This afternoon, I worked on a blog post about how West Virginia media have uncritically covered David McKinley (WV-1) on the impeachment issue. (I’ll publish it tomorrow.) In researching the coverage, I noticed that the congressman discussed the issue on Hoppy Kercheval’s talk show on MetroNews Radio last Friday* and so I listened to the segment. On the impeachment issue, as I’ll note in my next post, McKinley mostly repeated what he had said previously (referencing Hamilton, “weaponizing impeachment”). What caught my ear, however, was that McKinley, while discussing Abraham Lincoln and his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War referred to it as “the War of Northern Aggression.” I was stunned by McKinley’s adoption of what 20th century Confederate sympathizers came to call the Civil War. I wasn’t the only one – host Hoppy Kercheval quickly reacted stating that he was “a little surprised” at McKinley’s use of the phrase. Kercheval then gave McKinley a chance to walk back his statement suggesting that he might be “just joking.” McKinley passed on the opportunity and then told Kercheval: “We could have another conversation about that.” Kercheval replied “We’ll have to” and then quickly ended the conversation.
Curious as to the origins of the phrase, I did some research and found that “the War of Northern Aggression” is a recent term coined by apologizers and sympathizers for the Confederacy. For example, historian Andy Hall wrote about it in 2011:
While there may be other, scattered examples that predate the mid-1950s, it’s clear that the phrase “War of Northern Aggression,” used as a proper noun for the Civil War, only came into regular use in the last 50 years or so. It is not a term that was used during that conflict, or for nearly a century after.
(Emphasis in the original.)
So what, exactly, was happening in the United States at about that time? What was going on the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s that caused it to become a popular rhetorical device? Part of it seems to be the Civil War Centennial, but there was also Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Mansfield, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, the Citizen’s Councils, the Freedom Riders and so on. There was lots going on, and even a quick perusal of early examples of its usage make clear that “the War of Northern Aggression,” as a proper noun, was routinely employed by Southern segregationists to draw parallels between the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century and the conflict of a hundred years before, to enlist the memory of Confederate ancestors in opposition to federal court-mandated processes like the desegregation of public schools and integration of public facilities. The phrase “War of Northern Aggression” does not trace its origins to the cause of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis; it finds its champions with the likes of Orval Faubus and George Wallace.
(Emphasis is mine.)
Knowing its genesis, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to invoke it, or expect to be taken seriously when they do.
Hall must not know Congressman McKinley. Hopefully, Hoppy Kercheval does bring this back up with McKinley. I, for one, would like to know more about McKinley's beliefs about the Civil War.
*Note -- I could not find an easy way to link to this Kercheval program. Go to the WV Metro "Talkline"site here and look for the November 22 program. The McKinley impeachment segment begins around one hour and twenty minutes into the program (1:20).