Q: What is the origin of the term “stump” in the political sense? (X stumps for Candidate Y; Z gives a stump speech.)
A: The short answer is that the political sense of “stump” comes from using the base of a large felled tree as a platform for speaking.
For the long answer, we’ll have to go back a few hundred years, when the noun “stump” originally referred to the remaining part of a severed human limb, not that of a fallen tree.
The term is derived from similar words in other Germanic languages meaning mutilated, blunt, or dull. In Middle English, it originally meant “the part remaining of an amputated or broken-off limb or portion of the body,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from an Arthurian alliterative poem in which a knight’s arm, cut off in battle, is miraculously restored:
“Þan Ioseph … bad þat mon knele, þe arm helede a-ȝeyn hol to þe stompe” (“then Joseph … bade the man kneel; the arm healed again whole to the stump”). From Joseph of Arimathie (circa 1350), edited in 1871 by Walter William Skeat.
The dictionary notes the use of the term in the expression “fight to the stumps,” which it describes as “apparently an allusion” to a 17th-century English ballad:
“For when his leggs were smitten of, he fought vpon his stumpes.” From “The Ballad of Chevy Chase” (c. 1650), published in 1889 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited by Francis J. Child.
In the 15th century, the OED says, the noun “stump” came to mean the “portion of the trunk of a felled tree that remains fixed in the ground; also, a standing tree-trunk from which the upper part and the branches have been cut or broken off.”
The dictionary’s first example is from Promptorium Parvulorum (c. 1440), an English-Latin dictionary: “Stumpe, of a tree hewyn don, surcus.” We’re unfamiliar with surcus, but we assume it’s a rare Latin term for “stump” and related to the diminutive surculus (“twig”).
Getting back to your question, the OED says the political sense of “stump” comes from the use of the term for the base of “a large felled tree used as a stand or platform for a speaker.”
The earliest citation is from a 1775 Tory song, printed as a broadside, that mocked George Washington’s July 3 arrival at the Cambridge common to take formal command of the Continental Army: “Upon a stump he placed himself Great Washington did he.”
By the early 18th century, the term was being used loosely to mean “a place or an occasion of political oratory,” the dictionary says. The first example is from an 1816 debate in Congress:
“I [a Virginian member] think his [a South Carolinian’s] arguments are better calculated for what is called on this side of the river [the Potomac] stump, than for this Committee” (The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 1853).
The OED adds that the term was used in expressions like “to go on the stump” and “to take the stump,” in the sense of “to go about the country making political speeches, whether as a candidate or as the advocate of a cause.”
Here’s an example we’ve found from the mid-19th century that includes the expression “take to the stump” as well as the noun “stump” used attributively, or adjectivally:
“Why didn’t you ever take to the stump? You’d make a famous stump orator!” From Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), by Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Here Alfred St. Clare is speaking to his twin brother Augustine, the father of Eva and a brief owner of Tom.)
As for the verb “stump,” it meant to stumble over an obstacle when it showed up in The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem written in the late 12th or early 13th century:
“Ne beoþ heo nouht alle forlore þat stumpeþ at þe fleysses more” (“They [women] are not at all lost if they stump [stumble] over a root of the flesh [lust]”).
And at the beginning of 17th century, the OED says, the verb came to mean “to walk clumsily, heavily, or noisily, as if one had a wooden leg.” The first citation is from a satirical poem:
“Some [dames] in their pantophels [high-heeled slippers] too stately stompe” (Tom Tel-Troths Message, 1600, by John Lane).
In the 19th century, Oxford says, the verb took on the sense of “to make stump speeches” or “to travel over (a district) making stump speeches.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Peter Pilgrim, an 1838 novel by the American writer Robert Montgomery Bird: “I stumped through my district, and my fellow-citizens sent me to Congress!”
Over the years, the word “stump” has taken on various other senses as a noun or verb, including the “stump” of a pencil, eraser, etc. worn down by use (1516); one of the “stumps,” or upright sticks, that form a wicket in cricket (1730); to be “stumped” (baffled, 1807), and “up a stump” (puzzled, 1829).