The origin of “keynote” is an incredible lesson in American history

It’s political convention season in the US, and that means the fanfare of hats, the ritual of state roll-call votes, balloon drops, and lots and lots of keynote speakers. But keynote addresses aren’t just part of the great tradition of US party conventions: the very usage of this word keynote is rooted in American history.

From music to metaphor: keynote

Back in the late 1600s, a keynote referred to the first note – and basis of – a musical key, like C major. Today, musicians more commonly call this the tonic. But the concept of a keynote plays well as a metaphor. The main idea of a speech or text acts like a keynote, sounded at the beginning, resolved to at the end, and setting the prevailing tone throughout. The Oxford Dictionary English (OED) dates this figurative usage to 1763.

It’s not until the following century in America when we see keynote applied to the meaning most familiar to modern speakers: the keynote address, which sets out the central theme of a conference or convention, and typically the main speech of the affair. The OED finds keynote address in an 1891 edition of Illinois’s The Decatur Daily Republican, but keynote speech, its now less common counterpart, appears decades earlier – right in the thick of the Civil War and in reference to a very controversial figure, Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham.

Clement Vallandingham (1820-1871), controversial Civil War-era politician. The keynotes he sounded in his keynotes weren’t quite so harmonious. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Off-keynote speeches

During the Civil War, Vallandigham was one of the Peace Democrats, or “Copperheads.” These conservative Northerners supported the Union but opposed the war, urging an immediate, peaceful settlement with the Confederacy instead. Vallandigham’s apparent pacifism, however, wasn’t so innocent; he did not want abolitionism to enfranchise blacks.

In January 1863, Vallandigham delivered a speech to the US House of Representatives called “The Constitution-Peace-Reunion,” where he denounced Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and even Wall Street. “Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, these are your trophies,” Vallandigham excoriated Union efforts. The New York Herald, sympathetic to the Democratic Party during the war, reported on his speech: “Vallandigham’s Great Speech on ‘Peace’ and ‘Reconstruction’… The New York Freeman’s Journal of this week has this ‘keynote’ speech in full.”

Vallandigham’s vehement criticism of the Lincoln administration compelled Ohio General Ambrose Burnside – whose name actually lives on in sideburns, as he so sported his facial hair – to issue an order against what he saw as treasonous expressions of sympathy with the South. On First Amendment grounds, Vallandigham vociferously challenged his order, delivering a speech where he attacked his president as “King Lincoln.” He was arrested and convicted in a military court. In 1864, he appealed to the Supreme Court in Ex parte Vallandigham but the justices turned it down, claiming no jurisdiction (and seeking to avoid the troublesome matter of habeas corpus).

Lincoln sentenced Vallandigham to exile in the South, but the unrelenting Copperhead snuck back to the North – apparently disguised in a fake beard with a pillow stuffed in his shirt – to continue his anti-war (and anti-abolition) crusade. He even appeared at the 1840 Democratic National Convention – where he delivered, yes, a keynote address insisting on a peace plank in his party’s platform.

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