The news is currently filled with reports of Democrat state senators from Wisconsin on the lam in my home state of Illinois in an attempt to prevent a quorum in the Wisconsin state senate and stall action on Governor Scott Walker’s public employees union bill. Fleeing from a legislative chamber to prevent a quorum from being formed and stall legislation is a tactic probably as old as legislative chambers. In 1841 Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln was involved in such an attempt.
1840 had been a good year for the Whig party nationally, but in Illinois the Democrats won control of the state legislature. Lincoln was one of the leaders of the Whigs in the General Assembly. When the legislature met in January of 1841, the Democrats were able to ram through piece of legislation after piece of legislation opposed by the Whigs. One day Lincoln and two other Whig representatives, in order to forestall a quorum, opened a window and leaped through it. (The Democrats had previously locked the doors to the room where the General Assembly was meeting.) Lincoln and his colleagues found themselves victims of Democrat laughter due to the fact that they had previously voted that day on a motion to adjourn. The motion was defeated, but enough representatives voted on the motion to constitute a quorum. The escape attempt was for naught. This has usually been the fate of this flee tactic. It is always only resorted to by a minority that cannot win a vote. The vanishing legislator stratagem usually only delays a vote, and defeat.