In the winter of 1860, five church friends in Connecticut started a political club for young liberals called “The Wide Awakes.” Beneath burning torches, they paraded at night singing rally songs to support the Republican Party and end slavery.
Like Gen-Z of today, these young people were the least racist people in the country, the most scientifically educated, and the most economically progressive. They came of age at a time when new technology – telegraph lines and the penny press – was quickly reshaping society, giving them an early-adopter advantage.
Their leader, a 23 year-old bookworm named Henry Sperry, understood this new media better than most. He directed the growth of his national network by placing ads for the club in distant newspapers inviting youngsters to start their own chapters. Bypassing Republican Party bosses, his club went viral based on an open-source ethos.
African Americans started “Black Republican Wide Awake” chapters. There were “Lady Wide Awakes” chapters. The Irish Wide Awakes in New York and German Wide Awakes in Missouri organized immigrant communities. These young activists flooded the streets and forced the new Republican Party to deliver the progress their communities sought.
Over the course of a few months, their club spawned 2,000 chapters and 100,000 members across 20 states. Along the way, these young people made the Republican Party into the home of America’s woke youth, and forged the identity of the Republican Party as a big tent progressive party for an entire generation. They also helped push the nation to war.
Through stories of this club shaping the lives of various club members, Wide Awake reveals how easily an idealistic liberal populist movement hardened into a Party that became a plaything of monopolists and oligarchs during the Gilded Age.
Also, by showing how the rest of the nation reacted to these kids, Wide Awake reveals a cautionary tale about the danger of militarized partisanship – a lesson that is painfully relevant in the age of The Proud Boys.
The scholarship on the Wide Awakes is shockingly sparse (Wide Awake is the first feature-length book on the phenomenon), but we can now piece together a personal narrative of the club from its beginnings, revealing one of those rare moments when a handful of young people actually changed the course of history.
In the spirit of Netflix’s AOC documentary “Knock Down The House,” and Teen Vogue’s revolutionary resistance to Trumpism, Wide Awake tells the hopeful story of when young liberal activists, powered by paramilitary zeal and new media, captured control of a political party. Wide Awake has the spirited bare-knuckle politics of “Gangs of New York” but with the insights from a campaign war room.
Wide Awake will attract today’s partisan Republicans, proud of their party and the young heroes of our story, the very first Republicans. Additionally, the millions of “Pod Save America” listeners who wish that their political party would “take the gloves off” might think again…after seeing how the Wide Awakes helped trigger America’s horrific Civil War.