Young people in 1860 were much like Gen-Z of today: they were the most racially diverse voters in the country, the most scientifically educated, and the most economically progressive. Their attitudes were typified by disgust with the political status quo amid a sense of having “awoken” to the systemic racism and political corruption that empowered loathsome oligarchs.
The Election of 1860 witnessed the sudden rise from this disgust of The Wide Awakes – a strident group of young liberal Americans whose activism helped galvanize political disaffection into action.
Their story began when a handful of friends in a Connecticut Church group started a booster club to march and sing in support of the out-gunned and unformed Republican Party. Thanks to the youngsters’ understanding of new media (the telegraph) and their slick marketing, their club went viral in the months before the election, spawning 2,000 chapters and 100,000 members across 20 states.
Made up of America’s woke youth and immigrant communities – many of them first-time voters – the Wide Awakes forged the identity of the nascent Republican Party for a generation as progressive champions, they elected an outsider as President, and they accidentally catalyzed the Civil War. The inspiring true story of the Wide Awakes reveals one of those rare moments in America when a handful of young people actually changed the course of history.
The scholarship on The Wide Awakes is shockingly sparse, but now for the first time in feature-length form, we can finally piece together a narrative of the phenomenon through the eyes of its most impactful members – The Hartford twenty-somethings who took over a major political party and won.