Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War

  • By Jon Grinspan
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 352 pp.

A 19th-century political movement feels eerily familiar in the 21st.

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War

On a dreary February night in 1860, five young men in Hartford, Connecticut, alleviated their boredom and started a movement. They joined a crowd gathered for a political rally underway for the Republican candidate for governor. No big deal. But what caught the imagination of Hartford and, within a month or so, the entire nation were the capes they wore, the torches they hoisted, and the fervency of their marching and chanting — all put together on a whim.

In Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War, Jon Grinspan chronicles the group, who named themselves the Wide Awakes, and the conditions that catapulted their growth throughout 1860 and fall into obscurity shortly thereafter. Grinspan’s well-written, well-researched account takes us deep into an intense few months. As readers, we, of course, know what happens. But at the time, the Wide Awakes and the nation did not.

The term “woke” carries much baggage (positive and negative) today; “wide awake” was having a similar moment back then. After years of political acquiescence to the powerful forces behind slavery, Northerners were being urged to push back and become “wide awake.” Southern enslavers made up just two percent of the entire U.S. population in 1860, yet pro-slavery interests had controlled federal policy since the nation’s founding. The Wide Awakes became the embodiment of a change in attitude in which the majority no longer wanted to be dominated by the minority.

Propelled by avid newspaper coverage — the equivalent of a viral movement today — Wide Awake groups popped up throughout the North and as far south as St. Louis and Washington, DC. Grinspan portrays the Wide Awakes, especially the nucleus who became known as the “Hartford Originals,” with affection but makes clear their flaws. They very much reflected their times in their attitudes about immigration and especially race. And even members who opposed slavery did not accept racial equality. Grinspan also grapples with their paramilitarism; the Wide Awakes were unarmed, but their marching in lockstep bore an ominous resemblance to later images of white men carrying torches, whether in Nazi Germany in the 1930s or in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The estimate at the time was that the hundreds of Wide Awake clubs spawned a membership of 500,000. Grinspan disputes this as a wildly inflated figure but points out that the perception of their size was more important than the actual number. “Young, mobile, employed-but-not-quite-established men seemed to have gravitated to the rising movement,” he notes.

Their perceived size also mobilized opponents. Northern Democrats, for one, tried to swell their own ranks. Although less successful, “rarely in American history does one party develop a successful campaign technique that the other side doesn’t completely copy,” Grinspan wryly comments. The Wide Awakes also served as a useful foil in the South. Editorials and lawmakers railed against the group and called for Southern political militias “as an offset to the terrible Wide Awakes of the North.” Thanks to the recent digitization of 19th-century newspapers, Grinspan can calculate the frequency with which the Wide Awakes were mentioned — usually with some measure of horror or censure — in print below the Mason-Dixon Line.

The Wide Awakes embraced Abraham Lincoln as their candidate. Grinspan’s description of the Republican Party’s 1860 convention in Chicago, held in a huge, hastily constructed structure called the Wigwam, conveys the excitement and energy of the moment. The Wide Awakes did not have an official role but showed up in force nonetheless. After Lincoln’s nomination, they mobilized support in local communities in the same way paid campaign machinery would one day operate get-out-the-vote efforts and the like.

Similar to the slog of a campaign, the middle of the book — with its stream of processions and politicians — drags a bit. It picks up as the campaign calendar nears November. Though he lost the popular vote, Lincoln won the Electoral College. While many today connect the Wide Awakes both to Lincoln and to his victory, Grinspan dispels the association. While Lincoln appreciated their support, he held them at arm’s length because he hoped a moderate stance could keep the nation together. Seeking compromise with Southerners, especially those in Border States, he did not want to appear (literally or metaphorically) surrounded by columns of caped partisans.

By the time of Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration, most of the Confederacy had already seceded, and Washington was rife with intrigue and instability. War officially broke out just six weeks after Lincoln’s swearing-in. Grinspan writes that “actual warfare complicated their rhetorical militarism, making the Wide Awakes of 1860 prescient, useful, and irrelevant. The war was the first step toward forgetting the Wide Awakes.” The group’s quasi-warlike formations looked silly when actual warfare loomed. Yet its members, it should be noted, were among the first to enlist in the Union Army.

As a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Grinspan has an expert’s eye and ear for how the telling detail — a worn-out cloak, a song lyric — can tell a larger story. He draws on the museum’s collection of Wide Awake and other political artifacts to show how items like buttons and banners “link concrete symbols to abstract causes.” He credits the Wide Awakes with this innovation.

Grinspan started research on the Wide Awakes almost two decades ago, when they seemed “like a lot of hullabaloo.” Interesting and quirky, yes, but hardly analogous to any groups today, he assumed when first approaching the topic as a graduate student at, coincidentally, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. During the years he spent researching and writing, the political landscape changed.

“Among the many uncanny elements of [the Wide Awake] movement, the most recognizable to us today may be the conception of American democracy as a noisy, confrontational, symbolic performance, just on the verge of a fight,” Grinspan observes. Wide Awake shows us how five young men stitching matching capes on a long-ago February night mattered then and matters now.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre writes about history, with a focus on 19th-century social history. She is currently working on a book tentatively titled Alexandria on Edge: Civil War, Reconstruction, and Remembrance on the Banks of the Potomac, under contract with Georgetown University Press.

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