The More Things Change

Imagine a contentious election with grave consequences for both sides of the political spectrum. In this hypothetical situation, imagine a single issue has become the flash point around which opponents and supporters of radical political movements have found themselves engaged.

Imagine further still, the still smoldering memory of a radical act of terrorism carried out by a fellow citizen against his political rivals in a different region of the country.

Now, to further add to this highly combustible mixture of radical division and rationalism, let’s add some other features. First, the rival political entity expresses sympathy towards the terrorist (if not outright condoning his actions). Second, groups of militant youths, uniformed in black and carrying torches, act as the foot soldiers of the radical political opposition.

This hypothetical situation describes the actual conditions that existed during the election of 1860. The radical terrorist John Brown carried out his infamous Harper’s Ferry raid on a federal armory with the intent of fomenting servile insurrection and establishing a “Haiti” in the Appalachians. And, we all know how Haiti worked out.

What shocked Southerners about this fool-hardy endeavor was the support of wealthy white abolitionists in the North (the so called “Secret Six“), as well as, the general feelings of sympathy that Brown elicited in the Northern press through his courtroom manor and his martyred status upon execution. Ralph Waldo Emerson went as far as to claim that Brown would make, “the gallows as glorious as the cross.

In the wake of Harper’s Ferry and understandable fears of imminent servile insurrection being encouraged by their “fellow countrymen,” Southerners began rapidly militarizing themselves and revamping their old pre-war militias. In addition, most of the slave states began modernizing their antiquated stockpile of shoulder arms in their respective arsenals. This was the nucleus that would eventually form the army of ’61.

Almost as a response to this, or more precisely to capture the “youth” in a radical political movement; young abolitionists in the North began to organize themselves into militant formations of men, clad in black and carrying torches. These “Wide Awakes” became the foot soldiers for the radical Republicans. They carried out attacks against pro-slavery speakers and acted in the roll of “bodyguards” to the more radical elements of the Republican party, as well as, silenced political opposition to the party. The Wide Awakes were both the younger sons of blue blood elites and some of the most militant fire brands of recently arrived immigrants (particularly, those of German descent who had a strong ties to the German revolutions of 1848).

The tactics of our enemies are not particularly new or innovative, but understanding the true history of what happened and how this truly radical movement was retconned into the very symbol of GOP conservatism fits into the false narrative that the Right wants to tell itself.

The black clad Wide Awakes were the Antifa of their day. They don’t teach this in school for a reason. The more you know.

-By William Poole