A young Iowan wearing the Wide Awake uniform in 1860. Courtesy Floyd and Marion Rinhart Collection, The Ohio State University Libraries.
What’s the best way to create political change? The recent protests on Wall Street follow a pattern familiar from the Sixties: occupy an area, get brutalized by overzealous cops. But aren’t there more models for mass action? In 1860, on the eve of the election that triggered the Civil War, a group of young Republicans formed the “Wide Awakes.” They wore black capes and soldiers’ caps, and carried whale-oil torches that made their night marches appear especially dramatic. They built a national political network to support their candidate—Lincoln—and held social events, printed newspapers, engaged in activism. They considered themselves the vanguard of a new generation. In August 1860, William H. Seward told a gathering of Wide Awakes in Detroit:
The reason we didn’t get an honest President in 1856 was because the old men of the last generation were not Wide Awake, and the young men of this generation hadn’t got their eyes open. Now the old men are folding their arms and going to sleep, and the young men throughout the land are Wide Awake.
What I wouldn’t give to see a million Wide Awakes march down Wall Street.
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