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Wide Awake in Wisconsin:
The Presidential Campaign of 1860

Political campaigns in the United States incline to exaggeration and distortion. Opponents are vilified and, on all occasions, the impression given that the destiny of national ideals and human progress is at stake. Passions are aroused, and only the fact that the people have come to understand that they are being lied to prevents dangerous reactions. Generally, therefore, life resumes its normal course after each election and no harm is done. Now and then, however, in American history, the campaign issues themselves have been vital ones. Fundamental differences of opinion and interest have stirred emotions; party lines have weakened or strengthened. The people have come up to a campaign in a serious frame of mind. Then resort to the usual political clap-trap has brought genuine peril and critical national situations have resulted. That happened in 1860. (Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War, 1957)

Considering the political, social, and economic stakes, the presidential campaign of 1860 got off to a slow start in Wisconsin. While Abraham Lincoln, the "black Republican," and John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist, were nominated by their parties in May, and Stephen Douglas, the northern Democrat, and John Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat, were nominated in June, the state's partisan newspapers remained relatively quiet through the end of July. 

By way of explanation, on August 16 James V. Fitch, editor of the Fox Lake Gazette, wrote:

We confidently expect as soon as the busy season is over, to see a "wide awake" commencement of the fall campaign in this county, and more particularly in this Assembly District.... As soon as the farmers have time to turn around the stone should commence rolling.

Fitch's observation is revealing, not only because it enunciates the significant role played by farm families socially and politically in central Wisconsin at the mid-point of the nineteenth century, but because it presaged a theme of the campaign to come, in Wisconsin and throughout the North.

In characterizing the Republicans' campaign efforts soon to follow Fitch's editorial, historian AveryCraven has noted that:

Fox Lake Gazette clipping of Republican mass meeting

The most significant feature of Republican activity was, in fact, a revival of the Old Whig "hurrah" methods of 1840 in which the young Wide-awakes substituted marching in uniforms with torchlights and fence rails and songs and cheers, for sober discussion.

Consistent with Craven's characterization, September and October were marked in Wisconsin's Third Assembly District by Republican "mass meetings," programs of political speakers, brass bands, and military manuevers by uniformed corps of torch-bearing Republican Wide Awake clubs designed to excite the voters. The fall's initial meeting was held in Ripon on September 5, and was followed by meetings in Horicon, Green Lake, Mayville, and Fox Lake.

Other observers agree with Craven's characterization. Writing for The North American Review in February, 1888, Daniel J. Ryan observes:

The "Wide Awakes" and the "Little Giants" [Stephen Douglas' campaign equivalents] rivaled each other in their torches and marches. But all this represented enthusiasm only, and their torches went out with the canvass. These temporary campaign clubs have existed almost entirely as a part of the presidential tournament.

In their 1876 History of Livingston County [New York], Lockwood Lyon Doty and A. J. H. DuGanne note:

Wigwams sprang up here and there; lofty poles flung to the breeze the banners of the contending parties; bands of "Little Giants" and "Wide Awakes" almost daily paraded in the streets, or lit up the dark night with their smoking torches; and frequent political gatherings were addressed by the chosen orators of the opposing factions. It was the campaign of 1840 repeated with variations; the days of "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" revived.

But there were contemporary observers, chiefly Southern, who viewed the pseudo-military Wide Awakes with alarm. In an editorial on September 28, 1860, the Richmond Enquirer wrote:

   Not the least significant feature in the present canvass is the organization of Black Republican Clubs in the Northern States into military companies under command of marshals, captains, and sub-officers, some of whom have distinguished themselves in the Mexican war, and all of whom are selected with reference to superior qualifications as martial men. This organization, or chain of organizations, known as "Wide Awakes," are said to reach already four hundred thousand men, thoroughly drilled, and ready for any service which their leaders may demand at their hands. They had their origin in that traditional nest of traitors, Hartford, Connecticut, and, near the very coast where the blue lights of the second war of Independence were burnt as signals to a public enemy, the red torch-lights of Black Republican incendiarism are lit in the present canvass.
   Is there no significancy in these things? Our Northern friends are men of action, not of words; they organize, drill, march, and die, while we speak and talk -- they do privately and by voluntary associations, what we debate in deliberative bodies, and hesitatingly perform, if at all, by legislative action. Their organizations are not yet armed, it is true, at least not that outsiders are aware of, but they are drilled, uniformed, and provided with rails, overcoats, and torches ready for marching!
   It will be remembered that the front-door of John Allstadt, of Jefferson, was broken open by Brown's party with a rail, hence we learn to interpret the peculiar equipment of these abolition cohorts -- they parade at midnight, carry rails to break open our doors, torches to fire our dwellings, and beneath their long black capes the knife to cut our throats. 

