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Nikole Hannah-Jones Misreads American Political Figure, Again

Tom Cotton was clumsy, out of context, but not entirely wrong about the 1619 Project. His move to ban it is on shakier ground.

UNITED STATES - MAY 19: Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., is seen in the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Supporters of the New York Times’ 1619 Project are up in arms over remarks made by Tom Cotton in a recent interview, in which the Senator—somewhat clumsily—said that “[slavery] was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”

The wording is astounding in that Cotton briefly seemed to be making the same argument for which the 1619 Project had become so famous, bar the adjective “necessary”—namely that the republic was built on the principles of slavery. Cotton more likely believes no such thing and made the remark in the context of defending his “Saving American History Act of 2020,” a bill that would cut federal funding to school districts that use educational materials supplied by the 1619 Project.

The outraged response was not long in the making. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead author and curator of the 1619 Project, predictably weighed in:

Ian Millhiser, Senior Correspondent for Vox, put the matter less ambiguously and wrongly paraphrased Cotton as saying that “enslaving Black people was a ‘necessary evil.’”

As is always the case in the scandal du jour, context clarifies. Here’s Cotton:

“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.”

The wording is no less clumsy in its full context, but the obvious intent becomes clearer: It wasn’t the enslavement of black Americans that was “necessary,” but the fact that no compromise with the slaveholding states could have been struck during the Constitutional Convention had the few but vocal anti-slavery forces of the North pushed for immediate abolition. Nonetheless, the seeds of slavery’s future death were laid early on, assuring its “ultimate extinction” down the road.

For those interested to read up on the complicated compromise that resulted from these initial tensions, Sean Wilentz’s recent book No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding is highly recommended. As Wilentz reveals, the framers successfully avoided the recognition of “property in man” in the Constitution, opting instead to speak of “[persons] held to Service or Labour” in Article IV, Section 2. This formulation a) recognized the personhood of the affected individuals and b) was broad enough to include indentured servants or apprentices too, anyone who was viewed to “owe” a master a certain amount of labor time.

In the eyes of the slave South, however, this section—and others dealing with questions of congressional apportionment (Article 1, Section 2) and the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” (Article 1, Section 9)—read like a constitutional recognition of slavery; to many northerners, it didn’t. In their view, it barred the enshrinement of slavery within the Constitution and treated it instead as a “necessary” concession to the planter class. Chattel slavery would henceforth only exist in the laws of a handful of American states “now existing,” not on the federal level.

The future course of history revealed that the compromise was untenable and that the young republic frequently threatened to come apart at the seams over the continued existence and westward spread of slavery. In 1861, it did, and by 1865, bought with the blood of hundreds of thousands of young men, slavery was abolished without compensation to the slaveholders—the single biggest act of expropriation of private property in history. In the context of the anti-slavery struggle, many abolitionists based their ideas on the Constitution, seeing in it, in the famous words of Frederick Douglass, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT” that put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.

With the underlying conflict of this brief and mindless Twitter controversy settled (you’re welcome), we might turn to other aspects of this hubbub which are much more instructive:

Senator Cotton is wrong to seek to ban the 1619 Project from getting taught, at least if it’s part of a healthy and open debate that addresses its perspectives and shortcomings in the classroom. Its many faults have been prominently and effectively exposed, most notably by the journalistic arm of the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party; but at this point, it’s too ingrained in our national discourse so as not to introduce students to its arguments. Don’t try to cancel the cancelers of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, confront them by pointing out, for example, that 1619’s central claim that it was the 1772 Somerset ruling that gave the spark to the Revolution is belied by the fact that many of the Revolution’s key events long predated it—make that shoddy work a teachable moment, in short.

Cotton likely has his eyes on the presidency in 2024, so the bill probably isn’t meant to be passed anyway but merely to rack up his culture war bonafides for the primaries. You’ve succeeded at that, Senator. What now? (You get points though for your continued poking at the frail New York Times.)

The 1619’ers, in turn, aren’t dumb for pushing their ideology on the nation’s schools. As recent events have taught us, you can’t start early enough with the march through the institutions. Obscure academic ideas will inevitably spill over into the mainstream if you start young. Corporate America, meanwhile, was a thankful taker, since its fawning over 1619 and Black Lives Matter gave it cover to continue with its ruthless exploitation of cheap slave labor around the world while subjecting American workers to the yoke of endless diversity trainings and their inflexible speech codes.

This alliance is no accident: The American Revolution gave birth to the world’s most radical experiment in democratic republicanism and empowered commoners to free themselves from monarchic reign and experiment in self-government. The managerial strata of today from whose midst the 1619 Project sprang has no such love for democracy and neither does Nike or Apple.

History will turn on the question whether the majority of Americans have enough love for democracy left themselves to assure its survival. The classroom might be the perfect space to debate whether it’s worth it. Whose outlook on the American project do you prefer and why: that of the fashionable New York Times icon Nikole Hannah-Jones or the constitutionalist Frederick Douglass? Discuss in innumerably more words than a Tweet allows.

Gregor Baszak is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a writer. His articles have appeared in The American Conservative, Los Angeles Review of Books, Platypus Review, Public Books, Spectator USA, Spiked, and elsewhere. Follow Gregor on Twitter at @gregorbas1. 

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