On May 30, 2021, the tail end of the Texas legislature’s session, Democrats in that state’s House of Representatives blocked passage of a bill that, they charged, would trample voting rights; the measure’s Republican sponsors claimed their proposal would institute necessary reforms. The Democratic solons prevailed not by voting the bête noir bill down—Democrats were not numerous enough in that chamber to pull that off—but by vamoosing, thereby depriving the House of the necessary quorum.
A quorum is the minimum number of qualified persons who must be present at a meeting in order to conduct business. Quo- rums in political bodies are a good government measure, keeping tiny minorities from ramming through stealth legislation.
The Constitution sets the quorums for the U.S. House and Senate at a majority of each body; quorum requirements at the state level and abroad range higher and lower. The House of Commons, for example, can function with only 40 of 650 MPs.
But quorums are not cure-alls; they invite their own sleight of hand, when prospective losers go home, taking everyone’s ball with them.
Americans have been gaming quorums since day one.
An early quorum fight concerned the Constitution itself. On Sept. 18, 1787, the day after the Constitutional Convention wrapped up business at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, the state’s unicameral Assembly, shunted to the second floor for the duration, came back downstairs to consider the new document. The Constitution stipulated that conventions called in each state were to vote on whether to ratify; nine approvals would put the Constitution over the top. Its supporters wanted to get Pennsylvania, the second most populous state, into the pro column ASAP; they also hoped this show of enthusiasm would lure the nation’s capital back to Philly from its then-home in New York City. They had to move quickly, though—the Assembly was set to adjourn in 11 days. On Sept. 25, lawmakers voted to print and distribute 3,000 copies of the Constitution, 1,000 of them in German, the state’s second language. On the morning of the 28th, they began hearing motions to elect a state ratifying convention.
Skeptics asked, why the rush? Pennsylvania was a huge state, its westernmost reaches beyond the Alleghenies. As yet, many residents outside Philadelphia hadn’t even heard of the Constitution. Besides, what did the old Congress, which the Constitution proposed to replace, think? The Assembly had heard no word from New York. When members convened for its afternoon session, only 44 showed up—two shy of the 2/3 quorum. The sergeant-at-arms found most of the absentees, Constitution-skeptics all, at a local boarding house. But they refused to return.
The next morning, an express rider from New York galloped into town, bringing news that the old Congress had indeed decided to let state conventions vote the Constitution up or down. But this report did not constitute an official notification. Suddenly desperate, Constitution supporters resorted to muscle.
A four-man posse led by the sergeant-at-arms accosted two truants on the street and quick-marched them to the State House. One, James M’Calmont, protested that he was there “contrary to his wishes” and demanded to leave. A crowd at the door barred his way.
Illinois’ Most Famous Whig Takes Off
An 1840 quorum rumpus in Illinois is of note for the identity of one of the no-shows. Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer and state rep, was a rising stalwart of the Whigs, a new political party originally devoted to hatred of Andrew Jackson. The Whigs had a good 1840 cycle—William Henry Harrison, their presidential candidate, ran a populist campaign highlighting his alleged abode (a log cabin) and drink of choice (hard cider). Lincoln, even at 31 showing his serious streak, focused his pitch instead on the Whigs’ economic program, which called for government sponsored banks. Jacksonian Democrats blasted such entities as tools of the rich and well-connected. But, Lincoln argued, by offering credit responsibly, they made Americans “prosperous and happy.”
Illinois had a state bank, at the time far from prosperous. Illinois law allowed the bank to make payments in its own paper currency so long as the legislature was in session. But once that body adjourned, the bank would have to pay in hard money, which it didn’t have. Anti-bank Democrats planned to put the bank out of its misery by calling a snap adjournment on Dec. 5, between the end of one session and the start of the next.
The Whigs determined to keep the bank on life support by denying a quorum, and therefore any chance for a motion to adjourn.
The state House of Representatives, to which Lincoln belonged, was meeting for the first time in the new state capital of Springfield—not in the new state house, still under construction, but in the cramped quarters of a nearby church. Lincoln and two lieutenants stayed behind to demand a roll call in order to prove the House was under strength.
Then, a few under-the-weather Democrats straggled into the session from their sickbeds—enough, along with the Whig observers, to make the quorum after all. The Democrats locked the doors for good measure. Lincoln and pals jumped out a second-story window. But since they had been recorded as present on the roll call, their desperate defenestration accomplished nothing.
Nothing, that is, but a laugh for Democrats. A nyuck-nyuck account in local newspapers was picked up and reprinted nationwide: “We have not heard whether these flying members got hurt in their adventure, and we think it probable that at least one of them came off without damage, as it was noticed that his legs reached almost to the ground!”
Maybe, the story went on, the new State House should be raised an extra floor, so that “Mr. Lincoln will in future have to climb down the spout!” Lincoln, unamused, referred to the episode as “that jumping scrape.”
The antics embarrassed Illinois Whigs.
Philadelphia’s 1787 quorum-breakers claimed the moral high ground, telling the nation about getting the bum’s rush, being “forcibly dragged through the streets,” with “their clothes torn.” Such “outrageous proceedings” confirmed the worst suspicions of the Constitution’s opponents nationwide. How good could the proposed document be if its partisans had to resort to thuggery to call a ratifying convention?
The Constitution’s supporters realized that another such win likely would destroy them. When Massachusetts, the country’s third most populous state, debated the document early in 1788, Federalists, as pro-Constitution forces had come to be called, made their case and answered objections with arguments, not hustle, finally winning over even the crusty old patriot Sam Adams. In the summer, James Madison in Virginia and Alexander Hamilton and John Jay in New York wooed their respective states by the same means.
That expresses a larger truth about quorum fights: Knowing procedural fine points and how to wield them is like Billy Martin managing a baseball team. You can win innings and even games by cleverness, but seasons are won by good fundamentals—and lost without them. Compelling a quorum helped win Pennsylvania for the Constitution, but only persuasion could win over the country as a whole. Two generations later, Whig economics failed politically because it was never successfully tried; no local quorum fight could save it. Lincoln would be remembered for championing a greater issue with higher stakes and deeper support.
This story was originally published in the October 2021 issue of American History Magazine.