Political ‘Bunkum’ Is Not New

“It’s tempting to rail against the media’s ability to elicit and amplify such stupidity. But none of this is new. Politicians have always resorted to dumb claims, blatant insults, bold exaggerations and baldfaced lies to gain press coverage and win votes. Indeed, Americans of the 19th century invented a name for it. The word “bunkum” — the origin of the word “bunk” — dates from the 1820s, a product of the over-the-top speechifying of Representative Felix Walker, who forewarned his congressional colleagues to ignore a blustery grandstand speech because it was intended only for the folks back home in Buncombe County, N.C…

“…Representative Henry A. Wise, a congressman from Virginia from 1833 to 1844,…loved grandstanding of all kinds: the swaggering threat, the mocking taunt, the over-the-top insult. He even took an occasional swing at an opponent. In 1842, he demonstrated his pro-slavery credentials by threatening to assault John Quincy Adams, an opponent of slavery, who had returned to the House after serving as president. “If the Member from Massachusetts had not been an old man, protected by the imbecility of age,” Wise warned, “he would not have enjoyed, as long as he has, the mercy of my mere words.” A horrified Adams wrote in his diary that night that Wise made “a threat of murdering me in my seat.” — Joanne B. Freeman, a professor of history and American studies at Yale University, in a NYT op-ed.

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