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  • Nicholas J. Johnson

The man who invented bunkum

Felix Walker was a 19th-century American congressman remembered for precisely one thing: giving half a speech.

The year was 1820 and the congressman, who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina, was speaking before Congress on what was to become the Missouri Compromise.

The legislation proposed that Missouri, a slave state, be added to the union on the condition that no further slaves be allowed to enter the state and that all children of slaves be born free.

Surprisingly, the sticking point was not just the disagreement over whether slavery itself was immoral but whether the federal government had the right to interfere with the business of the states at all.

It was a debate that would mark the beginning of sectional tensions that would ultimately lead to the American Civil War.

Walker's own party, the Democratic-Republicans, were split on the issue. Walker, a southerner, was staunchly against the federal government interfering with the rights of slave owners.

After a month of intense debate and volatile politicking, a vote was to be called. However, Walker—who had not spoken until this moment—had something to say:

Mr Speaker, I should not have risen on this question did I not believe that we are about to be plunged into a dangerous and conflicting policy wherein some of our best interests and dearest rights are deeply involved. In giving my views on this subject, I find I have to encounter difficulties that I cannot avoid. It has undergone such a luminous discussion, so as almost to preclude further investigation, and anything more that could be said appears like beating the air or speaking to the wind...

He continued in this manner, eloquently and passionately and saying absolutely nothing.

He reached back in time, speaking of slavery among "Jews and Christians, Greeks and Romans, Turks and infidels" and even into mythology opining on when "Nimrod the mighty hunter began the chase, and his prey was man."

The laboured metaphors came thick and fast like a tidal wave of treacle. The US constitution was an "ark of safety", liberty was a tree "growing in our happy soil", and the amendment under discussion was simultaneously a "phantom of the mind"; a "creature of imagination"; and a "particle of discord."

It soon became clear that not only was Walker not going to get to the point but also that he didn't have a point to get to. The audience began to jeer and heckle while Walker, unfazed by the interruption, continued on.

Walker's steadfast commitment to his half-formed thoughts and rambling arguments further infuriated the crowd. They rose to their feet to shout him down. Eventually, Walker had no choice but to sit, his prepared remarks unfinished.

Walker's speech is recorded in the Annals of Congress with a single paragraph:

Mr. WALKER, of North Carolina, rose then to address the Committee on the question; but the question was called for so clamorously and so perseveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the Committee rise. The Committee refused to rise, by almost a unanimous vote.

Congress voted and the bill passed.

While Walker’s speech went unfinished in congress, the City of Washington Gazette was all too happy to print all five thousand words the following day.

When asked by the journalist why he had continued speaking when it was obvious that his words were not having any impact, Walker replied that his words weren’t for congress’s benefit and that he had made "a speech for Buncombe”, the county he represented.

Walker's words soon became synonymous with empty talk and rhetoric and other politicians began to refer to similar nonsense as 'a speech to Buncombe.'

Over time, this was shortened to just Buncombe which warped into bunkum as well as bunk, debunk, bunko and, when blended with hoax, hokum. (hoax has its own curious origin story probably coming from the catholic sacramental blessing Hoc est corpus meum via the magic words hocus pocus.)

But what is most interesting about Walker's speech is not just this nugget of etymological trivia or even the content of the speech itself but the reason why he gave the speech in the first place.

Walker didn't say anything that hadn't been said before, nor did he have any chance of changing the minds of his audience. But that didn’t matter to Walker. His constitutes expected their congressman to give a speech and, by God, he was going to give one, regardless of whether anyone was listening or if he had anything to say.

This is one of the defining characteristics of bullshit, nonsense masquerading as sense. Bullshit has an ulterior motive. Bullshit is trying to get away with something. It's sneaky and disingenuous. Bullshit has larceny in its heart; it shakes your hand with one hand while picking your pocket with the other.

A lie is honest in its deception. It has one job, to obscure the truth. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt says in his essay On Bullshit:

The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.

But Walker was a bullshit artist. He wasn’t concerned with truth and lies at all. Instead, Walker relied on the weaponised nonsense of bullshit to get what he really wanted: attention.

In an era when attention is a commodity, where careers can be built not only on what we say or think or create but on how many eyes we can turn our way, bullshit is fast becoming the dominant form of discourse.

Influencers, pundits, debaters, trolls, marketers, and politicians are driven by clicks, views, likes, comments, and ratings. Phil Jamesson nailed the current lay of the land in this surreal tweet:

"Getting roasted is getting toasted"


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