March 20 history program on the Wide Awakes

Bands of young men carrying torches down Main Street Fond du Lac! Militant politicos! Uniform-wearing radicals! We’re talking, of course, of the ’60s. The 1860s.

The story of the strange, yet effective political activities of the Wide Awake clubs in Fond du Lac County will be the focus of a History at Home presentation at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 20, at the Fond du Lac Public Library. Wide Awakes and the Election of 1860 will be presented by Marian University History graduate Andrew Lang.

Calling themselves Wide Awakes, young men in Fond du Lac, Ripon, Waupun and other towns voluntarily organized militant clubs to campaign for Republican Party anti-slavery candidates during the summer and fall of 1860. The Wide Awakes were one of the most popular yet short-lived political clubs in American history.

The exact origin of the name Wide Awakes is uncertain. Many trace it to the Hartford, Conn., newspaper headline, “Republicans Wide Awake,” describing the excitement following the visits by high-profile party leaders Cassius M. Clay and Abraham Lincoln in the winter of 1860.

In Fond du Lac, it was a time of political violence, intimidation and change. Immigrants were moving into the area, and younger voters helped the Republic Party to a sweeping victory in what Civil War scholar James M. McPherson called "The Revolution of 1860.”

Lang became interested in the Wide Awakes after reading “1861,” by Adam Goodheart. Intrigued, he delved into the microfilm at the Fond du Lac Public Library and found a newspaper article about a large Wide Awake demonstration in Fond du Lac in October 1860. He discovered that there was much more to the Wide Awakes than parades. Club members acted as security at Republican campaign rallies, worked to combat voter suppression and prevented federal marshals from arresting the fugitive abolitionist Sherman Booth.

Lang recently graduated from Marian University with a bachelor’s in History and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in American History. His areas of interest are Civil War era politics, American Revolution era ideology, Native American policy and changes in suffrage laws.

History at Home at the Fond du Lac Public Library is a monthly series of programs on local and state history held the third Thursday of the month. Programs are free and open to the public; no registration is required. Upcoming programs:

April 17: 80 Acres & the Founding of Fond du Lac, presented by local historian Tracy Reinhardt

May 15: History of Memorial Day

June 19: How Cows Created Wisconsin, presented by Ed Janus, author of Creating Dairyland

Photo, above: This drawing from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper dated Oct. 13, 1860, shows a Wide Awake procession in New York City and is an example of what a Wide Awake nighttime march might have looked like in Fond du Lac County.


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