Today, the Wisconsin State Quarter Coin remembers when two men representing two different parties took the oath of office for the same governorship on January 7, 1856.
From The University of Wisconsin, Its History and Its Alumni, with Historical and Descriptive Sketches of Madison edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites, published in 1900.
In 1856, Madison was the scene of political excitement of a serious character.
William Barstow (Democrat) had been elected governor for the years 1854-55 by a plurality of 8,519 votes over Edward D. Holton (Republican) and Henry S. Baird (Whig).
There was much political bitterness in the State, and this was intensified during Barstow’s administration, largely because of his aggressive tone.
Charges were freely made by his enemies that he had allowed his official staff to mismanage the school funds, and favor personal friends in the loaning of State money.
However this may be, Barstow lost ground during his term, and although re-nominated failed to draw out his full party strength in the November election of 1855.
The new Republican party, too, was now attaining huge proportions, and the result was, the balloting for governor proved so close that from the middle of November to the middle of December the people were in a state of unquiet, not knowing whether Barstow had been returned or whether he had been supplanted by his Republican opponent, Coles Bashford, an Oshkosh lawyer.
The State board of canvassers was composed of Barstow supporters, and reported that he had received 157 majority.
Bashford’s friends claimed that the returns had been tampered with, and the Republican leaders prepared for a contest.
Barstow took the oath of office, January 7, 1856, amid the usual pomp of civic and military display, and remained in possession of the executive chamber.
Bashford, on his part, was quietly sworn in by Chief-Justice Whiton, in the chamber of the State supreme court.
The court was at once called upon by Bashford, in a quo warranto suit, to oust the incumbent and give the office of governor to the relator.
Thus commenced the most celebrated case ever tried by the Wisconsin supreme bench. This was the first time in the history of the United States that a State court had been called upon to decide as to the right of a governor to hold his seat; its jurisdiction was questioned by Barstow’ s attorneys.
The contest waged fiercely for some weeks, with eminent counsel on both sides, the court at last holding that it had jurisdiction.
Finally, being defeated on every motion, Barstow withdrew from the case, protesting that the judges were actuated by political considerations.
The court proceeded with its inquiry, however, found gross irregularities in the canvass of votes, and declared (March 24) that Bashford had received a majority of 1,009.
Meanwhile (March 21), Barstow, who had all along threatened that he would not “give up his office alive,” sent in his resignation to the legislature, and Lieutenant Governor McArthur became governor by virtue of the constitution.
McArthur was defiant, and announced his determination to hold the fort at all hazards.
But the court promptly ruled that McArthur could gain no rights through Barstow — for the latter’s title being worthless, McArthur could not succeed to it.
Through this long contest, it may well be imagined that popular excitement in and around Madison ran increasingly high. Parties of men representing both relator and respondent made no secret of the fact that they were armed and drilling, in anticipation of a desperate encounter.
It would have taken small provocation to ignite this tinder box, but the management on both sides was judicious; and although the partisan bands had frequent wordy quarrels, and there were numerous and vigorous threats of violence, there was no approach to blows.
It was Monday, March 24, when the court rendered its decision. Bashford announced that on Tuesday he would take possession of the executive chamber.
Early in the appointed day, people began to gather in the vicinity of the Capitol, coming in from the neighboring country in a circuit of ten miles, as they would flock to a traveling circus.
By nine o’clock, the Capitol was crowded with citizens, chiefly adherents of Bashford, and there was much ill-suppressed passion.
At eleven o’clock, Bashford and a party of his followers, encouraged by friendly cheers, made their way through the corridors — accompanied by the Dane county sheriff, with the court’s judgment in hand — and rapping at the governor’s office was invited to enter.
Bashford — a portly, pleasant-looking gentleman of the old school — leisurely took off his overcoat, hung it and his hat in the wardrobe, and blandly informed McArthur and the coterie of friends about him, that he had come to take the helm of State.
The incumbent indignantly asked whether force was to be used; whereupon the new-comer replied that he “presumed no force would be essential, but in case any were needed there would be no hesitation whatever, with the sheriff s help, in applying it.”
This was construed by McArthur as a “threat of constructive force,” and he and his adherents at once hurried out of the door, passing through Bashford’s friends, who cheered in triumph and then poured into the office to congratulate the new governor.
In the legislature, there was at first some opposition. The senate received Bashford’s opening message with enthusiasm, and at once passed a congratulatory vote.
The assembly at first refused (38 to 34) to hold communication with the governor, but finally thirty of the Democrats withdrew, after filing a protest, and the house then agreed (37 to 9) to recognize the new official.
The system of government by the people had safely passed through a trying ordeal; popular passions soon subsided, and the fear of civil war in Wisconsin was at an end.
The Wisconsin State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s image of the state capitol during that era.