The “Necessary Evil” of Slavery: Tom Cotton’s Nero Complex

Tom Cotton’s rehearsal of the founding father’s acceptance of Southern slavery reveals a persistent pathology in American attitudes towards race

According to Tom 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 scars of Peter a whipped man who escaped slavery, Louisiana 1863

Cotton’s repetition of the phrase “necessary evil” here isn’t merely citational; it rehearses a defense of the founding fathers’ acceptance of slavery in the name of the union of the thirteen colonies. Rhetorically, he further defends the “necessity” of the institution by evoking the larger national evolution that ultimately resulted in emancipation: note the crucial, justifying “but” in his remarks.

What is clear at both of these levels is the centrality of white subjectivity in Cotton’s moral universe: my country, my necessity, and my evolution trump the experience of actual slaves enchained, beaten, tortured, raped, and separated from their children and parents.

The term “necessary” gestures at an end that justifies the means. If I go to someone’s house, murder the inhabitants, raid the safe, and get rich, I could call those actions a “necessary evil” toward securing my family’s wealth. If my descendants, heirs, or beneficiaries repeat my claim that my actions were “necessary,” aren’t these successors morally justifying what they have gained from my “evil” actions?

Cotton’s reference to the “necessity” of slavery was as unnecessary as it was telling. His statement, repeated now by countless defenders across our country, reveals precisely what the Jewish thinker Albert Memmi called the “Nero complex” operative in the psyche of colonialism’s heirs: “[The heir to plunder and exploitation] is disfigured into an oppressor, a partial, unpatriotic and treacherous being, worrying only about his privileges and their defense.”

The founding fathers did what was necessary for the people that matter to Mr. Cotton. The enslaved human beings that directly or indirectly enriched the white men constituting the nation’s citizenry are, for this Southern senator, instruments to “understanding” what must remain, first and foremost, their country and his. Re-centering our founding narrative on figures like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and slaves like the little known Peter of the above image threatens Mr. Cotton’s sense of primacy and uneasy legitimacy. No wonder he opposes the 1619 project.

Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.

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