The Wide Awakes

A black and white sketch of a procession in a city. The people in the parade carry torches and wear capes and hats.
"Grand Procession of Wide Awakes at dusk on the evening of October 3, 1860."

Harpers Weekly, October 13, 1860, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute

The Wide Awakes: The Young Revolution of 1860

In the modern day, there is lots of opportunities for excitement among young Americans. They can stream movies and TV, engage with other people on social media, and drive cars long distances to far-away places. But when looking at American history, one might wonder: “What did young people do for enjoyment in the 19th century?”. Although it may seem like a very odd hobby in the 21st century, one of the biggest outlets for entertainment and fun was politics.

During the middle of the 19th century, politics was seen by young people as an “important rite of passage into manhood” (Trista, 2018), so many young people were politically aware (Trista, 2018). Although young (white) men did tend to vote in most elections in that century (Trista, 2018), the presidential election of 1860 would have a transformative effect on young Americans.

The presidential election of 1860 was a very transformational election for several reasons; first, instead of the election being one candidate vs another, it was more two different elections in two parts of the country: Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen A. Douglas in the North, and John Breckenridge vs. John Bell in the South (ECW, 2021). Second, one of the most important yet forgotten political organizations in America would make its mark on the political landscape of the United States. This organization was known as the Wide Awakes.

The Wide Awakes were a Republican political organization that was dedicated to electing Abraham Lincoln to the White House. What distinguished them from the other political clubs of the 19th century were several things: their youth, their effectiveness, and their uniforms (Grinspan, 2009).

The Wide Awakes were made up of young Americans, aged between fifteen and forty years old (Grinspan, 2009), although there were occasionally older people involved (Barrow, 2005).

They were instrumental in getting young people interested in the 1860 presidential election. This is because during the presidential election of 1860, the Wide Awakes were one of the first political organizations formed whose membership was made up, by, and for young people.

The Wide Awakes also helped get youth interested in voting by the uniforms that they wore: they were known for large pro-Lincoln torchlight parades, wearing identical kepi hats (The Guardian, 2020), capes made of enameled canvas, and carrying large kerosine lamps (Rimkunas, 2020). They made young Americans curious as to who they were and many Americans across the country thought the same question: “Who are these Wide Awakes?”

The Creation of the Wide Awakes

The Wide Awakes were officially formed on March 3, 1860, in Hartford, Connecticut. They were formed by five young law clerks who believed that this new organization could help elect Republicans up and down the ballot in the upcoming general election. (Grinspan, 2009) These young men took the name “Wide Awakes” to symbolize their political awareness (Stanley, 2020). Although they officially formed in March of 1860, the Wide Awakes unofficially began in February of 1860, when several young men escorted Republican Cassius Clay to a campaign speech and acted as his bodyguards (New England Historical Society, 2020).

The Wide Awakes Impact on Young People and the 1860 Presidential Election

The Wide Awakes were a political curiosity in the North (Grinspan, 2009). Their uniforms and parades were quite popular in the North, however in the South, they were seen with suspicion and fear. Because the Wide Awakes never marched in the Southern United States, Southern newspapers could exaggerate the paramilitary part of the Wide Awakes and engage in fearmongering (Schoenfield, 2016).

In the North, Wide Awakes were liked by young people for several reasons: The Wide Awakes gave young people a sense of community and belonging, and with that community a sense of purpose and importance (Yonkers Statesman, 1860). They also gave young people the opportunity to travel – opportunities they might have not had elsewhere. New Yorkers could travel to New Haven, Connecticut or Springfield, Illinois for Wide Awake events (Barrow, 2005 & Hartford Courant, 1860). Young Americans also felt that by becoming “Wide Awake,” they could make a real difference in American politics (Barrow, 2005). Lastly, their popularity was helped by the fact that militia and marching groups were very popular in America in the 1840s and 1850s (Stanley, 2020). Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert Lincoln was even part of an organization known as the “Springfield Cadets” during his younger years, in which he wore a uniform consisting of a blue coat and white pants (White. 2009).

The popularity of both the Wide Awakes and militia and marching groups led to other candidates in the 1860 presidential election forming their own campaign groups: Stephen Douglas has his “Little Giants”, “Douglas Invincibles” and “Little Dougs” (known as the “chloroformers”, since they wanted to “put the Wide Awakes to sleep”) (Willis, 2020), John Bell had the “Everette Guard” and the “Bell Ringers” (Grinspan 2009). John Breckenridge did not have any formal Wide Awake-like groups, but he had torchlight parades at his rallies (Barrow, 2005).

One of the largest campaign events that the Wide Awakes did was the Grand Procession parade in New York City. It was the biggest pro-Lincoln rally in America, and thousands of Wide Awake members across the country came to New York to celebrate Abraham Lincoln (New York Morning Courier and Enquirer, 1860). The parade took over two hours to pass by (Schoenfield, 2016), and there were reporters covering it from every angle (The New York Times, 1860).

A black and white photo of a campainger of the Wide Awakes
A picture of George Baza Woodward, a member of the Wide Awakes, in his oil cloth cape and hat, holding a whale oil torch, taken some time in 1860. Mr. Woodward possibly fought in a Union regiment during the Civil War, as many Wide Awakes did.

Library of Congress

Why the Wide Awakes Movement Matters

Although the Wide Awakes were quite popular during the 1860 election, they faded into history because they moved their activism to enlisting in the U.S. Army during the American Civil War (Barrow, 2005). However, even though they might seem irrelevant in the modern day, there are important lessons that the Wide Awakes taught young Americans: The Wide Awakes showed to other presidential candidates how to organize an effective and efficient presidential campaign using public rallies and parades, while also bringing in first-time voters. The ability for Americans to actively participate in the presidential election of 1860 and sway first-time voters gave young people a sense of importance, and a sense that they were able to positively change politics for the better in their daily lives.

