Of all the paragraphs in a bill to ban “divisive concepts” from being taught in Virginia public schools, Section B3 may have seemed the most innocuous. After all, it was in the part of the proposal that defined what could actually be taught in history classes, not the myriad things that would be banned or the consequences teachers could face for teaching them, including prosecution and getting fired.
Section B3 of the bill, which was sponsored by Republican freshman Del. Wren Williams, defined what could 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 was 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By Friday morning, Frederick Douglass was trending on Twitter, and the bill had been withdrawn.
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 debate, which were held outdoors and had a county fair vibe; some even traveled from other states to hear them. 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 slaveholders 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 was also a candidate in that election.
Lincoln’s book opened with his famous “House Divided” speech and also included the correspondence between Lincoln and Douglas before the debates took place. Taking into account the correct Douglas, it was unclear whether by “the first debate” the Virginia bill was referring to the speech, the correspondence, or the first debate in Ottawa, Ill., where Lincoln didn’t do particularly well, spending most of it on the defensive.
It should be mentioned, while in the White House, Lincoln did meet with Douglass – the abolitionist one, with two s’s – and even had a conversation about Black Union soldiers’ pay and safety. But that doesn’t qualify as a debate.
As for the provision that would have allowed the writings of the Founding Fathers to be taught, that is certainly a massive category and might have needed amending. After all, if the bill was designed to ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” well, many of those august men’s words might not make the cut (see: Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia”).
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.