From Wikipedia, the full backstory of the origin of this term is:
In the sixteenth Congress, on 25 February 1820, before the U.S. House of Representatives, Representative Felix Walker from Buncombe County, North Carolina gave a rambling speech upon the Missouri question with little relevance to the concurrent debate. Walker refused to yield the floor, informing his colleagues that his speech was not intended for Congress, but that he was "speaking for Buncombe." It became a widely-retold joke in Washington, and the word was used to refer to any bombastic political posturing or an oratorical display not accompanied by conviction.
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Felix Walker and Buncombe
Today a colleague of mine asked about Felix Walker and the Buncombe association. I had always heard that it was Thomas L. Clingman who gave the long speeches resulting in the term.
So I did some research into early 19th century newspapers. Here is what I found, proceeding chronologically:
1) The first instance I found of the term "Buncombe" being used as a metaphor was in the Connecticut Courant on 4/4/1836. Included in a long article on the contested U.S. House race from Buncombe, in which two Whig candidates both claimed to have been elected, the paper mentioned "the occasion of the induction of a compatriot from the 'State of Buncombe' ..." once the matter was resolved. It continued
- The immortal Buncombite will not gain his seat until to-morrow night; but, were he never to get it, his fame is now inseparable from that of the twenty-fourth Congress. The argument in this Contested Election has been able and elaborate on both sides. The immediate parties to the contest, ... Newland and Graham, have both argued the question with much force and ingenuity...
2) The The Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics ran a story on 12/15/1838 that included the following:
- Our readers have, perhaps, often heard of 'speaking to Buncombe,' by which phrase is signified a speech not intended or expected to have any influence on those to whom it is addressed, but designed for the speaker's constituents. It originated with a representative from North Carolina, who came from the county of Buncombe, and who being asked, one day, why he continued to speak to empty benches, 'O!' he replied, 'I am speaking to Buncombe.'
Note that the name of the Representative was not given.
3) Many references are found after 1838. For example,
- The newspaper Farmer's Cabinet 7/9/1841: "... those who addressed the House spoke generally to Buncombe."
- Haverhill Gazette, 10/9/1841: Caleb Cushing was not one of "a large class of Congressional debaters, properly styled, spouters for 'buncombe.' who seem to have no end in view, but the manufacture of political capital at home."
- Pittsfield Sun 7/18/1844: Rep. Rathbun of New York State described a lengthy speech by Clingman as "his Buncombe speech." He said that Clingman "speaks from Buncombe, or for Buncombe." This is the speech which I have heard mentioned as the tie between Clingman and the term, but as seen above there are earlier instances of Buncombe being used in this way.
I also checked the Annals of Congress (available online here: ) for the Felix Walker speech on 2/25/1820. As it turned out, Walker spoke very briefly that day. The speech of another member of the House goes on for several pages. It is possible that Wikipedia has the wrong date, to be sure. However, it appears unlikely that such a use in 1820 would have survived in political memory without mention in newspapers but blossom in the late 1830s. Furthermore, even at that time Walker was not mentioned as the one who precipitated the use of the term. To complicate matters, Walker lived in Haywood County (though Buncombe County was in his district).