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A Short History of Snowflakes (or, A Quick Case of Irony)

If you’ve found yourself in a conversation about more recent politics, there’s a fairly good chance that you were either called a “snowflake” or called someone else a “snowflake.”

This epiphet of late popularity was grown in its usage over the past year or so. In a debate, the person who is thought to first urge some sort of tolerance can be unceremoniously written off as a “snowflake.” It’s slightly more subtle than “libtard” or “deplorable,” and every bit as uncreative and pointless.

It is, according to the LA Times, a shortening of “special snowflake… a pejorative for an entitled person.” Generally it is tossed about by the alt-right, a white nationalist movement. However, it is also lobbed back at white nationalists who sometimes seem a touch over-sensative concerning their own ideals. Some, mostly liberals, have even tried to reclaim it – as in, “damn right we’re snowflakes, winter is coming.”

Though its modern usage is probably derived from Fight Club, its historical usage as in the political arena dates back to Civil War-era Missouri.

In a blog post on Merriam-Webster‘s “Words We’re Watching” series, the author explains:

In Missouri in the early 1860s, a ‘snowflake’ was a person who was opposed to the abolition of slavery—the implication of the name being that such people valued white people over black people.

They go on to explain that people who wanted gradual emancipation were called Claybanks, and those who called for immediate emancipation were known as Charcoals (or Brown Radicals).

While this is true, they neglect to give any kind of source. This led me on a search.

The earliest use in print that I could find comes from the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1863. This was the fifth such convention since the start of the war, and the first to deal with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

The Proclamation declared that the enslaved people were free, but only in places in rebellion against the United States. With Missouri officially remaining true to the Union, the slaves were uneffected by Lincoln’s decree.
Among other things, the Constitutional Convention of 1863 sought to deal with that.

Meeting before this Convention was a new Missouri legislature, true to the Union. Gathered in Jefferson City beginning in December of 1862, they were largely divided into three distinct factions:

  1. The Snowflakes: Those who were opposed to war, yet in favor of slavery.
  2. The Claybanks: Conservative Unionists, who called for gradual emancipation.
  3. The Charcoals: Lincoln supporters, who were in favor of vigorous war as well as immediate emancipation. 1L.U. Reavis Saint Louis: The Future Great City of the World (C.R. Barns, 1876) 235. I chose this book as it’s the earliest reference I could find for the definitions. Also, it’s the book referred to by other historians in more modern works.

Through all of the transcripts of the sessions of the Constitutional Convention, only one – a delegate named Sample Orr – referred to these monikers.

Sample Orr had run for Governor in 1860, narrowly losing to Claiborne Fox Jackson. Jackson had run on an anti-secession platform, but was working behind the scenes to bring Missouri out of the Union.

United States troops at Camp Jackson, Missouri. 1861.

Orr, a Constitutional Unionist, opposed to the Democrat Jackson, followed his adversary around the state, debating him whenever he could. After Jackson won, Orr became a legislator and openly battled Jackson’s efforts to force Missouri’s secession.

After the United States troops beat back the Pro-Secessionist forces under Sterling Price, Orr remained behind. However, he was arrested by Union authorities likely for making a speech against the abolition of slavery.

Sample Orr was acquitted, though he was still seen as a false-Unionist sine he was against freeing the slaves. 2Dennis K. Borman Lincoln and Citizens’ Rights in Civil War Missouri (Louisiana State University Press, 2011) 142-143.

This brings us to the 1863 Constitutional Convention, when Orr wished to clarify his alliance.

“There are but two parties in the country,” declared Orr. “We hear various parties spoken of every day, as Claybanks, Snowflakes, Charcoals, Nullifiers, etc.; but there are but two parties in this country. One is for sustaining the Constitution and laws of the country, and the other is for overriding them. I belong to the party that is for the Constitution, the Union, and the enforcement of the Laws; and every other individual that is not for this, I do not care whether he is northern or southern, whether he glories in Abolition or Secession, – belongs to the opposite party.” 3Proceedings of the Missouri State Convention, June, 1863. p213.

In Orr’s mind, you were either for Union or for Disunion. This was pretty typical talk for a Constitutional Unionist. And while Orr certainly wished for there to be but two parties, reality held a slightly different viewpoint.

The Civil War-era “Snowflake,” then, was not an epithet as we know it now. Orr, who would not have referred to himself as a Claybank, seemed to note these names merely in passing. He didn’t care for them, but mostly it was to prove a point – not that they were divisive, overused and unimaginative.

The author of the Merriam-Webster piece explains that Snowflakes were thus named because they “valued white people over black people.” The references to fragility would come a century later, tauted most often by white nationalists – those who would themselves have been considered Snowflakes in 1860s Missouri.

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.