by Karl Kurtz
Last year, when Wisconsin and Indiana legislators fled their states to prevent their respective legislatures from conducting business, I recounted the story of Abraham Lincoln breaking a quorum in the Illinois House of Representatives by climbing out the window. Now, University of Missouri political science Prof. Peverill Squire, in a remarkable piece of historical research, reveals that the Lincoln episode was far from the earliest case of a "bolting quorum" in an American legislature. In "Quorum Rules in Historical Perspective: Their Use and Abuse," he reports on quorum rules in colonial legislatures:
The first quorum standard in the Americas was established in the 1629 Massachusetts Bay Colony Charter. That document held that 7 of the 18 assistants along with the governor or deputy governor was a sufficient number for the “dispatching of all such buysinesses”. This quorum rule is notable because it was put in place 11 years before the English House of Commons first established one.
Many colonial legislatures had fairly loose quorum requirements--often less than a majority of the members and, in a few cases, no quorum requirement at all--and they often changed them to meet the needs and practices of the times. The strictest quorum standard of two-thirds of the members was established in Pennsylvania in 1683, leading to this story [footnotes deleted from original]:
...[T]he strategic opportunities offered by quorum rules were well understood by politicians of the time. Perhaps the earliest episode of quorum exploitation occurred in Pennsylvania, not long after the two-thirds standard was established. In 1689, at the behest of Penn’s deputy governor, a sufficient number of Assembly members were persuaded to leave the chamber to break the quorum in order to prevent the passage of a list of grievances against the proprietor. In response, the bolters’ remaining colleagues voted to denounce “that abominable Treachery and Practice of the said absent Members, in wilfully neglecting to appear at the Time, when they understood that this House were going about to call the Violators of the Liberties of the Freemen of this Government to Account.” They went on to seek retribution by stating “That the said absent Members ought not to receive any Salary for the Service this Assembly; and are not worthy to be chose again, or be intrusted as Delegates.”
This sounds remarkably like the Indiana House of Representatives in 2012 or any other recent legislative walkout, right down to the effort to deny the absent members their pay.