History has always been one of the biggest sources of embarrassment for the United States. The liberated colonists left European history behind when they declared independence. Americans ever since have demonstrated an obsessive focus on the present and the future, believing the past is irrelevant. American culture treats history as a largely forgettable litany of loosely related events, the best of which serve to prove that the entire “course of human events” (Thomas Jefferson) has served a divinely ordained purpose: to elevate to dominance “the greatest country in the history of the world” (Senator Rick Scott), consolidating its power and affirming its global leadership.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln resorted to some rhetorical trickery to get his audience in Gettysburg to think about the history of the nation’s founding. He caught the public’s attention by proposing an exercise in mental calculation, testing their skills at math while invoking historical facts. Challenged to make sense of the circumlocution “four score and seven years ago,” his listeners had to multiply 20 (one score) by four and add seven to arrive at the sum of 87, and then count backward to arrive at 1776, the year of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
The success of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address now stands as just one more isolated fact in the timeline of history. It should be remembered not only as a moment of inspired political thought and patriotic expression, but also for its clever rhetorical ploy to focus the audience’s attention on history.
Today’s creative teachers might do well to follow Lincoln’s example. With the right rhetoric they could encourage their students to think things out instead of simply subjecting them to boring lectures that present history as a sequence of anecdotes largely devoid of context and meaning. Of course, today’s teachers are no longer in a position to teach due to the coronavirus. And even if they could, they would be expected to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) instead of history.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade Led to the Birth of Racism
This year’s lockdown caused by COVID-19 has given Americans more time to think. The ongoing protests against police brutality and racial inequality have forced a renewed discussion about the nation’s founding and its historical logic. In 2019, The New York Times promoted a project aimed at understanding the crucial role slavery played in building the colonial economy and structuring the nation that emerged from it in the late 18th century. Called The 1619 Project, it focused on the annoying fact that the first permanent settlements in Virginia, a year before the arrival of the Pilgrims in New England, inaugurated the practice of importing African slaves.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas was sufficiently annoyed to propose a law that would ban the results of the project from being taught in schools. He explained: “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.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
1. Required by the logic of events to attain a certain goal.
2. When applied to the history of the United States, ordained by Providence in its plan to elevate American capitalism to the status of paragon of both political and economic organization.
Realizing that the idea of a “necessary evil” sounded like an excuse for racism, Cotton “claimed he was citing the views of America’s founding fathers, rather than his own.” Some might interpret that as aggravating the offense, since it calls into question the judgment of the founders, generally considered by Republicans to be secular saints called upon by the divinity to establish the most perfect nation on earth. If the founders thought slavery was both evil and necessary, this either brands them as hypocrites or flawed political thinkers.
The historians who have commented on Cotton’s assertion that slavery was a necessary evil have pointed out that there is no instance of any of the founders taking and defending this position. Pressed to reveal his own views, Cotton distanced himself from the cynical founders: “Of course slavery is an evil institution in all its forms, at all times in America’s past, or around the world today.”
When pressed further by Brian Kilmeade on Fox News, Cotton offered this explanation: “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.” There is of course no evidence that “many founders” believed that the mission embodied in the Constitution was to phase out slavery. Furthermore, Lincoln never said “exactly” any such thing.
Cotton believes history should not be thought of in terms of acts and deeds or the nature of institutions and their workings, but simply remembered for its stated ideals. Here is how he frames it: “But the fundamental moral principle of America is right there in the Declaration [of Independence.] ‘All men are created equal.’ And the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle. That’s a history we ought to be proud of.”
Does he really think that learning about the reality of slavery and its role in building the nation’s economy will prevent students from being proud of their country? Cotton seems to believe that studying the documented facts about the nation’s past rather than simply admiring the edifying text of a slaveholder who claimed to believe in equality is a form of perverse revisionism.
The question being asked today by vast swaths of the US population — and not only those protesting in the streets — concerns precisely the point Cotton mentions: the “difficult struggle to live up to that principle.” He seems to believe that the struggle ended long ago and merits no further consideration. Mission accomplished. But if he were sincere, he would highlight the fact that if we want to live up to the principle, we should examine the facts rather than simply parrot the principle.
Cotton was specific in his complaint about The 1619 Project. He called it “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.” Though it would be difficult to find any logical structure to this assertion, Cotton implies that denying “the noble principles of freedom and equality” is what makes the project “racially divisive.”
Acknowledging the fact that the principles of freedom and equality he vaunts cannot apply to slavery does not amount to denying the principles. On the contrary, it asserts their importance by signaling the historical contradictions that not only should have been taken into account in 1789 (when the Constitution was ratified), but also in 1865 (at the end of the Civil War), as well as in 1964 (when the Civil Rights Act was passed) and in 2020, when the whole question has emerged again after the brutal death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The real problem lies in the idea of a “necessary evil.” How does Cotton justify the concept? One might argue that Officer Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd was the evil that was necessary to provoke today’s protests. And the protests may have the effect of changing things to make the nation less racist than it was before. But an evil act by an individual cannot be compared with an institution, an economy and a way of life, which is what slavery was.
To call something necessary means it is required for some purpose. What is that purpose? Senator Cotton seems to suggest it was the abolition of slavery. And in purely logical terms, he’s right. Slavery couldn’t be abolished if it didn’t exist. Long live the great institutions of the past, especially the ones that foresaw their own abolition.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.