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A “mossback” is an extreme conservative, one so bound up in the past and resistant to forward motion that it (figuratively speaking) is covered in moss, like a stone.

Origin of “Mossback”

The term mossback originally referred to people dodging the draft during the Civil War; mossbacks were people from the Carolinas who hid to avoid being called up to serve as soldiers and were willing to hide “until moss grew on their backs.”

The term later came to mean reactionaries and hidebound conservatives.

In 1896 the editor of the Emporia Gazette, William Allen White, used the term in his fiery editorial, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” White later said that he regretted the editorial, which he wrote in a fit of pique after a run-in with a group of populists who backed William Jennings Bryan for president.

The editorial lambasted Kansas, saying:

We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have an old mossback Jacksonian whosnorts and howls because there is a bathtub in the State House; we are runningthat old jay for governor. We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who has said openly in a dozen speeches that “the rights of the user areparamount to the rights of the owner”; we are running him for Chief Justice, so that capital will come tumbling over itself to get into the state.

Years later, President Harry Truman was fond of deriding his political opponents as “mossbacks” who were trying to stand in the way of progress.

A New York Times report from 1952 read, in part: “He [Truman] derided critics of his farm and other policies, describing them as “mossbacks” and accusing them of spreading “just plain hokum.”

He repeated that these critics were mossbacks and said he could call them by name if anybody asked him to.””

In 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was running for re-election, much was made of his ongoing dispute with the Democratic-controlled Congress. Bush gave a number of campaign speeches in which he lashed out at Congressional spending and complained that they were in the hands of special interest groups; for his part, House Speaker Thomas Foley called Bush a “bystander president” and an obstructionist.

Bush lamented that he had tried to get along with Congress; he claimed that he had stretched out his hand in friendship at the beginning of his term, but that “these old mossbacks bit it off.” 

Mossback is not the most common term, so when it’s used, it’s often used for comic effect. The Baltimore Sun, for example, ran a piece discussing the idea that there is no real difference between American politicians of different political parties.

The piece read:

Critics of American politics – generally from the left – often say there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans.

Ralph Nader argued in 2000 that Al Gore and George W. Bush were virtually the same. Europeans like to say that all American politicians are conservative and that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would be mossbacks in Sweden or France…