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FLASHBACK: Abraham Lincoln Wrote Playbook For Wisconsin Dems Who Fled State

By Alex Seitz-Wald on February 20, 2011 at 11:09 am

"FLASHBACK: Abraham Lincoln Wrote Playbook For Wisconsin Dems Who Fled State"

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Wisconsin Democratic state senators who fled the state to block Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) union busting said today they have “no plans to return to the state until Walker could reach a reasonable negotiation with state employees.” Republican politicians and conservative commentators have lambasted the state senators all week for their supposed “dereliction of duty.” But those in the Party of Lincoln should look to the 16th president before they criticize the Wisconsin Democrats.

Indeed, 170 years before the Wisconsin Democrats fled Madison to deny a quorum, then-state Rep. Abraham Lincoln was fleeing the capitol in Springfield, IL — via a window, no less — to do the same in an attempt to save the State Bank of Illinois:

[Democrats] agreed to allow [the bank] to suspend its obligation to exchange its paper money for specie, but only for the remainder of the legislative session.

That’s when Lincoln determined to keep the legislature in session in order to buy precious time for the bank to find a way to survive, and that’s how he jumped into the national limelight on December 5, 1840. On that date, the Democrats proposed an early adjournment, knowing this would bring a speedy end to the State Bank. The Whigs tried to counter by leaving the capitol building before the vote, but the doors were locked. That’s when Lincoln made his move. He headed for the second story, opened a window and jumped to the ground!

Lincoln’s efforts failed, sadly, and “the bank was killed.” But as the Wall Street Journal pointed out yesterday, “The tactic of quorum avoidance by simply leaving dates back at least to the days when the U.S. Constitution was being debated”:

Legislators tried to stymie passage [of the Constitution] in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts that way, and some in Pennsylvania had to be dragged out of a tavern to vote. The Constitution passed.

There have been at least four occasions of blocking a quorum in Wisconsin’s legislature alone. … And one representative in 1951, Rep. Ruth Doyle, had to be retrieved from the women’s bathroom for a vote on a resolution for the legislature to hear Gen. Douglas MacArthur speak.

Indeed, the tactic has been used in the U.S. Senate on occasion as well. More recently, the tactic garnered national headlines in 2003 when Texas Democrats fled to New Mexico to block a GOP redistricting effort. Eliot Shapleigh, one of the “Texas Eleven” is now advising the Wisconsin Democrats. “Stay close. When one gets picked off, the game’s over,” Shapleigh told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday.

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