Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Wide Awakes


During the presidential election year of 1860, a group of young men sought change. They identified themselves as “Wide Awakes.” 

The Wide Awakes started in Connecticut in the spring of 1860. The organization, composed largely of young men in the free states in their twenties and thirties, developed clubs or “companies” with the goal of seeing a successful Republican Party candidate in that coming fall’s presidential election. Recognized by their glossy-black military-style capes and caps, and bearing pole torches and Wide Awake open-eye banners, they marched in formations to enhance their size and show their solidarity.

Most young men who joined their local Wide Awake companies grew up in the politically turbulent 1840s and 1850s. Nationally divisive issues such as the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850 and Fugitive Slave Act, Bleeding Kansas, and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, along with fragmented and short-lived political parties, all left these young men disillusioned and seeking a more hopeful future. For the Wide Awakes, the Republican Party offered that hope. 

Established in the mid-1850s, the Republican Party formed primarily around a platform plank of preventing the further expansion of slavery into the western territories. The party’s first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, ran a surprisingly strong race in 1856, but ultimately lost to Democrat James Buchanan. As a new election year dawned, Republican young men desired better organization, more visibility, and the opportunity to have their voices heard this time around. They also sought to display their manhood and embody their party and their candidate’s messages.  

Started with the aim of giving Republican Party proponents the ability to speak freely in public forums without interruption from opposition hecklers, the Wide Awakes grew rapidly and spread across the free states from Connecticut to Wisconsin through party networks and newspaper coverage. Their youthful enthusiasm, militaristic uniforms, martial formations, and collective sense of political objectives only added to their appeal. Historians estimate that about 100,000 young men participated in Wide Awake clubs during 1860.

By the time Abraham Lincoln received the Republican Party’s nomination for president (May 18, 1860) the Wide Awakes were growing rapidly. The Wide Awakes fully supported their party’s choice of the “Rail Splitter,” and as the election neared, their numbers continued to grow. On Election Day, the Wide Awakes attempted to ensure a peaceful vote by patrolling polling stations. Lincoln’s election ultimately resulted more from the split nature of the election (4 candidates) than from the influence of the Wide Awakes, but they provided an energy and sent a message of change that certainly aided Lincoln’s win.

On the heels of Lincoln’s election came the secession of South Carolina, and eventually ten other slave states. Few Wide Awakes prophesied the war that eventually came while they were organizing in the spring and summer of 1860. However, many transitioned from political soldiers to actual fighting men by joining the United States army and naval forces during the Civil War.

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