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Book Reviews

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

June 25, 2024

Jon Grinspan. Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force That Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War.  New York, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2024, 334pp., $32.    

Jon Grinspan is a curator of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. This is his third book. He apparently is charged with collecting American political paraphernalia for the museum’s holdings. He has a particular interest in the Wide Awakes and has previously authored an in-depth article for the “Journal of American History” which served as a springboard for this study.     

The author spent seventeen years doing research for this book, so was well-prepared when the project came to fruition. This is reflected in the fifty-seven pages of footnotes. The primary source materials drawn upon include correspondence, diaries, newspaper articles, reminiscences, campaign imprints, photographs and other ephemera. For those wanting to know the history of the Wide Awakes, this constitutes a great service… the distillation of a vast volume of material into a thorough historical narrative. 

For collectors of Lincolniana and political Americana, the Wide Awakes are well-known. They were the most prominent political marching club in U. S. electoral history. They generated a lot of “great stuff” which we, as collectors, seek out and covet. This includes torches, lanterns, banners, ribbons, tokens, ballots, pamphlets, biographies, broadsides  and uniforms. They blazed across the sky as a comet, illuminating the night, then disappeared from view after Lincoln’s election, leaving behind bits and scraps of material culture documenting their presence on the political stage. 

Political parades and processions have been around since our country’s founding. People paraded at Washington’s first inauguration on April 30, 1789, wearing patriotic sashes, carrying hand-painted flags and holding aloft guild banners honoring the occasion. Political lanterns (pierced-tin “Paul Revere” type)  first saw use in 1828. Campaign floats were used in the Log Cabin and Hard Cider campaign of 1840. Torchlight parades were “small potatoes” until the Wide Awakes changed everything. After that, political parades, replete with uniforms, helmets, torches, lanterns, transparencies and banners became a staple of the American political landscape through the 1890s and beyond.   

The author, based on his research and fascination with this “outlier” organization,  attempts to look beyond the hoopla and provide some context and historical insight, peeling back the layers of what, to many, constitutes nothing more than a sideshow.  He gives in to the urge to generate interest in the work by claiming, in the title, that the Wide Awakes were instrumental in electing Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 and were a cause of the Civil War.  This, of course, is not true, and the author backtracks in the text that follows. That said, they were a product of their time and a logical development that, to a certain degree, presaged the war. 

Americans in the antebellum period, more so than even today, were “gun happy” and prone to violence. In 1832, you had a political party, the Anti-Masonic Party, that targeted a secret, fraternal order following a mysterious murder.  Dueling was commonplace and we had a president, Andrew Jackson, who was notorious for this form of combat. The Native American Party grew to prominence in the 1840s, burning churches and spreading mayhem. The brutality of slavery spurred slave insurrections, bleeding Kansas and John Brown’s takeover of Harper’s Ferry. The U. S. Congress was not immune from the violence as witnessed by the attack on Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks.  If you went to a political rally, you didn’t know if you’d come back alive. Things often got out of hand. If someone shouted an unpopular sentiment or slogan, the person next to him could draw a revolver and shoot the guy. The fact that the Wide Awakes were organized as security for Republican politicians should therefore come as no surprise. They were not initially formed to support Lincoln in his quest for the White House… he was still two months away from receiving the nomination.  The fact that security was deemed necessary in the first place is a reflection on the times they were living in. 

The author does a great job in “setting the scene”, since the Wide Awakes did not come into being in an historical vacuum. He details their history, their growth, the stories of the personalities involved (both at the time of the founding of the club and in subsequent years),  how they viewed their mission, physical interactions with opponents, their goals and what type of blow-back they inspired. Their transition from a paramilitary political marching club to Union soldiers is documented, as well. So, the history essential runs from 1860 to the early years of the war, although a “coda” chronicles Wide Awake reunions held decades later and how the adolescents of 1860 became successful businessmen with typical conservative views, unaligned with their earlier principles. There are many new pieces of information provided, including efforts by free African Americans to form Wide Awake chapters, as well as the involvement of women in the campaign. 

We are not without criticism, although of a minor nature. The author invents words that don’t exist (“mobbing”, “unfreedom”, “Wide Awaking”). He mentions the marching club “Douglas Minutemen”. The Minutemen were a Breckinridge marching club. He throws in the famous Lincoln quote “… the taste is my mouth” to show that Lincoln wanted to actively campaign on the stump, a la Douglas. In fact, he was just declaring his interest in being a candidate for the presidency. Finally, after giving a lot of space to Edgar Yergason, one of the founders of the Wide Awakes, he mentions that the prototype cape Yergason made has been lost. In fact, it was part of the Donald P. Dow Lincolniana Collection sold by Heritage Auctions in 2015 and now resides in the New York Public Library. 

The legacy of the Wide Awakes is a complex one. In the last chapter, the author attempts to contemplate “lessons learned” in the light of current events. He says: “Perhaps one of the central lessons of recent American politics is that, while the chattering classes parse phrases, and conspiracists hunt for hidden meanings, the key plot lines take place out in the open. It is a burning imperative we share with Americans of 1860-1861, but which most intervening generations of Americans could not understand: take the show seriously.”