Friday, May 3, 2024

Booknotes: Wide Awake

New Arrival:

Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War by Jon Grinspan (Bloomsbury, 2024).

Every student of the 1860 election period recognizes that the Republican Wide Awakes played a significant role in mobilizing support for their party's candidate, but Jon Grinspan's Wide Awake: The Forgotten Force that Elected Lincoln and Spurred the Civil War makes some especially strong claims about the youth movement's place on American history's political stage.

From the description: "At the start of the 1860 presidential campaign, a handful of fired-up young Northerners appeared as bodyguards to defend anti-slavery stump speakers from frequent attacks. The group called themselves the Wide Awakes. Soon, hundreds of thousands of young White and Black men, and a number of women, were organizing boisterous, uniformed, torch-bearing brigades of their own. These Wide Awakes--mostly working-class Americans in their twenties--became one of the largest, most spectacular, and most influential political movements in our history."

Wide Awake chapters quickly spread across the North during Lincoln's campaign and some membership estimates were as high as half a million. A group of that size, especially one with paramilitary pretensions, was bound to draw a range of reactions among the nation's heatedly divided populace. More from the description: "To some," the movement "demonstrated the power of a rising majority to push back against slavery. To others, it looked like a paramilitary force training to invade the South. Within a year, the nation would be at war with itself, and many on both sides would point to the Wide Awakes as the mechanism that got them there."

My initial impression of the stylistic approach is that of an immersive popular-style narrative that attempts to place the reader on the ground and in the middle of the action. From that perspective, the book "examines how exactly our nation crossed the threshold from a political campaign into a war."

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