Coincidence often fosters inspiration. A few days before I attended my umpteenth rally of this political season, I was given a gift. A near fifty-pound tome (a slight exaggeration) titled the Concise Dictionary of American History. Opening the book to a random page, I landed on an entry that brought several stark realities home. First, few political speeches rise above the rest. They are formulaic. Candidates acknowledge their supporters, identify the opposition, provide an anecdote designed to create a connection to the audience, and conclude with a call to civic duty. Second, the English language is changing fast. The particular entry on which I lit dealt with a word I rarely hear. Finally, I am getting older. With that comes a reluctance to abandon old things. After all, embracing today does not require erasing yesterday. If utilizing an old word contributes to the richness of a phrase, I am all for using it. This post is my attempt to dust off one such word (an effort that requires a little history).
Throughout 1819, Congress considered the political implications of Missouri statehood. Slavery, its maintenance or suppression, dominated the debates. Most Democrats either supported slavery or sought to preserve the political status quo as a means to guarantee Union. Anti-slavery sentiment ran strongest with Northern Federalists. However, Federalist support began to decline with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. Federalist strength continued to decline with their opposition to the War of 1812. When New England merchants and politicians challenged the government’s actions, many outside of New England questioned Federalist commitment to the Union. As the dominate press exploited Federalist problems, one strain of political thought was largely silenced. Later, when Federalists spoke out against slavery, their lack of popular support prevented them from challenging the existing political order. 1819 and 1820 were critical years as Western expansion and slavery threatened to rip the nation apart.
When Congress reconvened in 1820, Maine’s petition for statehood now joined Missouri’s already three-year-old statehood petition. Congress moved toward a compromise that would preserve the Union and maintain the existing political order, admitting Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Popular opinion and political expediency challenged morality… and morality lost.
After weeks of rancorous debate, members of the House were tired and wanted to adjourn. At the end of the day on Friday, February 25, Felix Walker asked to speak. He asked for just a little time. His constituents needed to know their representative was an active member of Congress. After the House had debated serious, heady issues, Walker gave a speech about his home district of Buncombe County, NC. The speech was off topic and ill-timed. While his colleagues called for an end to the debate, Walker continued undaunted. With the conclusion of Walker’s speech and the session’s adjournment, the few remaining House members were both thankful and perplexed. When asked what contribution Felix Walker had made to the debate, one member said “He talked about Buncombe.” Buncombe became synonymous with meaningless political speech. Eventually, “buncombe” became “bunkum” and then “bunk.” The word remained an active descriptive in American politics for more than a hundred years.
Buncombe, or bunkum, (though I prefer the original form) is the word I hope to resuscitate. Hopefully, the good people of Buncombe County, NC will be forgiving, there is certainly no intention on my part to offend. Heck, I have been to Ashville (the county seat of Buncombe County). Love the people, the food, and the beer. I whole-heartedly support the people of Ashville. I am definitely pro-Buncombe.
by History Present
[buhng-kuh m] noun
- Insincere speechmaking by a politician intended merely to please local constituents.
- Insincere talk; claptrap; humbug.
- “Buncombe,” Concise Dictionary of America History, Thomas C. Cochran, Associate Editor; Wayne Andrews, Editor, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 1962, p. 121.
- McCoy, George W., “Felix Walker: The Man Who Spoke For Buncombe”, Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina). Sun, Jun 25, 1950, Page 17. 2016 https://www.newspapers.com/image/200089413 Downloaded on Nov 4, 2016.
- “Here and There”, The Daily Independent (Murphysboro, Illinois). Tue, Jul 28, 1936, Page 2. https://www.newspapers.com/image/11230830 Downloaded on Nov 4, 2016.
- Tabler, David, “North Carolina politician gives us the word ‘debunk’”, Appalachian History, February 3, 2015, http://www.appalachianhistory.net/2015/02/north-carolina-politician-gives-us-word.html. Accessed November 4, 2016.
- Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Missouri Compromise”, accessed November 04, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/event/Missouri-Compromise.
- Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/buncombe. (accessed: November 4, 2016).