According to legend, Abraham Lincoln jumped from a second floor window of the Vandalia Statehouse building to defeat a quorum.
Several points of the above statement are true – Lincoln did jump from a window and he did so in an attempt to avoid a quorum.
For many years, visitors to the old capitol were told this story, and in some instances were shown the window from which he allegedly made his daring leap. Postcards were printed with an “X’” marking the spot.
Although it would be nice for Vandalia tourism to claim Lincoln’s "jump," we can’t. It happened in Springfield on Dec. 5, 1840.
On Nov. 23, 1840, Gov. Carlin called a special session of the 12th General Assembly. One item of business was to approve payment of interest on the state debt. The new statehouse was about two weeks away from being ready for occupancy, so the House met in the First Methodist Church, Fifth and Monroe streets, in Springfield.
The Whigs, with Edwin D. Baker and Lincoln at the helm, to prevent adjournment of the session, hatched a plan that if enough members stayed away, a quorum could not be reached and the session could not adjourn.
An eyewitness account was published in the Illinois State Register on Dec. 11, 1840.
It recounted for the readers what took place. “...the doors of the House were locked to prevent the egress of members and the door keeper was again despatched to 'compel' the attendance of the absentees.”
Many of the Whigs still refused to attend, and three Democrats, John M. Kelley, Peter Green and John Dougherty, were brought from their sickbeds to the church.
Again, from the Register, “After candlelight, 61 members being present, the question was again taken on the resolution and passed – yeas 46, nays 15.
“A laughable circumstance took place while the yeas and nays were being called on the passage of the resolution. Mr. Lincoln of Sangamon, who was present during the whole scene, and who appeared to enjoy the embarrassment of the House, suddenly looked very grave after the speaker announced that a quorum was present.
“The conspiracy having failed, Mr. Lincoln came under great excitement and having attempted and failed to get out at the door, very unceremoniously raised the window and jumped out, followed by one or two other members.”
Joseph Gillespie, Edwardsville, and Asahel Gridley of Bloomington followed him out the window, estimated to be a 4- or 5-foot drop.
“This gymnastic performance of Mr. Lincoln and his flying brethren did not occur until after they had voted! We have not learned 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 nearly from the window to the ground!”
The article in the Register went on to say they had learned that a resolution would probably be introduced at the next session to add a third story to the statehouse so as to prevent members from jumping out windows.
“If such a resolution passes, Mr. Lincoln will in the future have to climb down the spout!”
And while the Register publisher joked about Lincoln’s jump, he railed at the Whigs for what he called a “humiliating condition,” accusing them of attempting to destroy the legislature, saying it was akin to anarchy.
Lincoln’s jump has been a legend for many years. With the eyewitness account, we now have the particulars.