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Abraham Lincoln and the Wisconsin 14


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Sunday, three weeks into the crisis caused by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's proposed "budget repair bill" and now his equally radical biennial budget, I took the day off. Or tried to.

I settled down in the late afternoon and resumed reading the biography of Abraham Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (it's called Lincoln, published in 1995) that I had started just before this mess broke out in fact, on Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12.

Several years ago my wife and I spent a couple of days in Springfield, Illinois, taking in the Lincoln sites: His home, the original Springfield Capitol building, his tomb. I was especially moved by the Lincoln museum, where the sense of Lincoln as a man of great character and principle is almost overwhelming.

Then, last summer, we visited Lincoln's boyhood home in Indiana, as part of our travels in that state. We stayed at a state park with a Lincoln memorial and toured the site of his family's farm. There was also another museum, and again the sense of Lincoln's greatness left me moved.

I was telling this to a friend not long ago, and he urged me to read Donald's biography, a 700-page tome, so I bought the book. I got to P. 74 on that first weekend, Feb. 12 and 13. Then All Hell broke loose in Wisconsin, and I put it aside.

Sunday I began reading again ... for about five minutes. That's when I saw it.

At this point in the narrative, Lincoln is a respected member of the state legislature, working as a lawyer on the side. He was then still a member of the Whig party, before he became a Republican. Lincoln liked the idea of a national bank, Donald relates, but when President Andrew Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States, Lincoln became a big booster of Illinois' State Bank, which had its main branch in Springfield.

The Democrats of Illinois, then the majority party, launched an investigation into this bank, with the goal of killing it. Lincoln managed to get himself appointed to the committee charged with this task, and was able to prevent this from happening.

On P. 77, the narrative picks up from here:

"The fate of the bank remained in doubt, as Democrats, opposed to all banks on principle and especially hostile to this Whiggish bank in Springfield, mounted campaign after campaign for its destruction. ... Nevertheless, [Lincoln] persisted, and in December 1840 he demonstrated the extent of his devotion to the bank in an episode that became celebrated as what he called 'that jumping scrape.'

"The bank had been authorized to continue its suspension of specie payments only until the end of the legislative session, which was scheduled for the first week in December. Knowing that the bank would immediately be bankrupt if forced to pay our specie, Lincoln and his fellow Whigs hoped to prevent the adjournment of the Legislature, now holding its first session in the newly completed capitol at Springfield. Of course, Democrats, who wanted to kill the bank, favored adjournment.

"The only way 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, and candles had to be brought in. 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 second-story window.

"Their effort was in vain, because the speaker recorded them as present and voting, and, with the quorum assured, the house adjourned and the bank was killed. The whole affair became the subject of much amusement among the Democrats, who ridiculed 'Mr. Lincoln and his flying brethren' and noted that his celebrated leap caused him no harm because 'his legs reached nearly from the window to the ground!'"

As Scott Walker and the Republicans berate the 14 Senate Democrats who left the state to prevent them from taking actions the Democrats find repugnant, perhaps they should reflect on how this follows an example set by Honest Abe - a man so eager to avoid letting his rivals have a quorum to do what he felt was the wrong thing he jumped from a second-story window.

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