on FOX News Monday morning, the Little Rock Republican also challenged the accuracy of statements that had been attributed to him concerning slavery.
Cotton’s comments about human bondage, which first appeared in Sunday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, were quoted at length in that day’s paper.
The senator is not challenging the accuracy of the original story, his spokesman said Monday afternoon.
In the article, which focused on Cotton’s efforts to block a new school curriculum centered on slavery and its consequences, the senator criticized the way it depicted the nation, but said he didn’t question the topic’s importance.
"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 [President Abraham] Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
After the article’s publication, the junior senators’ statements on slavery left him trending on Twitter, with more than 100,000 tweets.
Many were critical.
During an interview with Cotton Monday on “Fox and Friends,” co-host Brian Kilmeade read the paragraph about the “necessary evil” of slavery, adding, “Some say that was insensitive.”
“That is fake news, Brian. That is not what I said,” Cotton replied. “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.”
“Senator Cotton’s comments were directed at the 1619 Project’s smears that claimed his statement was insensitive — not the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s reporting,” his spokesman, James Arnold, said in a written statement. “Describing the Founders’ views is not endorsing or justifying slavery, and once again, the 1619 Project can’t get facts right.”
Cotton, who has been mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate, has been sharply critical of the 1619 Project, a New York Times-backed reinterpretation of American history.
Launched on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slaves in the Virginia colony, the Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
Spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, it includes essays, poems, photographs and short fiction by a variety of contributors.
A school curriculum based on the Project has been released and is being used in all 50 states, according to the Times and its educational partner, The Pulitzer Center.
Cotton last week introduced legislation to prevent federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project curriculum.
In a written statement Monday afternoon, Cotton clarified and expanded on his previous remarks.
"Slavery is an evil institution, in all its forms, in all places, whether in America’s past or around the world today. Of course, slavery itself is never ‘necessary.’ Most of the founders agreed with that. What was necessary in their view was a compromise at the Constitutional Convention for the sake of the Union and the Constitution, which they believed put slavery on the path to ultimate extinction, as Lincoln often said. Because without the Union and the Constitution, there would’ve been no America," Cotton said.
"And without America, without a nation, as Lincoln put it, ‘conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ who would’ve freed the slaves in the nineteenth century? Who would’ve saved the world from fascism and communism in the twentieth century? No one would have, that’s who. That’s the history we need to teach our children, the history of a great nation that has always strived, imperfectly but passionately, to live up to our founding creed and to defend human freedom at home and abroad. America is a noble nation, and we should teach our kids to be proud of it," he said.
Read Tuesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details. This story has been updated.