The Delusion and Ignorance of Tom Cotton

Yep, he used the term “necessary evil” to refer to American slavery.

Steve Jones
Jul 28, 2020 · 4 min read
Tom Cotton, Republican senator from Arkansas. (Michael Vadon, Flickr)

No one in 2020 should say the words “necessary evil” and “slavery” in the same sentence.

And yet there it was.

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 a newspaper interview.

It doesn’t matter what Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) was trying to say, he sounded like an apologist for slavery.

And why wouldn’t he. He used the same words — “necessary evil” — pro-slavers used to describe slavery before the Civil War.

Here’s some context.

Cotton is trying to deny federal funding to schools in which faculty use the New York Times1619 Project as a way to teach the story of American slavery.

Check out the 1619 Project. It’s engaging, graphically appealing, and thought provoking. It forces readers to consider American slavery in new ways.

And what’s wrong with that?

Cotton called the 1619 Project, “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded. Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

In using the term “necessary evil” and decrying the 1619 Project, Cotton is practicing two of the foundational elements of slavery — ignorance and delusion.

Slave owners wanted to keep their slaves illiterate. If they could not read, they were less likely to get ideas of freedom.

If people today remain ignorant about American slavery and its roots in White supremacy, racism, capitalism, and greed, they will be less likely to denigrate today’s Republican Party. The GOP, of course, increasingly seems like the inheritor of those old tenets that upheld slavery and Jim Crowism.

The 1619 Project is a digital work of history. It is meant to engage readers who might not pick up a book on the subject. It is meant to pique their interest and get them to question what they already knew — or thought they knew — about American slavery.

There is no one, true history. It is alive, open to interpretations. Some of those interpretations become discounted, others become part of the standard telling.

But no one can arrive at a good approximation of the past without focused study and a consideration of new ideas and opinions.

Only when historians ask honest questions of primary sources, pay attention to the times in which earlier histories were written, and question the interpretations of earlier writers do we begin to get a full picture of our histories.

Willful ignorance won’t get you there.

Antebellum slave holders and slavery supporters thrived on delusion — of themselves and others.

Slavery was not an economically sound labor system. Instead of returning profits into labor-saving devices, slavery returned profits into labor. Some historians believe slavery was on its way out in the South until the cotton gin made cotton profitable after 1796.

After that, labor-intensive cotton plantations retrenched slavery.

Until about 1830, southerners often apologized for slavery, terming it a “necessary evil.” Slave owners were almost apologetic. They weren’t responsible for slavery, they claimed. English colonists had started it 200 years earlier. They were stuck with it.

They linked that delusion with the racist idea that Blacks were incapable of learning and needed paternal care. Southern slave holders were willing to provide that paternalism. Slavery, which they euphemistically called their “peculiar institution,” was a “necessary evil.”

That changed in the 1830s when slave owners forcefully responded to abolitionism. They argued that slavery, in fact, had created and supported a textile market that had made many northerners rich. They argued that northerners did not want millions of Blacks living among them, and southern slavery offered a social alternative. In 1837, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun cemented the argument when he said slavery was “a good — a positive good.”

The delusion continued after the South lost the Civil War and slavery was abolished. In the late 19th Century, Southerners began to champion the “Lost Cause,” to lament that the war had never been about slavery at all, but about states rights. That great war heroes had simply been trying to extend the goals of the American Revolution.

The “Lost Cause” era is when most of America’s questionable southern Civil War monuments were erected. It’s also the era of Jim Crow, when former slave-owners, desperate for cheap labor, tied former slaves to their plantations, through sharecropping, crop-lien systems, and the like. Whites also denied Blacks social and political power with municipal “black codes.”

Jim Crowism continued the delusion that Whites were superior and Blacks deserved no better treatment.

Of course, Tom Cotton backpedaled on his remarks when he realized he was in trouble. But honestly, to use the term “necessary evil” while dissing a valid avenue of studying American slavery is, well, ignorant.

It ranks him among those southerners who, through ignorance and delusion, muddled the history of slavery to make it seem less brutal and offensive than it actually was.

We all view the world through a unique lens.

By Politically Speaking

This is The Insider, an inside-the-scenes newsletter from Politically Speaking. To address writers, contribution, stats, and other inside news from P.S. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Steve Jones

Written by

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Steve Jones

Written by

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

Politically Speaking

We all view the world through a unique lens. Politics is in literally everything from our churches to our social organizations to news events and crime to our governments. This is the place to share your view, regardless of your political leanings: all are welcome.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store