Missouri State University

Department of Physics, Astronomy and Materials Science

"Sound on the Goose" -- An Internet Search for its Origin

Created:  January 28, 2005  Last Modified:  March 6, 2005


Modification History after March 6, 2005

     September 20, 2005 Address Changes and Fixed Broken Link.

     October 20, 2005   Another Theory section added.


Emmett Redd, Ph.D., Associate Professor

Department of Physics, Astronomy, and Materials Science

Missouri State University





Note:  I am not a historian or an etymologist although I may have played like them on the internet.  Historians and etymologists do much more to document their work than I did in preparing this.  And, honestly, it would be foolish of me to try to do their level of scholarly activity and take time away from my other research; I have probably spent too much time on this already.  But, I provide it with hope that it can help real historians and etymologists study the origin of "Sound on the Goose."




I first became aware of the phrase, "sound on the goose," in an ion-atom scattering laboratory at the University of Missouri-Rolla.  A fellow graduate student kept his radio tuned to KUMR, the local National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate.  John Ciardi featured the phrase on his "A Word in Your Ear" program one evening in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.  Although I cannot obtain any NPR documentation of his program, the phrase is discussed in his 1980 book, A Browser’s Dictionary and Native’s Guide to the Unknown American Language.  In it (and on the radio program), he noted it means, “In favor of slavery” and was the safe answer to the question, “How do you stand on the goose?”  It was used during the pre-Civil-War Kansas-Missouri border conflict over the election to determine whether Kansas would be a slave or free state.   


Since I had spent my first twenty years in southwest Missouri and had never heard it, this phrase intrigued me.  I would ask my elders if they had ever heard it and received no positive answers.  This was an on and off interest after I left the laboratory in July 1985.


In December, 2004, I finally thought to do some internet searching and had some success.  It turns out that there are many specific details to address and variations of the phrase that bear discussion.  I will first list what I found and then present my arguments to support the find.  During that discussion, I will also list explanations summarizing current historical understanding. 


The Origin?


Often thinking the four word phrase painted a picture (rather than a picture being worth a thousand words), I was open to an image being the origin.  After a few days of searching, I believe the origin is a political cartoon from the 1852 presidential race, dating it between late June and early November 1852.  In the pro-Whig cartoon, John Magee drew the Whig candidate, Winfield Scott, riding a gamecock leading the race with the Democrat opponent, Franklin Pierce, riding a goose.  Although Pierce is fainting in the cartoon, the imagery matches that of the later part of the phrase, i.e. Pierce is “on the goose.”  Since Pierce won the election, a Pierce supporter could claim that John Magee was all wrong, Pierce should have been in the lead, and that Pierce was strong (or “sound”) rather than faint (feeble) “on the goose.” 


I have found no references that a Pierce supporter ever made such a comment relating to the cartoon.  But, I have found a related phrase that should predate (written in connection with the convention in the first part of June 1852) the cartoon, “…Pierce is as sound on all Southern questions as any Southern man,” on page 242 of Jefferson Davis:  American Patriot.  This statement also shows anyone can be “sound on … Southern questions…”


The cartoon does predate the first use of a variant of the phrase I have found, “…all right on the Slavery question” in a letter dated December 9, 1854, from Samuel Ralston.  The letter also contains another variant, “…right on the ‘Goose question.’”  There is a variant from February 4, 1854, “sound on the slavery question” where no mention of “goose” is in the Michigan editorial.  An important understanding of the linking of a variant phrase with the image comes during the campaign of 1856 by the same artist, John Magee, in this cartoon.  Sitting on a goose, Millard Fillmore, the pro-slavery American (Know-Nothing) party candidate, claims to be “All right on the Goose.”


Pierce-Kansas Connection


In addition to many reports, the editorial above illustrates that the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was very contentious.  Pierce supported it and signed it into law.  Pierce made it easy for pro-slavery people to claim him as their president and people often seek to be like their leader.  Therefore, if Pierce was “sound on the goose” then each pro-slavery person would also.  This would include the Missourians which were able to influence Kansas to be a slave state through a law supported and signed by Pierce.


A March 29, 1855, demonstration in Weston, Missouri, is also rather interesting.  Men there had a live goose fastened to the top of a pole.  I wonder if it were a hickory pole like the “Hickory Poles [set up] to the honor of Young Hickory [Pierce] of the Granite Hills.” on page 38 of Gara's book.


Slavery-Goose Connection


Current scholarship relates the “Goose question” to a “Christmas [goose] gift.”  However, I did find an obscure reference to the proverbial “goose that laid the golden egg” being linked to slavery by one historian.   (An email from Peter Wood, mentioned later in the NPR text, verified he originated the reference on his own.  However, the search described in the next paragraph was already finished.)  Neither of these linkages has any date associated with them; I pursued an internet search on both. 


In that search, the latter gave better success.  I found a document in which Thomas H. Benton at least implies the South is a golden egg laying goose.  It was a benefit to the North and the North is trying to kill it like the boy of the fable.  The document dates itself to 1855.  Since slavery was the contention between the North and the South and since the wealth of the South was so linked to slavery, slavery could be called that wealth-producing goose.  This document does not predate either the 1852 cartoon or the 1854 goose question quote above, but does give a contemporary linkage between goose and slavery.




It appears that I have documented several important linkages between “sound on the goose” and the 1852 political cartoon.  I have also speculated on a few things.  I hope these linkages and speculations can help true historians and etymologists prove the phrase’s origin.


Another Theory


“Goose” may come from a corruption of “Argus.”  It is well known that the newspaper, the Platte Argus, figured prominently in the Kansas-Missouri conflict, being a pro-slavery paper.  Since it was also known as an Atchison mouthpiece, it was no doubt a supporter from the inception of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  Therefore, support for the Act, Popular Sovereignty, and Southern causes could have become synonymous with the paper.  A rough populace could well have used a one-syllable nickname in place of its two-syllable proper name.  This nickname, goose, would then have become synonymous with Popular Sovereignty, pro-slavery, and pro-South issues.


I have found no direct evidence of this.  So far, I have found reference to the existence of 3 issues of the Platte Argus and the earliest in 1854 (December 16), does not predate the first use* of pro-slavery “goose.”  In addition, a paper publishing its nickname has relatively low probability (although, today, some television and radio stations actively promote their nicknames). 


Could such a nickname be attached to the Platte Argus?  Within a year (April 21, 1855) of the earliest recorded dates and passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, another Argus (ironically, abolitionist), that would receive the (unflattering) nickname “Air Goose,” began publishing in Oregon.



*The first reference is to 12-1-1854 in a letter dated 12-9-1854.  (A clergyman reports first hearing the “goose question” as early as October 15, 1854; it was published in 1856. (pages 19 & 24)





I performed many Google searches to find these and other documents related to this topic.




Below is a table and links to some important occurrences of “sound on the goose” or closely related phrases that may not be linked above.  It is not an exhaustive list.











Independence, MO









Leavenworth Herald



Kickapoo ferry

John Elles







The Liberator
















Glasgow, MO

Gov. Col. John W. Geary



Kansas City, MO












Mozart Hall NY?












Gauley WV & Connecticut

R.B. Hayes







Lecompton, KS

Captain Hampton