Learning From History – Wide Awake Vs. Woke.

There’s an old expression out there…

Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.

Apparently, historians trace this familiar quote back to the writer, philosopher, and Harvard professor of the early 1900’s – George Santayana. And in its original form, apparently Santayana wrote it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Hmm. As a historian who spends a great deal of time researching Our Iowa Heritage, I’ve been impressed at times, when I’ve come across a story or two from our past that shows me that our society has done a pretty good job of identifying our past mistakes and has put in the hard work of doing better in the present. A personal example, is how I’ve come to the aha revelation that, for most of my 70-plus years, I’ve been, as an old white guy, fairly unaware of the ugly, and downright disgusting, things my white ancestors did to our Native American neighbors here in Iowa, as we, in the name of Manifest Destiny, took their land as if it belonged exclusively to us.

Now, I can’t change history, nor am I called to go around feeling guilty for the sins of others, but, as I see it, I can – now that I’m aware of these past injustices – do my part in helping my generation not repeat similar injustices, or as Santayana pointed out – if I fail to learn from past mistakes, I’m most likely doomed to repeat them.

Which brings me back, now, to this present moment, and from my perspective, a not-so-pleasant example where a portion of today’s American society is failing to learn from our past. And know, that I’m not bringing this post forward to condemn one specific group of Americans, but my hope is that by pointing out some hypocrisy, we might all learn a good lesson from the past – thus, hopefully, reducing our chances of screwing-up the future! So, here we go…

Today, there’s a political firestorm surrounding the idea of “being woke”. Here’s just one example that might best illustrate my point. In November 2022, Florida’s Republican governor gave a fiery political speech, declaring – “(We) will never surrender to the woke mob … Florida is where woke goes to die.”

The Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary defines “woke” as… (Being) aware of and actively attentive to important societal facts and issues – especially issues of racial and social justice.

Wikipedia says that “woke” is an adjective derived from African-American Vernacular English, meaning… Alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.

As a historian, I find it painfully hilarious that among American conservatives today, the phrase “being woke” has come to be used as an insult, with members of the Republican Party increasingly using the term to criticize members of the opposition party. The reason I smile, you ask?

Many don’t realize that the Republican Party – when birthed just prior to the 1860 National Election – came into existence because thousands of young Americans had grown tired and weary of a political system that failed to recognize Thomas Jefferson’s words found in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Many in the North were fed up with a political system that refused to stand up for those in our midst who were enslaved – treating them as property instead of human beings. You see, in the late 1850’s, the political system across America was failing to address a very sad truth. Here in Iowa, for example, while we were, technically, a “free state”, there were still many in both the Democrat and Whig Parties who either supported the practice of holding slaves, or simply believed it best, politically, to ignore the subject.

But wait!

Across the nation, there arose a radical Voice of Truth. Young people began joining together, hearing the cry of freedom for all. In cities all across the United States, these radicals began forming local political organizations that stood up for those who had no voice. Their name?

The Wide Awakes.

Yes, you heard it correctly. These radicals called themselves the Wide Awakes, and the brand-new political party – called The Republican Party – was birthed in Pittsburgh in 1856, calling for all Americans to awaken to the tyranny of slavery. By 1860, when this new party gathered in Chicago for their first National Convention, many of the party leaders were members of the Wide Awakes, and it was in this “woke” condition, they nominated a young statesman from Illinois to be their choice to become the 16th President of the United States. I’m guessing you might recognize the name…

In early March 1860, Abraham Lincoln spoke in Hartford, Connecticut, against the spread of slavery and for the right of workers to strike. Five store clerks, who had started a Republican group called the Wide Awakes, decided to join a parade for Lincoln, who delighted in the torchlight escort back to his hotel provided for him after his speech. Over the ensuing weeks, the Lincoln campaign made plans to develop Wide Awakes throughout the country and to use them to spearhead large voter registration drives, since they knew that new voters and young voters tend to embrace new and young parties.
The Wide Awakes were a youth organization that used popular social events, an ethos of competitive fraternity, and even promotional comic books, introducing many to political participation and proclaiming itself as the newfound voice of younger voters. The structured militant Wide Awakes appealed to a generation which had been profoundly shaken by the partisan instability in the 1850s, and offered young northerners a much-needed political identity.

