Political platform, planks

Posted by ESC on February 12, 2002

In Reply to: Planks posted by Bruce Kahl on February 12, 2002

: : : In history class we are studying the birth of the populist party and this incorporates the use of the phrase "plank in the party platform." I am curious about the origin of the phrase. Anyone who can shed some light on this is welcome to reply

: : The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as one (figurative) meaning of "plank":
: : An item or article of a political or other program. Orig. and chiefly U.S.
: : [Quotations illustrating this use:] They kin' o' slipt the planks frum out th' ole platform one by one.
: : Every subject of the platform is spoken of as one of its planks; thus we read of 'the slavery plank', 'the tariff plank'.
: : Another 'plank' is the restriction of Chinese immigration.

: This is the way I always thought of a political party's "Plank":
: A "plank" is any ONE of the MANY stated principles or objectives comprising the political platform of a party campaigning for election.

: The "platform" of a political party consists of a SERIES of principles and policies adopted by a political party or a candidate.
: A wooden plank is a long, flat piece of timber, thicker than a board.

: A wooden platform is something to stand on or to cling to for support and is comprised of a series of wooden planks nailed or fastened together just like a political platform is unified on various issues or "planks".

Note: In the first paragraph, the word "repair" means "go." As in, "We repaired to the porch."

PLATFORM/PLANK - "Ideally, the standards to which the wise and honest voters can repair; in practice, a list of principles and positions designed to attract most and offend least, important mainly in the work it gives a convention to do other than select a candidate.

Francis Bacon, in 1623: 'The wisdom of a lawmaker consisteth not only in a platform of justice, but in the application thereof.' In most early use in the U.S., the word related to the principles of a church, taken from the French word for ground plan of a building. Since the word also came to mean a raised area from which a person could speak, its metaphoric use in politics married both senses. Like 'stump' and 'husting,' a place to stand soon was allied to a place to take a stand.

As early as 1803, the 'Massachusetts Spy' was writing about 'The Platform of Federalism,' but it was William Lloyd Garrison in his antislavery 'Liberator' who would help popularize the term; in 1844, the first national party platforms were adopted and by 1848 the word was a political standby.

The word 'plank' was a natural derivative: in the 1848 'Bigelow Papers,' one line of doggerel read: 'They kin' o' slipt the planks frum out th' old platform one by one/An' made it gradooally noo, 'fore folks know'd wut wuz done.'

In current use, a party platform is taken with great seriousness at a convention, since it enables many compromises to be made and gives appointment plums to many factional leaders, but is soon forgotten in the campaign. A frequent saying, of obscure origin, is that 'A platform is not something to stand on, but something to run on' and is soon followed by 'A platform is what you start by running on and end by running from."

From Safire's New Political Dictionary by William Safire (Random House, New York, 1993). Page 579.

See also: the last words of Sir Francis Bacon.