That sense of optimism was also reflected in the Wide Awakes membership: almost anyone could join. You did not need any qualifications or skills and it was open to all, regardless of nationality. There were German, Irish and French regiments of Wide Awakes, and even some “Lady Wide Awakes” (Barrow, 2005 & The New York Times 1860 & Rinhart, 1996). Although the Wide Awakes were inclusive for their time, there was still some prejudice: There were barely any African American Wide Awakes (Barrow, 2005), although there were reports of a regiment in Boston (Dellinger, 2020). But even that limited inclusion meant that many Americans across the country could become politically active and engaged.

The Political Awakening of Young America

On November 6, 1860, the Wide Awakes’ long campaign came to an end; Abraham Lincoln was elected the sixteenth President of the United States of America. While there were celebrations in the North, there was fear and anxiety (and eventual secession) in the South. The American Civil War that came next overshadowed the Wide Awakes, ensuring that they became a curious footnote in history. However, their impact on youth political participation should not be forgotten. They showed young Americans that politics could be exciting and fun. They also showed the older generation in the U.S. that young people have a place in politics, where they can decide elections and the destiny of the country.

That sense of destiny was so prominent that by November 1860, the older generation took notice. During a campaign rally for Lincoln during the election, future Secretary of State William H. Seward (once the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party), seemed to almost predict youth participation in the political process saying: “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.” (Willis, 2020 & Grinspan, 2009).

A political cartoon parodying the 1860 presidential election
“Storming the Castle, “Old Abe” on guard

Library of Congress

Works Cited

Barrow, Elizabeth, C. (2005), “Push on the column!” A study of the Wide Awakes during the 1860 presidential election” (Under the direction of Dr. David E. Long) East Carolina University, Department of History

Currier & Ives, (1860), “Storming the castle. "Old Abe" on guard.” Currier & Ives, New York. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Dellinger, Matt. (2020) “A Civil War political movement reawakens - complete with capes.” The New York Times.

ECW Guest Post, (2021) “Marching Societies Transform 1860 Election”. Emerging Civil War,

Foner, Eric, (1970),” Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War”, Oxford University Press New York Free soil, free labor, free men : Foner, Eric, 1943- : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

George Beza Woodward, Wide Awake campaigner for Abraham Lincoln, in oil cloth cape and hat with whale oil torch, 1860 [United States] Photograph.

Grinspan, Jon (2009). ""Young Men for War:" The Wide Awakes and Lincoln's 1860 Presidential Campaign", Journal of American History "Young Men for War": The Wide Awakes and Lincoln's 1860 Presidential Campaign on JSTOR

Harpers Weekly (1860), “Grand procession of Wide-Awakes at New York on the evening of October 3, 1860”, [Photograph] Retrieved from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute The Torchlight Parade | National Museum of American History (

Hartford Courant (1860), “City Affairs – The Wide Awakes!” 03 Mar 1860, 2 - Hartford Courant at

Hartford Courant (1860) “The Wide Awake Excursion to New Haven”, 31 Mar 1860, 2 - Hartford Courant at

New England Historical Society (2022), “The Wide Awakes help elect Lincoln with shiny capes and torchlight parades”. The Wide Awakes Help Elect Lincoln With Shiny Capes and Torchlight Parades - New England Historical Society

Rimkunas, Barbara, (2020) “The Wide Awakes”, Exeter Historical Society, The Wide Awakes — Exeter Historical Society (

Rinhart, Floyd, (1996) “The Prairies A-Blaze': Iowa Wide Awakes Carry Torches for Lincoln”, Iowa Heritage Illustrated 77(1), 42-49 Rinhart | The Prairies A-Blaze': Iowa Wide Awakes Carry Torches for Lincoln | Iowa Heritage Illustrated (

Schoenfield Sonia, (2016) “The Wide Awakes of 1860”, Cook Memorial Public Library, The Wide Awakes of 1860 | Shelf Life (

Stanley, Matthew, (2020). “Lincoln’s paramilitaries, the “Wide Awakes”, helped bring about a political revolution”, Jacobin, Lincoln’s Paramilitaries, the “Wide Awakes,” Helped Bring About a Political Revolution (

The Guardian (2020), “Wide Awakes: How a Lincoln-Era youth movement to safeguard democracy inspired anti-Trump protests”, Wide Awakes: How a Lincoln-era youth movement to safeguard democracy inspired anti-Trump protests | Milwaukee Independent

The New York Times, (1860), “The Political Campaign”, The New York Times, 05 Oct 1860, Page 1 - The New York Times at

The New York Times (1860), “The Wide Awake Demonstration”, The New York Times, 03 Oct 1860, Page 8 - The New York Times at

The Yonkers Statesmen (1860), “Experience of a New York Wide Awake”, Yonkers, New York, 15 Nov 1860, 2 - The Yonkers Statesman at

Trista, (2018), “During the debate over Abolition of Slavery, the White Man Youth Vote was incredibly high…Because it was the Cool Thing to Do”, History Collection, During the Debate over Abolition of Slavery, the White Male Youth Vote was Incredibly High... Because it was the Cool Thing to Do (

White, Ronald. (2009), “A. Lincoln: A biography”, Random House Inc.

Willis, Matthew, (2020), “Abolitionist Wide Awakes were woke before “woke”. JSTOR Daily Abolitionist "Wide Awakes" Were Woke Before "Woke" - JSTOR Daily

Last updated: November 20, 2023