Lincoln’s Paramilitaries, the “Wide Awakes,” Helped Bring About a Political Revolution

Throughout the 1860 election, the Wide Awakes, a novel paramilitary-style organization, held mass rallies, marches, and demonstrations to combat slave power. These “young working-men for Lincoln” successfully combined new media and unrepentant partisanship to mobilize hundreds of thousands against the Southern planter class.

A Wide Awakes parade in Lower Manhattan, one of a series of political rallies held in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston during the first week of October 1860. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bernie Sanders’s theory of political change was at least four decades in the making. His “Not Me. Us.” pursuit of transformation by drawing non-regular and first-time voters into the electoral process began in Vermont in 1981. The results — a socialist with third-party roots rising from small city mayor to US congressman to senator to the heights of national politics — are now legendary.

However, the idea of bringing new voters into political coalition through attacks on entrenched power and the pursuit of common material goals is far from novel. Earlier American struggles for “political revolution” were also dependent on capturing inexperienced electors: enlisting the disengaged, the disenchanted, and those previously blocked from participation by age, race, gender, class, or national status. Challenging a stagnant political system by attempting to remake the voter base toward workers has been an aim of movement politics from nineteenth-century farmer-labor parties through Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s.

In the years before the Civil War, the new antislavery Republican Party offered the earliest large-scale instance of mass democratization combined with progressive political reform. And during the crucial presidential election year of 1860, this insurgent electoral movement was safeguarded by a novel paramilitary-style organization — a loose-knit group of local organizations that held mass rallies, marches, and demonstrations for Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. Called “Wide Awakes” for their vigilance against the slave system, these militant networks reshaped the national political landscape and helped elect Lincoln president.

Unlike the Sanders movement, the Wide Awakes were not trying to commandeer a party and divert it from a more conservative agenda to a different set of priorities. Despite the party’s ideological variety, all antebellum Republicans were working — at different paces — toward the common goal of marginalizing slavery. It was an early, and wildly successful, brand of mass politics.

The American Jacobins

The Wide Awakes emerged from the militia culture and mass rallies that defined mid-nineteenth-century American politics. Across the country, ethnic, fraternal, and worker organizations mustered companies of “Zouaves,” “Minute Men,” and “Continentals” for marching drills; meanwhile, national political parties, including the nascent Republicans, held enormous political gatherings, often attracting tens of thousands of participants.

It was within this context that the first Wide Awake club emerged in Hartford, Connecticut. Composed of a dozen young textile clerks and rifle makers, its purpose was to escort antislavery candidates and shield them from Democratic hecklers during the March 1860 gubernatorial contest. When the Republican candidate scored a narrow victory, one of the local Wide Awakes, an aspiring newspaperman, made sure that he and his comrades received the credit. Unique in its marriage of “militia fever” to mass politics, young Republicans elsewhere quickly mimicked the Hartford model.

National units adopted the “Connecticut style.” Clubs drafted a constitution, held weekly meetings, elected officers, issued membership certificates, published pamphlets and songbooks, and adopted the wide-open and unsleeping eye as an official logo.

Wide Awake culture blended martial symbolism with a sense of historical mission, employing militaristic pageantry to claim the legacies of the American and French Revolutions (opponents likened them to Jacobins in a Republican “Reign of Terror”). “Captains” commanded close-order drills from West Point manuals that units then displayed during imposing nighttime parades. Marchers in symbolic combat formed columns of “rails” (to symbolize their candidate as the “Rail-splitter”) replete with drums, trumpets, flags, and politicized banners. They carried tin lamps on pine sticks (or “rails”) as they tramped.

The Wide Awake uniform consisted of a glazed cap with a red, white, and blue ribbon and a black enamel cloak, which protected members from rain and dripping lamp oil. Demand was so high that tailors ran out of enamel cloth.

At the same time, Wide Awakes reflected traditional gender roles and racial norms. Clubs were universally male, with women, sometimes called “Wide Awake ladies,” sewing flags and serving as sponsors. Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented a banner to the Wide Awakes of Seneca Falls, New York. Though at least one company of black Wide Awakes, “the Sumner Grays,” marched through Boston in 1860, the vast majority of chapters were white. Membership appeals to “Free White Labor,” or economic opportunity for laboring men designated as “white,” demonstrated the resilience of the white racial identity that blight class consciousness and hinder worker organization. Yet Wide Awake descriptions of “armies,” “battles,” and “soldiers” enlisting in a battalion of freedom were provocative, even radical, and aimed broadly at the power of the slaver class.

