PITTSBURGH — On a clear, warm summer evening here in July 1860, nearly 10,000 young men poured into what was then Allegheny City’s Diamond Square from the doorsteps of their different organizing clubs, all in an effort to throw their support behind the men who were running locally as officers for the newly formed Republican ticket in this booming industrial region.
Brass bands played, filling the air with music. So did the spectacle of warm, flickering light as the orderly parade of men carrying brightly illuminated torches joined together at different intersections on their way to the outdoor meeting. The local reporter for the then-Pittsburgh Gazette noted in its story that “the crowd was so dense our reporter could not catch everything that was said” by the newly elected officers of the party.
All were members of the Wide Awakes, a newly formed political movement that swept the nation ever so briefly, yet effectively, in the waning months before the 1860 presidential election. They were adamantly opposed to the nativist Know-Nothing Party, had moved on from the Whig Party, were deeply against slavery, and were deeply for Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party.
The club formed in February 1860, when the famed Kentucky orator, abolitionist, and then-state Rep. Cassius Clay was set to give a speech in Hartford in support of the Republican candidate of Connecticut. The young Republicans formed a torchlight procession to escort Clay in outfits of black cambric capes and caps to shield themselves from the dripping kerosene.
The Democrats pounced on their parade, calling them the “fifty infants whose mama’s didn’t know they were out” and suggesting that to keep them from doing this again, they should have been given a bar of candy and sent home.
They were so wrong.
The spectacle that the Hartford event made led to the formation of a club within weeks. They made a constitution (the wearing of caps and capes were part of it), formed chapters across the country for their “marching club,” and elected officers.
By the summer, their marches were renowned; their rejection of the nativism of the Know-Nothings was as strident as their support for Lincoln and the Republican Party. Hundreds of marches were held across the North, hundreds of thousands joined local chapters, and their powerful impact on the election became legend.
“The Wide Awakes arose, as is so often the case with new ‘outsider’ movements, in a time of great stress, change, and confusion,” explained Michael Genovese, a political science professor at Loyola Marymount University.
In such times, many who feel lost and out of place search for something to cling to — something that gives them a sense of place, belonging, and purpose. They want order, security, and place (home).
The Wide Awakes were not a civic organization like the Elks; their motivation was politics. As each chapter formed and grew, another chapter would form and grow, often competing with each other in their displays of music, drill formation, and numbers of members.
They hit a fever pitch in November 1860 when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Within weeks, South Carolina seceded from the Union; before Lincoln was sworn in, a new Confederate government was formed. Their political mission accomplished, the members of the Wide Awakes were among the first to join the military, and their movement was over.
They came, they saw, they conquered, and they disappeared, wrote the Chicago Tribune. They weren’t wrong — movements in American politics often don’t last long, but their impact always remains for generations, even if we’ve forgotten the names of their causes.
Today’s Wokes have little in common with the Wide Awakes. The Wokes use social media performance theater not to persuade people to join them, but instead to tell people how perfect they are and how awful, bigoted, stupid, or backward someone else is.
While both movements took to the street using chants and music to inspire, Wokes wish to inspire themselves. Wide Awakes wanted to inspire others.
Wokes cheer the defunding of police forces and the destruction of property or history across the country.
“The Wide Awakes were a quasi-respectable group adjunct to the newly formed Republican Party, meant to be a telling contrast to the Democratic Party’s ill-manned counterparts,” explained Eldon Eisenach, a University of Tulsa political science emeritus professor.
Genovese said that today, as in the 1850s, momentous changes led to social dislocation and confusion: “And the young, who lack accomplishments and opportunities to shine, hunger for meaning and inclusion. At that time, young citizens were hard to reach, unlike today with social media, and so, they needed sparkle and splash, parades and uniforms, to set them apart and provide them with an identity.”
Quite understandably, Lincoln and others used these groups to drum up support, to disrupt the opposition, to display strength and unity, and to go out and work the campaign trail.
“They were a ready-made political asset, so why not use them?” said Genovese. “But Lincoln also kept his distance from them. He saw them as an asset but one that could turn into a liability, so he often kept them at arm’s length. Remember, in a campaign, everybody loves a parade. But the parade could turn into a mob, so while for the most part the Wide Awakes behaved, not all behaved.”
To date, Joe Biden hasn’t just kept the Wokes at a respectable distance. Most of the Democratic Party is unconcerned by the Wokes, with Rep. Jerry Nadler calling them a “myth” and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi shrugging them off, saying “people do what they do” when discussing riots and the destruction of private property.
The long-lasting impact of the Wide Awakes has largely been forgotten. It will be a while before we know the long-term effect of the Wokes, but we do know our cultural curators have bent to their demands, changing their products, teams, or mascots. Soon enough, though, we’ll see how the Wokes influence voters, positively or negatively, come Election Day.