Read more here about the Wide Awakes in Iowa.
Members of the Wide Awakes were described by The New York Times as “young men of character and energy, earnest in their Republican convictions and enthusiastic in prosecuting the canvass on which we have entered.” In Chicago, on October 3, 1860, 10,000 Wide Awakes marched in a three-mile procession. The story on that rally occupied eight columns of the Chicago Tribune.

In Indiana, one historian reported: “1860 was the most colorful in the memory of the Hoosier electorate. ‘Speeches, day and night, torch-light processions, and all kinds of noise and confusion are the go, with all parties,’ commented the independent Indianapolis Locomotive. Congressman Julian too was impressed by the ‘contrivance and spectacular display’ which prevailed in the current canvass. Each party took unusual pains to mobilize its followers in disciplined political clubs, but the most remarkable of these were the Lincoln ‘Rail Maulers’ and ‘Wide Awakes,’ whose organizations extended throughout the state. Clad in gaudy uniforms the members of these quasi-military bands participated in all Republican demonstrations. The “Wide Awakes” in particular were well drilled and served as political police in escorting party speakers and in preserving order at public meetings. Party emulation made every political rally the occasion for carefully arranged parades through banner-bedecked streets, torchlight processions, elaborate floats and transparencies, blaring bands, and fireworks.”

Read more about one of Iowa City’s most vocal abolitionists – William Penn Clarke.

Once nominated, the Lincoln Campaign took the fire found in these Wide Awake groups, and turned it into a national push that literally changed the course of America! By the middle of the 1860 campaign, Republicans bragged that they had Wide Awake chapters in every county of every northern (free) state, and on the day of Lincoln’s election as President, Wide Awakes had grown to 500,000 members, with the group remaining active for several decades!

Read about how the Wide Awake movement greatly impacted those who were appointed as U.S. Senators from Iowa.

Isn’t it intriguing that today’s Republican Party has taken, basically, the same language that helped form their party in 1860, and its leaders now treat it as derogatory? Hmm. Do we understand the historical significance? What do we need to learn here?

As I said, I’m not posting this page with the agenda of bringing accusations against today’s Republican Party. There are many others who are quite capable of doing that. I’m simply calling for us, as Americans, to look carefully at those things that we say we believe, and honestly judge if those beliefs are consistent with our desire to grow up before we grow old. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he visited Iowa City (1959) in the very earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement, warned us against falling asleep at the switch, becoming complacent and non-caring for those who are suffering from injustice and/or racial prejudice. Dr. King concluded his evening speech here in Iowa City with the request that his audience become “maladjusted” in the sense that they not adjust to the evils of segregation. He said that the world is in desperate need of the maladjustment that made such men as Lincoln and Jefferson stand out “in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery” – and say, boldly, that all men (and women) are created equal and deserve to be treated as such.

History shows us that during these turbulent times of the 1850’s and 60’s, men and women from both existing parties – Democrat & Whig – left their political power behind in order to stand with those Truths they found to be self evident. Here in Iowa, for example, our first Territorial governor – Robert Lucas, a long-time Democrat – left his party to stand with what was right. Iowa’s Civil War governor – Samuel Kirkwood – was a long-time Democrat in Ohio before switching parties in order to be the abolitionist his conscience called him to be. So today, where are the Awakes, or as Dr. King called them “the maladjusted” who will stand with those American Truths that are self-evident? Might I suggest that we all awaken to these foundational truths that are supposedly self-evident. And if that means I’m woke – then so be it!

“Now the old men are folding their arms and going to sleep,” said William H. Seward while campaigning for Lincoln, “and the young men are Wide Awake.”

Let that be said of women and men across America today.

On February 15, 2023, The Cedar Rapids Gazette published my short editorial that’s based on this webpage. Read my editorial here.

DYK-January 30, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Those Who Do Not Learn History Are Doomed To Repeat It.” Really?, Nicholas Clairmont, BigThink.com, July 31, 2013

Woke – definition, Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary

Woke – definition, Wikipedia

Ron DeSantis is fulfilling his promise to oust the ‘woke mob.’ Is he taking it too far?, Ingrid Jacques, USAToday, January 16, 2023

Wide Awakes, Wikipedia

How the Wide Awakes are bringing joy to 2020 with lessons from the 1800s, Erica Chayes Wida, TMRW, October 20, 2020

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