A 1958 postage stamp commemorating the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

This story was updated at 1 p.m. to reflect that the Division of Legislative Services claimed responsibility for the error in Williams’ bill.

RICHMOND – Newly elected Del. Wren Williams, a Republican from Patrick County, arrived at the General Assembly just a few days ago as an unknown freshman lawmaker from Southwest Virginia. But after a historical error in one of his bills aimed at eliminating critical race theory caused much commotion on social media in the past 24 hours, Williams has suddenly gained widespread fame — but not in a way he was hoping for. 

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County

Williams’ House Bill 781 requires school divisions to provide students with historical context regarding America’s early history, but it has one critical error – it confuses the Black abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass with Democratic U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas, who famously debated his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln seven times in 1858. Historians refer to this series of events as The Great Debates. 

Under Williams’ measure, the State Board of Education would incorporate into its standard of learning framework a requirement that each student demonstrate the understanding of “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.”

Williams’ proposal sparked a firestorm overnight, mostly on Twitter, where the lawmaker quickly became the target of ridicule and mockery. 

An example of some of the comments on Twitter

“Virginia’s proposed social studies reform legislation is terrible for a myriad of reasons, but the assertion that the Lincoln-Douglas debates were between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass is a new level of historical inaccuracy,” Twitter user Anna Yonas wrote. Even Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, weighed in: “One of the great moments of U.S. history: When Frederick Douglass debated Abraham Lincoln. An ignorant alternative fact. Just a hint of what we can expect with Virginia under new management.”

When asked about the error in his bill after the House Privileges & Elections Committee meeting Friday, Williams simply walked away, ignoring repeated questions. But later on Friday, the Division of Legislative Services took responsibility for the error.  

“House Bill 781, introduced in the Virginia House of Delegates by Delegate Wren Williams in the 2022 Regular Session of the General Assembly of Virginia, contains a historical error inserted during the drafting process. […] The erroneous citation of Frederick Douglass, in relation to the Lincoln-Douglas debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, was inserted at the drafting level, following receipt of a historically accurate request from the office of Delegate Wren Williams,” the agency stated in a news release.

The Division of Legislative Services is a nonpartisan state agency providing drafting services for lawmakers. Drafted bills are sent to their sponsors for approval before they are formally filed.

Williams spoke to the issue on Friday afternoon, telling Townhall that he was “frustrated” that this error happened. “I have a very high standard for my office, and my service to my constituents and the commonwealth. But I realize that mistakes happen. I trust this was an honest mistake, and I don’t hold it against Legislative Services,” Williams said.

Williams, an attorney living in Stuart, was elected in November, comfortably defeating Democrat Bridgette Craighead in the deeply Republican 9th House of Delegates district. He is widely seen as very conservative and has filed several bills relating to abortion, and religious freedom. He also sponsored a measure that would require localities that voted to remove “certain war monuments or memorials” to gift said monuments to “a nonprofit organization that is most related to the mission and spirit of the monument or memorial, at the locality’s expense.”

Sabato said in an email Friday that while it is currently not known who is responsible for the “egregious error” in the bill draft, the measure has Williams’ name on it, and “he’s stuck with it,” probably for his entire legislative career. “My guess is that not only won’t the bill become law, but if he actually presents it in committee, he’ll be roasted to a crisp by the other legislators,” Sabato said. 

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.