Public spectacle was a means to a new manner of politics. Accelerated by advances in communication and print media, the Wide Awakes grew from the bottom up, often independent of elite party managers. Members were young, overwhelmingly between fifteen and forty years of age, and their ethos offered an unapologetically partisan challenge to the party instability and failed moderation politics of the previous generation.

Indeed, the early Republican Party was a broad and sometimes contradictory coalition of former Whigs, Free Soilers, Know-Nothings, and antislavery Democrats, as well as abolitionists, assorted reformers, immigrant veterans of the revolutions of 1848, and socialists. The common link between all of these groups was that, at the very least, they opposed the expansion of slavery in the western territories. Although the Wide Awakes straddled the party’s myriad ideological backgrounds, many were first-time voters, and they self-identified as the energized vanguard within a cutting-edge and compelling reform party.

Expanding the Electorate

The outsize role played by Wide Awakes in securing Abraham Lincoln’s nomination at the Republican convention in Chicago that May spawned imitators across the North and into the Border South. Sometimes declaring their cause a “political revolution,” new Republicans formed Wide Awake associations in village greens and meeting halls throughout the summer and fall. They adopted the confrontational approach of organizing “wherever the fight is the hottest,” or mobilizing strongest not only in Republican strongholds or on college campuses, but in major cities with large and powerful Democratic voting blocs including St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Baltimore.

These metaphorical brigades encountered real bloodshed in the heavily Democratic lower North. Despite such hazards, groups calling themselves the “Lincoln Guards,” “Lincoln Rangers,” and the “Rail Splitters’ Battalion” soon paraded through every major city in the free states.

A Wide Awakes banner, on display at the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the greatest impact of increased Wide Awake demonstrations — and subsequent news headlines — was that they marshaled new voters and brought them into the Republican column. Though the movement was organized and piloted by common people, many party operatives embraced the Wide Awakes, hoping they might energize and sustain an expanded electorate.

The strategy of national Republicans, who had become more radical since 1856, was to convince voters that their interests aligned with “free soil and free labor.” This involved not only winning over former Democrats (without compromising antislavery principles), but also bringing first-time voters to the polls. Republican leadership sought to persuade both the swelling numbers of German immigrants, especially in the Midwest, and to grow and capture the demographic political scientists would later term “the youth vote.”

Party directors also hoped, according to the New York Herald, “to attract the young men just entering their political careers.” This strategy involved Wide Awake networks spearheading registration drives geared toward new and young voters. Although rival parties attempted to replicate the Wide Awake model through Stephen Douglas’s “Little Giants,” Southern Democratic “Chapultepecs,” Constitutional Unionist “Bell Ringers,” and Republican “young men for war” were singularly effective in attracting new recruits. As historian William E. Gienapp argues, these young first-time voters, especially in the West, proved the most critical element of new party support in 1860.

An Army of Labor

The Wide Awake emphasis on inexperienced voters betrays the extent to which the organization was classed and operating in the service of a political program with material implications.  Historian Matt Karp identifies the Wide Awakes as useful instruments within “the mass politics of antislavery,” arguing that Republicans juxtaposed the “Slave Power” (the aristocratic few) against “free labor” (the working many) in order to frame the struggle against slavery “as a species of class struggle.” Although the Democratic Party commanded most of the urban Catholic working class, and labor leaders including William H. Sylvis continued to support Stephen A. Douglas, the Wide Awakes augmented Republican rhetoric that framed the “slaveholding aristocracy” as anathema to popular economic policy, including tariffs and free homesteads. Allusions to “the Union unbought” argued that powerful slaveholders tipped the scales of the political system against “honest producers.”

Members and admirers characterized the clubs not only by their youthfulness, but also by vocation. One Connecticut editor described them as “the young laboring men” of the free states, and membership appealed explicitly to aspirational and upwardly mobile, or “on the make,” wage-earning mechanics and factory workers, apprentices, artisans, and small farmers, as well as petit bourgeois clerks and shopkeepers. Sympathetic journalists reminded readers that meetings and marches took place “after his day’s labor in the shop,” so that workingmen could play a pivotal role.