   There can be no mistaking the meaning of military organizations, nor does it need any suspicious acuteness to point a moral to such names as "Zouare Wide Awakes," and "Rail-Splitters battalion." Are there no "Brown Avengers," or "Harper's Ferry Raiders" among them? Of the Presidential candidates three are agreed that a State has no right to secede, and on that issue occupy the same platform; and the "Wide Awakes" have their authority for believing that in the event of secession of Alabama or South Carolina it will be not only a pretext but a duty to march into Southern territory. -- Now these contingencies, of Lincoln's election and State secession, are imminent, and why, in the day of trial and danger, should we be distracted in council and paralyzed in action by division among ourselves? We hope and trust that no Virginian can reconcile himself to the thought of an armed invasion of Southern States through her territory; and yet this is the crisis to which affairs are tending, and which we shall have to meet. What we will do in such a contingency is a question outweighing in importance all considerations of mere party triumph, and it will be too late to respond to it effectively when the crisis is upon us. -- Our only hope is to unite and present an undivided front now. As far as Virginia is concerned, the contest will be fought not out of the Union but for States rights and State sovereignty in the Union. She will have to stand between the power of the Central Government and the assertion of sovereign authority by some sister State. Let the first armed invader, whether a Federal minion or an abolition drilled incendiary, who violates the sanctity of her territory, find her citizens not only wide awake, but prepared to meet him.

In an article titled "Loyal versus Disloyal," The Old Guard, published in New York, wrote in July, 1863:

These "loyal" howlers are the same who lately showed their teeth, and snarled at us as "Union-savers"—the same who, in the Fremont campaign, marched up and down throughout the North, shouting, and screaming, and singing, with only sixteen stars on their banners, as if in defiant proclamation that only the Northern States were entitled to a place on the flag of our Union—the same who, in the Lincoln campaign, took the name of "Wide-awakes," indicating that they were on the look out for Helper's "Impending Crisis" of "a war against slaveholders," arrayed themselves in a sort of military uniform, marched and countermarched before the people in martial columns and sections, used military phrases in all their calls for private meetings and public demonstrations, and spouted, and shouted, and raved against "the slaveholders," until the South was frightened at once out of its senses and its loyalty. This is how the thing came to pass.

Which of these perceptions best characterizes the Republican campaign meetings of 1860? Were the very visible Wide Awakes merely the colorful but harmless emblem of conventional political histrionics, or were they the direct descendants of John Brown, inheritors of the campaign Brown had unsuccessfully begun the year before at Harper's Ferry? Were they, as Craven suggests, merely the "hurrah" element of the campaign? Or were they representative of something more sinister?

As quiet as the 1860 campaign had been in July, things changed abruptly in Wisconsin on August 1 with the astonishing news that Sherman Booth, the notorious Milwaukee abolitionist, had been forcibly freed from federal imprisonment in Milwaukee's Custom House. As Republican and Democratic papers trumpeted, not only were Booth's liberators residents of Ripon, but his first stop after passing through Horicon was the State Prison in Waupun, where the prison commissioner, Hans Heg, granted him sanctuary for several days.

For several weeks after Booth's "liberation," Booth and his Ripon supporters clashed violently with Federal marshals. More than one newspaper reporting on the most violent of the confrontations, on August 4 in Ripon, implicated the Ripon Wide Awakes in the violence, as did the Milwaukee News on August 8:

The [Ripon] Times immediately issued its cards and circulars for the "faithful" to assemble, hear and protect the martyr to freedom. The Lincoln Light Guard, or Wide Awakes, as they are styled, composed of boys varying from the age of 10 to 50 years, under the distinguished commander Gen. C---- were marshaled out, armed and drilled for the occasion, fearing a tumult and uproar among the people when the martyr should pronounce for freedom.... The Lincoln Light Guard men now mustered with glistening weapons, and waiting orders from Major General C., commanding, to fire upon and stab the enemy if they didn't keep quiet.

The Berlin News reported later the same week that, "Booth is staying at Prof. Daniels, whose house is guarded day and night by armed Wide Awakes." Even the sympathetic Ripon Times confirmed some of that report, noting:

Some twelve or fifteen persons were put on duty as volunteer guards, to defend the residence of Prof. Daniels, and the remainder dispersed. The Vigilance Committee held a meeting this morning and took measures to effect a Military organization to subserve the purposes of the League.

There is some reason to suspect that the Booth affair was backed by Republicans in part, at least, to heat up the campaign in Wisconsin. Certainly all of the major players in Booth's liberation were Republican, and there is some suspicion that the act was orchestrated by Governor Randall, the principal Republican politician in the state. Certainly all of the newpaper apologists for the affair were Republican, while the Democratic papers were the antagonists.  There is no doubt that with the Booth War, Wisconsin's political papers had the good fortune to find local correlates for the presidential candidates that they could use to whip up the state's electorate and promote their partisan positions. In an editorial on August 8, the Milwaukee News made the connections explicit:

Our readers are well aware, that the Boothites are the faithful exponents of the Lincoln party, and that Jehu [U. S. Marshal Lewis] is one of the pillars of the Breckinridge party in the State. Parties, which Mr. Douglas truly says, "occupy precisely the same relationship to each other as the two blades of a pair of shears. They both turn on the same pivot, but cut in opposite directions." Those who have witnessed the exhibition of lawlessness and ruffianism on one side, and of insufficiency and stupidity on the other, should be prepared to determine now, whether this government can be wisely administered or not, in the spirit which animates either side.

Whether or not the Booth affair was the first political foray of the fall, there is no doubt that the Wide Awakes of the Third Assembly District played a role. The answer to what that role was and was meant to be rests at the local level, with each company of community Wide Awakes.