Section B3 of the bill, sponsored by Republican freshman Del. Wren Williams, defines what can be taught as “the founding documents,” like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, excerpts from the Federalist Papers, the writings of the Founding Fathers and Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic “Democracy in America.” Oh, and one more thing: “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.”
It is a clear reference to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, one of the high points in this country’s intellectual, moral and civic history, but there’s just one problem: Lincoln did not debate Frederick Douglass.
By Friday morning, Frederick Douglass was trending on Twitter. In the afternoon, the Division of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan state agency that helps lawmakers draft bills, claimed responsibility in a public statement, emphasizing that Williams sent them a “historical accurate” text and the agency inserted the error.
A spokesman for Williams said Friday the bill was with the clerk and could not be changed or corrected until it made it to committee. When asked if Williams had an opportunity to proofread DLS’s draft before it was submitted, the spokesman declined to answer yes or no, instead saying, “It’s unprecedented for legislative services to make substantive changes to bills, and there was no reason to expect that they would do so.”
But let’s not waste the opportunity for a history lesson.
The Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in the late summer and fall of 1858, when Lincoln was the Republican candidate for Senate challenging Democratic incumbent Stephen A. Douglas. At the time, senators were chosen not by popular vote but by state legislatures; their respective campaigns were designed to help their parties win control of the Illinois legislature, which would then install one of them as senator.
The two men had given speeches within a day of one another in Springfield and Chicago, and decided to visit Illinois’ seven remaining districts together in formal debates. Each event began with either Douglas or Lincoln speaking for an hour. The opposing man then rebutted for 90 minutes, and the original speaker responded for 30 minutes.
Thousands of people attended each round of the debates, which were held outdoors and had the vibe of a county fair; people even traveled from other states to hear the debates. Newspapers across the country covered each one in detail, taking advantage of the telegraph to speed their coverage.
The subject of the debates generated intense national interest, because they were all about slavery.
Though he claimed to dislike slavery, Douglas was a proponent of “popular sovereignty,” the idea that settlers in a new territory should be able to decide by popular vote whether to become a slave or free state.
Lincoln, as a member of the nascent Republican Party, also walked a nuanced line, pushing for a gradual end to slavery as a moral wrong but not advocating for full Black equality or rights of citizenship. He also supported monetary compensation to enslavers and “recolonization” of Black Americans to a different country.
(Ultimately, whether it came about by moral conviction, political pressure, as a canny war tactic or a combination of these, Lincoln as president veered toward immediate abolition when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the South, and when he pushed the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery for all time — one of his last political achievements before his assassination.)
Lincoln got off to a rocky start but excelled in the last four debates, setting rhetorical traps for Douglas and passionately describing the inhumanity of stealing from a man the very wages of his labor. If Douglas thought slavery was wrong, he asked, how could he support its expansion in any scenario?
“If you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong,” he finished.
It also helped that Lincoln had a somewhat high-pitched voice, which carried well across the crowd, whereas Douglas became sick with bronchitis, hurting his voice, and allegedly showed up to the last debate drunk.
One pro-Lincoln newspaper reported Douglas was “pierced to the very vitals by the barbed harpoons which Lincoln hurls at him,” and that Lincoln seemed “to enjoy the noble sport in which he [wa]s engaged.”
Still, when the 1858 election took place, the Democrats were victorious, keeping Douglas in the Senate. But the breathless coverage of the debates had established Lincoln as a national figure, and he later published the debates as a book, helping him to win the presidency two years later. Douglas also was a candidate in that election.
When asked if Williams intended his bill to include the text of the first debate, held in Ottawa, Ill., on Aug. 21, 1858, or the text of Lincoln’s famous “House Divided” speech, which opens Lincoln’s book, the spokesman confirmed that the delegate meant the first debate. It is a curious choice, considering many historians regard the first debate as Lincoln’s worst performance.
In a you-can’t-make-this-up history twist, in that debate Douglas actually did mention the other Douglass. He repeatedly, and falsely, accused Lincoln of being in league with and controlled by the abolitionist. Lincoln and Douglass did not meet until Lincoln was in the White House, when Douglass complained to him about Black Union soldiers’ pay and safety.
As for the provision that would allow the writings of the Founding Fathers to be taught, that is certainly a massive category and might need amending as well. After all, if the bill is designed to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” many of those august men’s words might not make the cut (see: Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia”).