Wren Williams, a Republican in Virginia’s House of Delegates, has proposed a bill that would regulate and standardize high school-level social studies curriculum in the state. Online, critics quickly identified an issue: One of the apparent lessons isn’t true. Former President Abraham Lincoln did not debate Black abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass. They were on the same side, as far as abolishing slavery was concerned.
House Bill 781 includes a directive for social studies teachers to instruct on “the founding documents of the United States, including the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, including Essays 10 and 51, excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and the writings of the Founding Fathers of the United States.”
In high schools across the country, students do participate in what is known as “Lincoln-Douglas debate.” That debate format, which involves on party arguing for a proposal and the other party arguing against it, got its name because Lincoln debated former Sen. Steven Douglas about slavery.
Williams was sharply criticized for the error.
Connecticut morning news anrhos Wendell Edwards tweeted he didn’t think Williams “understood the assignment” when it came to writing the bill, but he was glad to see that the influential abolitionist was trending on the site as a result.
Sally Hudson, who also serves in the state’s House, tweeted, “If Virginia is going to pass a law requiring that each student demonstrate an understanding of the Lincoln-Douglas debates we should start by getting the right Douglas. Is this a test to see who did the reading?”
FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley pointed out an old Washington Post article that revealed Williams put his law practice on hold to join the legal team challenging Trump’s vote counts in Wisconsin: “Well, the delegate who proposed this also believes Trump won, so who knows, he may think Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass crisscrossed Illinois in 1858 debating each other.”
Williams was sworn into his role Tuesday.