A Lively Experiment

Notes on collections and events at the RIHS

Faith & Freedom Friday: Rhode Island Wide-Awakes

Rhode Island in the Time of Lincoln, 2009

Rhode Island in the Time of Lincoln, 2009

The Wide-Awake movement formed in March, 1860, after a speech by Cassius Clay in Hartford, CT. Originally a club of “five young dry goods clerks,” the Wide-Awakes became a national political movement with thousands of members. Although similar to a militia, and comprised of young men who wore uniforms of oil cloth capes and matching caps, and carried lit torches and lanterns as they carried out precise, military-style drill, in Rhode Island, the Wide-Awakes also attracted female members.
Anti-slavery, and primarily active in the Democratic-leaning communities in the North, West, and Border states, the Wide-Awakes championed Lincoln as their candidate for the presidency.

From the New York Times:

PROVIDENCE, R.I., Saturday, July 21, 1860
The reign of Democracy is approaching its ultimatum, and although Douglas men are very confident, in securing Rhode Island for the “Little Giant,” yet there is nothing upon which to base such confidence. Facts and figures are more reliable than assumptions and mere opinions. Rhode Island cast over 23,000 votes at the last State election. Over 12,000 were pure Republican, and add to this the “Conservative” vote, which joins in nearly unanimous for ABRAHAM LINCOLN, and we have 17,000 for the Republican ticket. And this is what Rhode Island offers as the guarantee of her loyalty to freedom and to its noble champion. Believe not the stories of Democratic organs when they attempt to make this a Democratic State. Rhode Island has a fairer history, and she will tell her own story in November.

Grand Procession of Wide-Awakes, Harper’s Weekly, 1860. Library of Congress image

Coordinated demonstrations were held in on October 3, 1860, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. The Rhode Island Rhode Island Wide-Awakes joined the New York march, and the Times reported that the “Providence Company chartered a steamboat, to serve “as their means of conveyance by day and their place of rest by night.”
The torchlight procession began at 6:00 PM with a national salute. Thousands of men marched from Fifth Avenue in SoHo, through Tribeca and up through Chinatown, to Union Square,  where the pageant was” reviewed by distinguished visitors.”
The banner displayed in the Rhode Island in the Time of Lincoln exhibition  was probably painted and carried by the Wide-Awakes in celebration of Lincoln’s election. Another banner in the collection may have been used in the New York procession,  The group even published a newspaper, and the issues can be seen in the Library.

~Kirsten Hammerstrom, Director of Collections

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