It can be argued that Sen. Tom Cotton ought to know better than to try and inject historical fact or context into public legislative statements these days. We haven't taught American history, in earnest, in schools for decades and subsequently a large segment of the population is historically illiterate.
Complicating things further, the partisan climate is such that even those educated enough to know better are quick to descend to demagoguery if they see hope of political gain.
Here are his remarks at issue, made in an interview with an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter:
"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," the senator started out.
"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," he said.
Critical condemnations were as disingenuous as they were swift, calling Cotton a slavery apologist and accusing him of convictions he clearly credited to the founders and, most significantly, the 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln had an immutable fidelity to the Declaration of Independence's principles, and was an amazing writer in his own right--a fateful irony in that the man responsible for saving the Union labored so reverently to validate the language that brilliant writer Thomas Jefferson used in establishing the Union.
Everybody is familiar, upon hearing, with Lincoln's most legendary phrasing, like the "better angels" from his first inaugural and "with malice toward none, with charity for all" from his second.
But he wrote and spoke repetitively and at length on the subject of slavery, going back years before his election as president, as a complicating and contradictory factor during the colonies' struggle for freedom and independence.
In an 1856 speech before the first Republican State Convention of Illinois, Lincoln used the plainest of language.
"We allow slavery to exist in the slave states, not because slavery is right or good," he said, "but from the necessities of the Union."
He took his audience back to the "early days of the Constitution" when slavery was "recognized, by South and North alike, as an evil." He recounted the abolition petitions presented to the very first Congress, then "to show the harmony which prevailed" listed the Continental Congress vote--without a single dissent--discontinuing the slave trade in 1774, the resolution against slave importation into the colonies in 1776 and the Fugitive Slave Law in 1793.
"It is a well-known fact that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lee, Henry, Mason, and Pendleton were qualified abolitionists," he declared, "and much more radical on that subject than we of the Whig and Democratic parties claim to be today."
A couple of years earlier, speaking in opposition to the expansion of slavery into territories being created from Louisiana Purchase lands (specifically the Kansas-Nebraska Act), Lincoln blamed the economic circumstances surrounding slavery for its stubborn existence.
"I have no prejudice against the Southern people," he said. "They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist among them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist among us, we should not instantly give it up."
Lincoln equated his objection to slavery with that of the fathers of the Republic, and chastised Democrats like Stephen Douglas for trying to convert it from a "necessary evil" to a "sacred right."
"The argument of 'Necessity' was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery; and so far, and so far only as it carried them, did they ever go," he said. "They found the institution existing among us, which they could not help; and they cast blame upon the British King for having permitted its introduction. ...
"At the framing and adoption of the Constitution, they forbore to so much as mention the word 'slave' or 'slavery' in the whole instrument. ... Thus the thing is hid away in the Constitution ... . They hedged and hemmed it in to the narrowest limits of necessity."
He concluded his historical summation: "Thus we see that the plain, unmistakable spirit of that age toward slavery was hostility to the principle, and toleration only by necessity."
In the famous 1858 debates with Douglas, Lincoln said, "The way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction," he said, "and the public mind rested in the belief that it was."
In an 1860 speech at New Haven, Conn., he spoke of the practical constraints the founders faced, because slavery was part of the colonial structure:
"To me it seems that if we were to form a government anew, in view of the actual presence of slavery we should find it necessary to frame just such a government as our fathers did; giving to the slaveholder the entire control where the system was established, while we possessed the power to restrain it from going outside those limits."
Tom Cotton is in good company. By today's perverse protest-history standards, Lincoln sounds a lot like a slavery apologist, too.
Dana D. Kelley is a freelance writer from Jonesboro.