Abolitionist “Wide Awakes” Were Woke Before “Woke”

Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, slavery, Civil War, abolition

During the four-way race for President in 1860, the six-year-old Republican Party found support from a new generation of voters who helped push Abraham Lincoln to victory. They were known as the “Wide Awakes,” because of their youth, enthusiasm, and torch-lit nighttime marches. “Now the old men are folding their arms and going to sleep,” said William H. Seward while campaigning for Lincoln, “and the young men are Wide Awake.”

The historian Jon Grinspan, writing in the Journal of American History, calls the Wide Awakes “a strange movement that electrified the presidential election.” He records the fact that:

Young men from Bangor to San Francisco and from huge Philadelphia clubs to tiny Iowa troupes donned uniforms, lit torches, and ‘fell in’ to pseudomilitary marching companies. They flooded every northern state and trickled into upper South cities like Baltimore, Wheeling and St. Louis.

Southern elites felt threatened by the Republicans, a party founded in 1854 by, among others, those who stood against slavery—or at least its expansion. Ballots for Lincoln wouldn’t even be distributed in ten Southern states. Some Southerners, and their Northern supporters, were sure the military-style Wide Awake cohorts were readying an invasion. There were even anti-Wide Awake factions, like the Chloroformers, who would put the Wide Awakes to sleep.

Grinspan’s history offers a bit of the flavor of mid-nineteenth-century campaigning. Elections were tumultuous, even on occasion violent, as rivals brawled. “Parties fielded complex campaign machines in a vicious public battle on behalf of their nominees,” he writes. At the time, presidential candidates didn’t tour the country. In fact, they were were rarely seen. Lincoln spent the summer in “quiet seclusion in Springfield,” Illinois. The only mass media was print, and newspapers didn’t pretend to be nonpartisan. Candidates had surrogates, like Seward for Lincoln, and political machines rallied and paraded and bought drinks for voters. 


Read entire article at JStor Daily

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