Definition of Stump Speech

Illustration of Lincolns peaking onstage

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Stump speech is a term used today to describe a candidate's standard speech, delivered day after day during a typical political campaign. But in the 19th century, the phrase held a much more colorful meaning.

The phrase became firmly established in the early decades of the 1800s, and stump speeches got their name for a good reason: they would often be delivered by candidates who literally stood atop a tree stump.

Stump speeches caught on along the American frontier, and there are numerous examples where politicians were said to be "stumping" for themselves or for other candidates.

A reference book in the 1840s defined the terms "to stump" and "stump speech." And by the 1850s newspaper articles from around the United States often referred to a candidate "taking to the stump."

The ability to give an effective stump speech was considered an essential political skill. And notable 19th-century politicians, including Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Stephen Douglas, were respected for their skills as stump speakers.

Vintage Definition of Stump Speech

The tradition of stump speeches became so well-established that A Dictionary of Americanisms, a reference book published in 1848, defined the term "To stump":

"To Stump. 'To stump it' or 'take the stump.' A phrase signifying to make electioneering speeches.

The 1848 dictionary also mentioned "to stump it" was a phrase "borrowed from the backwoods," as it referred to speaking from atop a tree stump.

The idea of linking stump speeches to the backwoods seems obvious, as the use of a tree stump as an improvised stage would naturally refer to a location where land was still being cleared. And the idea that stump speeches were essentially a rural event led to candidates in cities sometimes using the term in a mocking manner.

The Style of 19th Century Stump Speeches

Refined politicians in the cities may have looked down on stump speeches. But out in the countryside, and especially along the frontier, stump speeches appreciated for their rough and rustic character. They were free-wheeling performances that were different in content and tone from the more polite and sophisticated political discourse heard in the cities. At times the speech-making would be an all-day affair, complete with food and barrels of beer.

The rollicking stump speeches of the early 1800s would typically contain boasts, jokes, or insults directed at opponents.

A Dictionary of Americanisms quoted a memoir of the frontier published in 1843:

"Some very good stump speeches are delivered from a table, a chair, a whiskey barrel, and the like. Sometimes we make the best stump speeches on horseback."

John Reynolds, who served as governor of Illinois in the 1830s, wrote a memoir in which he fondly recalled giving stump speeches in the late 1820s.

Reynolds described the political ritual:

"Addresses known as stump-speeches received their name, and much of their celebrity, in Kentucky, where that mode of electioneering was carried to great perfection by the great orators of that state.
"A large tree is cut down in the forest, so that the shade may be enjoyed, and the stump is cut smooth on the top for the speaker to stand on. Sometimes, I have seen steps cut in them for the convenience of mounting them. Sometimes seats are prepared, but more frequently the audience enjoys the luxury of the green grass to sit and lie on."

A book on the Lincoln-Douglas Debates published nearly a century ago recalled the heyday of stump speaking on the frontier, and how it was viewed as something of a sport, with opposing speakers engaging in spirited competition:

"A good stump speaker could always attract a crowd, and a wit combat between two speakers representing opposite parties was a real holiday of sport. It is true that the jokes and counterstrokes were often feeble attempts, and not very far removed from vulgarity; but the stronger the blows the better they were liked, and the more personal, the more enjoyable they were."

Abraham Lincoln Possessed Skills as a Stump Speaker

Before he faced Abraham Lincoln in the legendary 1858 contest for a U.S. Senate seat, Stephen Douglas expressed concern about Lincoln's reputation. As Douglas put it: "I shall have my hands full. He is the strong man of the party — full of wit, facts, dates — and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West."

Lincoln's reputation had been earned early. A classic story about Lincoln described an incident the occurred "on the stump" when he was 27 years old and still living in New Salem, Illinois.

Riding into Springfield, Illinois, to give a stump speech on behalf of the Whig Party in the 1836 elections, Lincoln heard about a local politician, George Forquer, who had switched from Whig to Democrat. Forquer had been generously rewarded, as part of the Spoils System of the Jackson administration, with a lucrative government job. Forquer had built an impressive new house, the first house in Springfield to have a lightning rod.

That afternoon Lincoln delivered his speech for the Whigs, and then Forquer stood to speak for the Democrats. He attacked Lincoln, making sarcastic remarks about Lincoln's youth.

Given the chance to respond, Lincoln said:

"I am not so young in years as I am in the tricks and trades of a politician. But, live long or die young, I would rather die now, than, like the gentleman," — at this point Lincoln pointed at Forquer — "change my politics, and with the change receive an office worth three thousand dollars a year. And then feel obliged to erect a lightning rod over my house to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God."

From that day forward Lincoln was respected as a devastating stump speaker.

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McNamara, Robert. "Definition of Stump Speech." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 27). Definition of Stump Speech. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Definition of Stump Speech." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).