The idea of being “woke” to the dimensions of racial injustice in America entered mainstream public awareness with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. But more than 150 years earlier, a group of young Abraham Lincoln supporters in Hartford declared themselves “Wide Awakes” in the effort to stop the expansion of slavery in America and get Lincoln elected President. They did so in a way that sparked a national response.
1860 proved to be one of the most intense election years in American history, with political tensions over slavery and secession reaching a breaking point. Connecticut’s hotly contested race for the governor’s seat, pitting Democrat Thomas Seymour against Republican William Buckingham, was viewed as a bellwether for the national presidential election that would take place later in the year.
In March, presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln stopped in Hartford to give a speech denouncing the spread of slavery in the western territories and advocating for the right of workers to go on strikes. A handful of store clerks who had just organized a local pro-Republican political group attended the speech and volunteered to escort Lincoln back to his hotel room by torchlight, sparking the birth of a new political movement called the Wide Awakes. Sporting military caps and wearing heavy black capes specially coated to protect their clothes from errant torch oil, they also canvassed neighborhoods in hopes of rallying disaffected voters — especially younger men — to the Republican party. Best known for their torchlight parades, the group’s intimidating form of dress belied the nonviolent, grassroots approach they took to gathering new members and Republican voters.
In only a few months’ time, the Wide Awakes movement spread from Hartford to cities across the country; rallies in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia routinely attracted several thousand people. Lincoln, impressed with the enthusiasm of his Hartford escorts and delighted with the dramatic spectacle of a torch-lit parade, encouraged his campaign managers to partner with local Wide Awakes chapters to drum up support for voter registration drives.
On July 26, 1860, not even five months after the political movement was founded, the Hartford Wide Awakes hosted one of their biggest gatherings to date, inviting fellow members from across Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey to a huge banquet near City Hall. Nearly 5,000 Wide Awakes were in attendance to celebrate political solidarity and, of course, to organize a massive torchlight rally held the following evening. Locally, the Wide Awakes played a key role in securing William Buckingham’s electoral victory in Connecticut. Nationally, with their members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, what began as a humble group in Hartford became a powerful political force that was instrumental in drumming up enough support to get Abraham Lincoln elected to the presidency.
“The Hartford Wide-Awakes,” connecticuthistory.org
“The Torchlight Parade,” National Museum of American History