Republicans Aiming to Ban Critical Race Theory Incorrectly Cite U.S. History in Bill

Republicans aiming to ban Critical Race Theory in Virginia's K-12 public schools incorrectly cited American history in their latest bill, asserting that President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass engaged in a debate that never happened.

On Tuesday, freshman state Representative Wren Williams introduced House Bill 781 to keep "divisive concepts" out of school curriculum, including teachings that the country is "fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist."

The bill also proposed teaching students about key documents in U.S. history, such as "the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass."

But the bill mixed up Frederick Douglass with another Douglas—Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, who defeated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate race.

The seven debates that took place between Lincoln, the Republican candidate in Illinois, and Douglas, the incumbent senator, became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or the Great Debates of 1858.

During the time of the debates, Frederick Douglass was far from Illinois, living in Rochester, New York where he was working with another abolitionist by the name of John Brown.

Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland and later escaped to free Massachusetts, where he became a national leader in the abolitionist movement.

The debates between the two men in Illinois, which focused on slavery, were widely covered nationally and generated immense publicity for both candidates who were sharing their campaigns with all Americans.

While Douglas beat Lincoln for Senate, Lincoln defeated Douglas for the presidency two years later.

Frederick Douglass did meet with the president five years later to advocate for equal pay and protection for Black soldiers.

Douglass was invited back to the White House by Lincoln three more times.

On Friday morning, Williams dropped the bill to correct the error.

The Division of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan state agency that provides drafting services to state lawmakers, took the blame for the mistake.

Critical Race Theory Abraham Lincoln Frederick Douglass
A Virginia bill proposed this week mixed up Senator Steven Douglas and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This illustration shows Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln speaking on stage during a debate with Steven Douglas and other opponents at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, on October 7, 1858. Getty

"House Bill 781, introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates by Delegate Wren Williams in the 2022 Regular Session of the General Assembly of Virginia, contains a historical error inserted during the drafting process by the Division of Legislative Services," the agency said in a Friday statement.

"The erroneous citation of Frederick Douglass, in relation to the Lincoln-Douglas debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, was inserted at the drafting level, following receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams," it added.

But by the time the bill was withdrawn, many experts had already flocked to social media to criticize the error.

"Unbelievable," historian Kevin Kruse tweeted. "Hey, here's a wild idea. Maybe leave this stuff to the people who actually know what the hell they're talking about?"

"Virginia's proposed social studies reform legislation is terrible for myriad reasons, but the assertion that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is a new level of historical inaccuracy," UVA graduate research assistant Anna Yonas wrote.

"Lincoln did not debate Frederick Douglass," Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal told The Guardian. "Historians may search for the video, but they will not find it."