Monday, September 14, 2020

Lincoln's Attachment to the Wide-Awake Political Club.

The Wide-Awake Political Party was a youth organization cultivated by the Republican Party during the 1860 presidential election.
In 1858, young men from Hartford, Connecticut, organized bodyguards for Republican candidates campaigning through the streets of the Democratic city. They called themselves the Wide-Awakes. Two years later hundreds of thousands of Wide-Awakes in military gear were practicing infantry drills, marching in torchlight parades, and helping to elect Abraham Lincoln. Their drills became so ubiquitous that when a minor earthquake struck Boston, many assumed it was just the Wide-Awakes marching on the Common. They liked military regalia and wore military-style caps and sashes along with shiny oil-cloth capes. The capes protected them from the leaky, six-foot whale oil torches they carried on parade. The spectacle of large, torch-bearing paramilitary units supporting Abraham Lincoln alarmed southerners. To them, the Wide-Awakes represented northern aggression.

In March of 1860, five young Wide-Awakes went to hear Abraham Lincoln speak at Hartford City Hall. He said he opposed slavery and supported workers’ rights to strike. The young men liked what they heard, and after the speech, they escorted him by torchlight to the home of Mayor Tom Allyn. The Lincoln campaign team knew a good thing when they saw it. They started to organize Wide-Awake clubs for young Republican men to register and to get out the vote.
Soon after Lincoln’s speech in Hartford, the Wide-Awakes started receiving unsolicited letters from people wanting to start their own company. Henry Sperry, a 23-year-old aspiring newspaper editor, wrote hundreds of fliers, letters, and editorials. James Chalker, a 28-year-old textile salesman, sold 20,000 Wide-Awake uniforms during the campaign. Oilcloth for shiny capes grew scarce because of such high demand.

Hundreds of thousands of young men throughout the country donned Wide-Awake uniforms and performed military maneuvers in parades. Many were clerks, farmers, and factory workers, and nearly all had a fascination with martial culture. They called their clubs ‘companies,’ and they had ranks, officers, duties, and a drill manual. They adopted the image of a large eyeball as their standard-bearer. And they had mottoes: “Free soil for Freemen,” “The Territories must be free to the people,” “Free Homesteads,” “River and Harbor improvements,” and “Protection to American Industries.”
Republicans bragged that they had Wide-Awake chapters in every county of every free [Northern] state. By the day of Lincoln's election as president, there were said to be over 500,000 Wide-Awake members. Newly registered and young voters were targeted to bring votes to the Republican Party. The group remained active for several decades.
Soon after Lincoln’s speech in Hartford, the Wide-Awakes started receiving unsolicited letters from people wanting to start their own company. Henry Sperry, a 23-year-old aspiring newspaper editor, wrote hundreds of fliers, letters, and editorials. James Chalker, a 28-year-old textile salesman, sold 20,000 Wide-Awake uniforms during the campaign. Oilcloth for shiny capes grew scarce because of such high demand.

The clubs spread through central Connecticut and wherever the contests were close between Democrats and Republicans: New Hampshire, southern New York, southern New Jersey, and central Illinois extending to Wisconsin. In Republican strongholds like Massachusetts and Vermont, the Wide-Awakes didn’t do so well. Sperry wrote a letter explaining why: “Wherever the fight is hottest, there is their post of duty, and there the Wide-Awakes are found.” Each company had about 100 enthusiastic young men. They met several times a week in headquarters, often above a storefront. The clubs provided excitement and camaraderie. A 20-year-old Connecticut carriage maker jotted that he’d “had a very fine time” at a Wide-Awake parade. In May, the Wide-Awakes made a splash in Chicago during the Republican convention with a torchlight parade. Afterward, a company started in Bangor, Maine. A local druggist marketed Dr. Allen’s Balsamic Cough Lozenges to cure the hoarseness caused by shouting at political rallies. On July 26, 1860, the Hartford Wide-Awakes held a banquet for 5,000 fellow members from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.
As the election neared in October, 10,000 Wide-Awakes marched in a torchlight procession three miles long. The Chicago Tribune devoted eight columns to the spectacle. The Democrats tried to find an answer for the Wide-Awakes. They formed their own marching clubs, called the "Ever Readys," Douglas Guards, Little Giants, and Invincibles. But none of the Democratic clubs matched the impact of the Wide-Awakes. By November, the club had hundreds of thousands of members. Some estimates put their numbers at 500,000. Contemporary politicians credited them with bringing young voters into the Republican fold. 

After Lincoln won the presidential election, some of the Wide-Awake companies disbanded. Others offered to escort him to Washington. Southerners viewed their persistence with alarm, thinking it a prelude to an invasion of their region. South Carolinians formed Minute Men militias to counteract the Wide-Awakes. Perhaps the southerners weren’t far wrong. When the Civil War broke out, 80% of the original Hartford company volunteered for military service.

Republicans bragged that they had Wide-Awake chapters in every county of every Northern (free) state. By the day of Lincoln's election as president, there were 500,000 Wide-Awake members and new, young voters into the Republican fold. The group remained active for several decades.

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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