The Wide Awakes were not class-based organizations in the vein of trade unions or workingmen’s associations. Because they operated on behalf of a political party and within the confines of a single campaign, rather than conjointly through workplaces and permanent working-class institutions, they also possessed an undeveloped class character. Party elites nonetheless met the group’s working-class element with trepidation, and many worried about the absence of “the intelligent classes” within Wide Awake columns. The so-called “brawny-armed servants of toil” formed the backbone of most local clubs, and their oratory engaged workers specifically.

Wide Awake songs and slogans, advocating a “Great Reformation” led by “working-men,” also spoke to a class element. Though the typical Republican conception of “worker” was a mobile and independent small producer, rather than an industrial wage earner, the Wide Awakes announced that only “sons of toil” could disrupt a slave system predicated on bonded labor. Proclaiming that “labor is king,” some songs appealed to “the forge, the mine, and the anvil,” trumpeting the common masses as society’s only “noble class.” “The Grand Rally” espoused “the elevation of labor,” and “Have You Heard the Loud Alarm?” encouraged a broad party tent to include all “friends of the working classes.” Other chants promoted specific redistributive measures, especially land reform, or what Robin Blackburn calls the early Republicans’ “semi-socialist idea.” The tune “Lincoln and Liberty” endorsed “free homes for the homeless.”

This workingman’s culture permeated Wide Awake conventions. At one “Great Lincoln Rally” in Springfield, Illinois, the Wide Awakes marched alongside mill workers, as well as an immense oxen-drawn “wagon of labor.” Carrying blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, wheelwrights, and tinners, the float rendered Lincoln as “the worker’s candidate.” These “commoner” and “mudsills and mechanics” representations animated various aspects of Wide Awake culture, which consistently underscored the danger of the political and economic power of the planter class.

By the time American voters went to the polls with the spread of slavery on the line, the Wide Awakes boasted approximately a hundred thousand members — equivalent to one million in today’s population — from Maine to Oregon, and from Minnesota to the Ohio River Valley.

Political Revolution

In the month before the election, the Wide Awakes engaged in mass demonstrations across the nation. “Never before has this or any other country presented the magnificent spectacle of the great majority of her young men all belonging to one vast organization which has taken root in every part of our vast country,” one observed.

Early October saw over seventy thousand Wide Awakes participate in coordinated marches from New England to the Great Lakes. In Chicago, where there were forty-eight Wide Awake clubs, between five and ten thousand members greeted New York senator William H. Seward. The procession in lower Manhattan reportedly drew nearly twenty thousand marchers. Detroit held a rally so large that, for a few days, the Wide Awakes made up 10 percent of the city’s entire population.  Sounding “Wide Awake! Workingmen Attention!” near the eve of the election, Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, the most widely circulated newspaper of its time, urged German workers in particular to hold fast for the antislavery Illinoisan.

The “revolution” prevailed. New voters and immigrant laborers flocked to the polls in support of the Lincoln, who swept the free states on his way to a popular vote plurality and an electoral landslide. Though voter participation in all presidential elections had been historically high for two decades leading up to the Civil War, at 81 percent turnout in 1860 proved especially great. Moreover, with Republican victory secured, the Wide Awakes pledged their readiness to defend federal institutions from proslavery secessionists. This was specifically the case in border cities such as St. Louis, where the Wide Awakes furnished some of the war’s first volunteers and participated in critical early fighting.

With Lincoln elected, secession likely, and war looming, the Wide Awake legacy seemed cemented. While both allies and enemies exaggerated the group’s numbers, their combination of symbolic militarism and grassroots organization was undeniably effective. Party observers envisioned the future as one of a young and continuously expanding voter base through soldierly and systematized political organization.

Greeley’s Tribune confidently predicted that these paramilitary Republicans would someday feature prominently in the story of the Civil War era: “The future historian, who shall depict the incidents which shall make the political revolution of 1860 memorable in our annals, will devote one of his most glowing chapters to the achievements of the Wide Awakes.”

Historical memory did not turn out that way. There are no public monuments to the Wide Awakes. They have not even received a stand-alone book treatment. While scholars have long described the antislavery political rise that culminated in Lincoln’s election as characterized by new types of conventioning and campaigning, they have tended to paint the Wide Awakes as an electoral curiosity, an inebriated and sheep-like mob, or as dangerous, zero-sum partisans employing reckless metaphors.

Yet the Wide Awakes boosted a critical, if temporary, flavor of mass politics that not only provoked paranoid white southerners and inflamed sectional tensions, but also, in doing so, set the tone for Lincoln’s election and helped usher in an administration committed to the eventual destruction of slavery.