You May Have Heard Good Things About Him, But He Didn’t Debate Lincoln in 1858
Who Said It: Stephen A. Douglas or Frederick Douglass?
“Abolitionism proposes to destroy the right and extinguish the principle of self-government for which our forefathers waged a seven years’ bloody war, and upon which our whole system of free government is founded.”
“Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man.”
Matching the quotation to its author should be a simple task for anyone with a basic understanding of American history, as simple as knowing with whom Abraham Lincoln debated in 1858.
And yet HB 781, presented for consideration in the Virginia House of Delegates, states that each Virginia “student demonstrate the understanding of … The founding documents of the United States, including … the first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.” Most would probably assume that this is from an SNL skit, and yet, this is the real world and the first step in the VA GOP’s restructuring of Virginia’s history curriculum.
God help us all!
For those of you playing along at home, the second quotation is from abolitionist Frederick Douglas while the first is from Stephen A. Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Those words were spoken by Douglass on the floor of the U.S. Senate during a five-and-a-half-hour speech, which he started on March 3, 1854, and finished on March 4, 1854. He was arguing, at the urging of Southern senators, to open both territories up to the expansion of slavery thereby nullifying the Missouri Compromise which confined slavery south of the 36°30? parallel except for Missouri.
Lest some folks forget, the Republican Party was formed in opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, so one could say that knowing the accurate history of this legislation and the participants involved would be paramount to the political party promising to restructure education in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to Bleeding Kansas which led to John Brown’s Raid, which happened in Virginia before the western part of the state broke away. It wasn’t many steps to get from naming the right Douglas to actual Virginia history, but I digress.
During the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, that one that Virginia students should study, Douglas (Stephen not Frederick, who incidentally spells it with two s’s) opined, “In my opinion this government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men … I am opposed to taking any step that recognizes the Negro man or the Indian as the equal of the white man. I am opposed to giving him a voice in the administration of the government.”
How could someone confuse the man who said that with the man who said, “The fundamental and unanswerable argument in favor of the enfranchisement of the negro is found in the undisputed fact of his manhood. He is a man, and by every fact and argument by which any man can sustain his right to vote, the negro can sustain his right equally. It is plain that, if the right belongs to any, it belongs to all.”
For a party that was swept into control on the promises of keeping students from feeling guilty about our past and keeping discussions of racial injustice out of the classrooms, they have chosen an odd example to include in their approved historical topics considering the lengths to which Stephen Douglas goes to express his feelings of white supremacy. It could lead one to surmise that those writing the legislation do not have a firm grasp on the very history they are fighting against.
Frederick Douglas was correct when he said, “Intelligence is a great leveler here as elsewhere.” Intelligent people must stand against stupid pandering, of which there is far too much of late.
Del. Wren Williams, the sponsor of HB 781, stated on his website that he is a product of the Virginia public school system and that he believes “our schools function best when decisions are made at the local level.” Yet, he has introduced a bill that cedes control over curriculum from the local level to the state, and he did it because, with little analysis or research, the Republican Party as a whole rode a wave of fear and misinformation into office.
In 1894, Frederick Douglas wrote, “Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.”
Limiting education leads to things like state legislators thinking that Abraham Lincoln debated Frederick Douglas, which is a really bad look. However, limited education is also a very useful tool when trying to get elected, which is terrifying.
“Fortune may crowd a man’s life with fortunate circumstances and happy opportunities, but they will, as we all know, avail him nothing unless he makes a wise and vigorous use of them.” Will the Republican Party heed this advice given by Frederick Douglas in his Self-Made Men speech?
Will they lead with wisdom? Will they turn away from performative patriotism? Will they learn the difference between Frederick Douglass and Stephen A. Douglas? Their efforts thus far resemble those of a man looking for a gas leak by the light of a candle.