Paul Horton teaches history at the University of Chicago Lab school. He has studied the history of the South, among other topics.

The Eighteenth Brumaire of High Cotton

In the South, everything is about geography and history.

Arkansas’s current junior senator, Tom Cotton, routinely ignores both subjects in his embrace of Tea Party agitprop, Grover Norquist-like tantrums about strangling the public sector, and in his willingness to be the most fawning and most ambitious toady of the Waltons, the Kochs, and the Trumps.

Cotton hails from Dardenelles, Arkansas, a town built on the loam and alluvial silt deposited by creeks flowing from the Ozarks to the immediate north and from the Ouachitas to the immediate south into the Arkansas river west of Little Rock.

Although most of the cotton grown in Arkansas was and is grown in the Mississippi River basin in the east, the soils around Dardenelles supported three planters (slave owners who owned 20 or more slaves) before the Civil War. Mr. Cotton’s ancestors owned at least five slaves and several Cotton Gins in and around Dardenelles. It is a puzzlement to many in Arkansas that Cotton portrays his father as a cattleman, whitewashing his family’s history with two broad strokes: cattle and cotton do not go together that well outside of Texas, not in the nineteenth century anyway, and Cotton’s parents were both public servants of the state of Arkansas. His mother was a middle school teacher and principal and his father worked as a district supervisor of the Arkansas Health Department.

The Cotton family did own a local hunting lodge which allowed them to mingle with several generations of wealthy patrons from all over the South. So, although the Cottons were relatively modest in the last generation, they walked in “high cotton” because they accumulated a great deal of social capital as they rubbed elbows with the rich and famous.

Tom Cotton rode this “high cotton” at the crest of the Tea Party wave right into congress in 2012 and into a senate seat in 2015. He has made a name for himself in the last two years by standing up to those who support the Black Lives Matter protests and cancel culture that seeks to, in his view, silence patriotism and reason with a mindless adherence to “neo-Marxism.”

In a famous recent editorial in the New York Times, he declared that Black Lives Matter protesters demonstrating against police brutality and the murder of George Floyd should be given “no quarter.” The editorial cost the editorial page editor his job, but firmly established Cotton as Trump’s and Stephen Miller’s most loyal ally.

More recently Cotton has written legislation that would defund the “1619 Project,” a series of popular podcasts and teaching materials that tell the history of slavery in the United States. Although the “1619 Project” has been criticized for mistakes and misrepresentations by some prominent American Historians, almost all of the content of the Project is fundamentally accurate. What apparently angers conservatives is how it places slavery at the center of the American story and at the foundation of American capitalism. The Project makes use of a new wave of scholarship on American slavery that emphasizes the increasing economic efficiencies achieved by the slave regime in the South in sharp contrast to the work of an earlier generation of historians who followed the scholarship of Eugene Genovese, a Marxist, who argued that slavery was a pre-capitalist or feudal mode of production.

Apparently echoing the sentiments of many great libertarian thinkers (Von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman) who looked the other way when free enterprise thrived on coerced labor regimes and torture to build great efficiencies of scale that produce wealth, Cotton claimed that slavery was a “necessary evil.” The message from Cotton is that building American wealth was a necessary engine of American prosperity, a pronouncement that comes close to the slaveholder’s defense that the peculiar institution was a part of God’s divine plan.

In short, Cotton’s engagement in the culture wars of 2020 fit right into Stephen Miller’s and Steve Bannon’s playbook. Like the Bourbon restoration of France following the French Revolution, planters in the American South replaced Southern populist troublemakers with one party rule and white supremacy.

Cotton is the leader of the contemporary Bourbon counterrevolutionaries. The key to understanding the postbellum Southern Bourbons is that they played dirty and made little pretense of identifying with the “small fry.” Under the rule of the Bourbons in the South, convict labor camps exploded in size and were virtually unregulated. Elections were governed by racial intimidation and electoral fraud. Those who protested too loudly and persistently were permanently silenced by “white caps” or the Klan. Voting irregularities always supported white power, even in counties with black majorities. And finally, blacks and whites who voted together as populists were disfranchised.

Most importantly, the Bourbons whitewashed Southern History to legitimate their rule. Scott’s Waverly novels found their way onto the bookshelves in upstanding white middle class households. Lost Cause history glorifying the Antebellum South was written and Confederate monuments were built as thousands of black Americans were lynched or worked to death at such infamous places as Parchman Farm, Mississippi, or Alabama’s Kilby prison.

For all of his attention to the “1619 Project,” one would think that Cotton might know something about history as a Southerner. But counterrevolutionaries whitewash the past to serve the forces of reaction. The land that the Cottons claimed in Dardenelles became available only after the Native Americans who lived there were forced west following Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act. During the Civil War Northwest Arkansas was a hotbed for Unionism. The 1880s and 1890s produced the most progressive and vibrant biracial Populist feeder organization The Agricultural Wheel was founded and spread throughout the upper South before merging with the Knight of Labor into the Populist party. Rather than embracing what might be the most inspirational democratic legacy of nineteenth century that historically thrived in what is now his state, Cotton made a point of emphasizing the founder’s suspicions of democracy in his senior thesis at Harvard.
When Cotton called for “no quarter” for Black Lives Matter protests he expressed the same set of attitudes that the planter class and the later the Klan expressed during the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. “No quarter” was given by Confederate troops was the official policy of the Confederacy. In Arkansas, dozens of surrendered Black Union soldiers were given “no quarter” at Poison Spring, a site in senator Cotton’s former congressional district. In Arkansas after WWI black farmers were hung summarily in Elaine for standing up for their economic rights. Things were so bad in the Arkansas Delta during the Jim Crow era that Penn. State historian Nan Woodruff has written a book about the area that is called American Congo.

Cotton apparently knows so little about Arkansas history that one is left to wonder how he got into Harvard. For all of his belly aching about the evils of affirmative action, we are left to wonder whether Harvard admitted him because he is from Arkansas and it needed to make a state by state quota.

But this cannot be true: affirmative action was never white and no one is admitted to competitive educational institutions because they are recommended by very wealthy and powerful white people.