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Head-Stompers, Wrench-Swingers and Wide Awakes Election Season 1860
Head-Stompers, Wrench-Swingers and Wide Awakes
By ADAM GOODHEART
New York, Nov. 2, 1860
Young Republicans with axes! New York firemen run amok!
Welcome to election week, 1860.
Hurled brickbats, smashed glass and howled curses were the soundtrack of American electoral politics a century and a half ago. The oratorical eloquence that most people today associate with the 19th century — those resonant fanfares of prose carved upon monuments, enshrined in history textbooks, hammered into the brains of 10th graders — often provided little more than the faintest melodic line, drowned out amid the percussive din. Last week’s notorious “head-stomping” incident outside a Senate debate in Kentucky, footage of which has drawn nationwide condemnation and half a million views on YouTube, seems almost gentle in comparison.
On the last Friday night before the 1860 election, Senator William H. Seward delivered a rousing Republican campaign address to a large outdoor gathering on 14th Street in Manhattan. Afterward, crowds of pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” fanned out through the surrounding area. Wide Awakes, members of an organization with strong paramilitary overtones, could be a menacing sight: they wore military-style caps and shrouded themselves in long black capes made of a shiny fabric that reflected the flames of the torches they carried. Some strapped axes to their backs, in tribute to their rail-splitting hero.
New York Wide Awakes marching, autumn 1860.The Library of Congress New York Wide Awakes marching, autumn 1860.
According to the next day’s Times and other papers, things began to spin out of control when supporters of a rival presidential contender, John Bell, charged toward the Lincoln men, “calling them ‘negro stealers,’ ‘sons of b____s,’ &c.” At the corner of 12th Street and Fourth Avenue, several dozen volunteer firemen — members of Engine Company 23 — joined the fray, swinging roundhouse blows with clubs and heavy iron wrenches that the Wide Awakes tried to parry with their torches. But the tide of battle turned when the young Republicans brought their Lincoln axes into play. They chased the enemy back into the company firehouse and promptly began smashing down its barricaded doors, as other idealistic marchers flung bricks and cobblestones. (News reports are vague about what finally ended the fracas.)
Similar disturbances happened almost daily in various East Coast cities. In Baltimore the previous night, Republican marchers had been pelted with stones and rotten eggs. (That city was justly known as “Mobtown”; dozens sometimes died in a single campaign season there.) In Washington on Election Day itself, pro-slavery forces stormed a Wide Awake clubhouse a block or two from the Capitol. The attackers practically demolished the building and were only narrowly prevented from burning the ruin — along with several Wide Awakes trapped on the third floor — by the timely arrival of police.
There was little talk of bipartisan civility during that particular election cycle.
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