When a paramilitary campaign squad of America’s young and liberal activists forged the identity of a nascent Republican Party, they help lead Lincoln to victory and drew America into a war.
This story takes place in Hartford, Connecticut, even though the reach of “The Wide Awakes” eventually stretched into tiny Iowa farm towns and big cities across the North. And even though the organization eventually boasted over 100,000 members and 2,000 chapters, the heart of this narrative is centered around the founders; a small group of 20-somethings who knew each other from their Hartford church group.
These boys gathered weekly to discuss scripture and current events with a pastor who espoused the moral imperative of defeating poverty, slavery, and misogyny. In early 1860, these boys got an opportunity to move their words into deeds when a controversial abolitionist named Cassius Clay visited Hartford. Clay’s open disdain for what he called the slave-power oligarchy of the South fueled three assassination attempts. This February visit to New England was an attempt to sell his new Political Party to voters. When the Grand Old Party was young, the only defining quality of the Republican Party was being “not Southern.” The complete lack of any track record was unattractive to everyone except those who also lacked a track record – America’s young people.
Young voters in 1860 were much like the millennials of today: they were the least racist voters in the electorate, the most scientifically educated, and the most economically progressive. Essentially, in 1860, the Republican Party became the home of America’s woke youth thanks to these Hartford boys who succeeded in pushing the Party to the left.
How it started was dramatic. After Clay’s evening speech, the Bible study group volunteered to form a protective bodyguard to escort Clay from the auditorium to his hotel. The boys were joined by a few older guys who they knew from work — several of the boys worked as tailors and clerks in Hartford’s home goods stores. This marching guard carried flaming torches encircling Clay’s carriage. As expected, they were attacked by a few conservative pro-slavery Democrats. Then, one of the older guards (not a member of the church) knocked a heckler out cold with one swing from his metal torch. James Chalker wasn’t arrested, he was cheered. A local politico recommended that the guys do what they just did for every visiting speaker during the upcoming Presidential election – they were given a deadline of a week to muster for the next event.
The young men who agreed that night to take on this task were Daniel Francis, his big brother James, a tailor’s apprentice named Edgar Yergason, and “the Charlies” (Charlie Hart and Charlie Fairbanks). This leadership core was soon joined by other leadership recruits from the church group. Nearly all of the Hartford club would eventually volunteer in the Civil War. Sadly, a few never came home from the conflict that some historians say they helped trigger.
This organization was a miracle of the times. In 1860, printing machines were half as expensive as they had been ten years earlier. Additionally, the new telegraph contraptions in newspaper offices allowed local news to instantly become national news. What emerged was the partisan Penny Press, a sprawling array of wholly partisan media outlets. Papers and parties worked hand-in-hand. One of the Hartford boys in the church group, a 23 year-old named Henry Sperry, understood this well. He aspired to become a newspaper editor himself. In many ways, Henry is the hero of the story.
The next morning, the Hartford Courant’s story about the late night fracas was headlined, “The Wide Awakes!” Sperry understood that this article had gone out on the wire, so these kids had just been introduced to upwards of a million Americans as “The Wide Awakes.” The boys would be fools not to capitalize on this gift. They agreed to keep the moniker as the club’s name. In only a few days, the paper wrote that Hartford was hosting “Another Republican Rally! City Hall – Friday Evening Next. The Honorable Abram Lincoln.” (sic) Though Lincoln was not yet famous enough to have his name spelled correctly in the paper, Abram did not disappoint. And the Wide Awakes were ready for him.
In the months to come, Sperry’s publicity campaign propelled him and his club to national prominence. Though too young to have ever voted in a presidential election, Sperry directed the dynamic national network that eventually formed thousands of Wide Awake clubs in 20 states. By writing scores of targeted “Letters-to-the Editor” and placing ads in distant newspapers that invited youngsters to start their own chapters, he steered the network into key border states.
Clubs grew so large they organized their own parades and rallies, sometimes with as many as 12,000 members marching. The Wide Awakes were not constrained by Party leadership, so their flexible structure enabled the Republicans of 1860 to be the open-minded “big tent” alternative to the conservative Southern Democrats. There was a group of African-Americans in Boston who wrote Sperry asking to start a Black Republican Wide Awake chapter. Women in Springfield Massachusetts, despite being unable to vote, wrote about starting a Lady Wide Awakes chapter. There were the Irish Wide Awakes in New York, and German Wide Awakes in Minnesota. An ambitious young politico in Ohio named James A. Garfield started a chapter and immediately ran for local office. Iowa farm boys wrote Sperry that they had organized a whole battalion of clubs all across their prairie State but needed more speakers. Sperry was inundated by upwards of 2,000 letters from young people across the North.
Sperry’s correspondence with his clubs shared best practices and suggested strategies for juicing the bandwagon effect by earning friendly press coverage. Tactics varied, however — some clubs marched to the homes of Democratic newspaper editors and conservative politicians to chant club songs into darkened windows long into the night. In New York City, a chapter of Wide Awakes beat up a pro-slavery company of firemen in the middle of a parade while escorting a sitting Senator. These violent flare-ups were not planned, but Sperry coordinated nearly everything else. He organized the timing of Wide Awake parades and rallies to boost local Republican campaigns. In races which ranged from town “dog catcher” to Governors mansions, the new Republican Party rode Sperry’s wave into power. Aside from a handful of Party insiders, no individual did more to organize Lincoln’s victory than this unsung 23 year-old.
Scholarship on the Wide Awakes is shockingly sparse, but leaning on the few researchers who have thankfully written about this militantly liberal activist political club, and delving into the social network of Hartford’s civic and religious communities which forged the core of the original Wide Awakes, we can now piece together a personal narrative of the club from its beginnings, revealing one of those rare moments in America when a handful of young people actually changed the course of history.
Young voter mobilization was my first area of expertise in politics. As a political communications strategist I began using new media and social meet-ups to spread a decentralized network organization called “Drinking Liberally” into all 50 states. I worked with organizations that mobilized young voters such as “Music for America” and “Music for Democracy.” Similarly, I went with a group called “VoteMob” to Ohio where we registered young voters in coffee shops, college campuses, and comic book stores. So much of this was powered by first-generation internet tools such as Friendster and MySpace that I became a teaching fellow with youth activism training center “Young People For.” I was under-thirty teaching teenagers how to organize themselves politically. I wrote young voter strategy essays for a community of fellow youth vote thought-leaders called “Future Majority.” I was awarded an activist fellowship with “Credo Action” where I began working on phone and text-enabled voter mobilization techniques and technology. These innovations were utilized effectively in the Presidential election of 2008. Like these characters, I grew up in a small New England town and I also set out to change the world. And like me, their efforts brought them something they didn’t expect.