Virginia bill erroneously references ‘Lincoln-Douglass’ debate

RICHMOND, Va. — A bill filed by a Virginia lawmaker last week had historians scratching their heads.

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Wren Williams, a Republican delegate from Patrick, pre-filed a bill that noted, in part, that high school students would be required to learn about “the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.

Lincoln’s historic seven-debate swing though Illinois in 1858 was not against the famed abolitionist. The future president debated Sen. Stephen A. Douglas during a senatorial campaign. Lincoln would lose the Senate election but gained national attention for his performance as both men spoke about the slavery issue during their orations.

Williams did not make the historical gaffe, however. On Friday, the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan government agency that formats and edits drafts of legislation, claimed responsibility for the error, according to the newspaper.

Addison Merryman, a spokesperson for Williams, said Friday the bill was with the clerk and could not be changed or corrected until the legislation made it to committee, The Washington Post reported. The spokesperson did not say whether Williams had a chance to proofread the DLS draft before it was submitted, 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.”

Here is the language from House Bill 781, which can be read in full here.

“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.”

The bill also included language banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” in Virginia public schools, in reference to critical race theory, the Times-Dispatch reported.

Merryman referred to statements that he and Williams had made on the conservative website Townhall, according to The New York Times. Both men properly referred to the Lincoln-Douglas debates as they discussed Williams’ “anti-discrimination bill,” the newspaper reported

Williams told Townhall that he was “frustrated” by the error.

“I have a very high standard for my office, and my service to my constituents and the Commonwealth,” he said. “I trust this was an honest mistake and I don’t hold it against Legislative Services.”