Abraham Lincoln jumped out of a window to avoid quorum





Both Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin are waging battle armed with the weapons of parliamentary procedure.  Fourteen Democratic state senators have fled the state for neighboring Illinois.  Their choice of refuge is eminently appropriate, for Abraham Lincoln himself famously tried to deny his political opponents quorum through a very unorthodox method of departure in 1840.

Lincoln, then a young Whig state congressman, was a major backer of Illinois’s State Bank.  The bank had been authorized to suspend its specie payments (payments in coin) until the end of the legislative session in December.  Lincoln and his fellow Whigs, then in the minority, naturally sought to extend the session indefinitely and hence delay the resumption of specie payments.

So Lincoln jumped out the window.

Here’s how Lincoln biographer David H. Donald described the scene:

The only way the Whigs could keep the legislature in session was by absenting themselves, so that there was no quorum.  They left Lincoln, together with one or two of his trusted lieutenants, to watch the proceedings and to demand roll calls when the Democrats tried to adjourn.   The session dragged on into the evening…   Several Democrats rose from their sickbeds to help form a quorum.   Rattled, Lincoln and his aides lost their heads and voted on the next roll call.  Then, still hoping to block adjournment, they unsuccessfully tried to get out of the locked door.  When the sergeant at arms rebuffed them, they jumped out the first-story window.

The Democrats of his day defeated Lincoln's attempts taking a page out of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's book—by recording Lincoln as "presenting and voting" even after he had fled.

In his now infamous phone call with “David Koch,” (actually Ian Murphy, a blogger for BuffaloBeast.com) Wisconsin governor Scott Walker outlined his plan for enticing Democratic lawmakers back to the statehouse and establish a quorum:

[A]n interesting idea that was brought up to me this morning by my chief of staff…is putting out an appeal to the Democrat leader that I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader…but I’ll only do it if all fourteen of them come back and sit down in the state assembly. They can recess it, to come back if we’re talking, but they all have to be back there. The reason for that is…legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day and they take a recess, the nineteen Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have a quorum because they started out that way.

As for Lincoln, he became the butt of jokes from his political rivals for a long while after the spectacle.  Mocking his height (Lincoln was tall even by modern standards), Democrats declared he suffered no injuries because “‘his legs reached nearly from the window to the ground!’”


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