'Wide Awake' Parade Brings Legacy Of Youth Political Involvement To Life

Sep 13, 2018

A fiddling duo is playing Civil War era tunes on the Old State Capitol plaza in downtown Springfield. Near them is a log cabin on wheels (well, technically it's made of cardboard) with a large ball attached to it - fashioned to look as though it was made of iron or steel, with the words "link on to Lincoln." It's old-timey propaganda created by a contemporary Illinois artist.

Moments earlier, residents and organizers ended here after a parade from Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield home. They were representing the "Wide Awakes," a Republican contingent of youth and young adults that formed to support Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. Kids in groups like 4-H and the Springfield Urban League put together capes and banners in prior workshops to use for the day.

Peaches and Bacon played on the Old State Capitol Plaza after the parade wrapped up.
Credit Rachel Otwell

Paul Durica is the director of programs for the Illinois Humanities organization, which sponsored the event. He says the Wide Awakes participatory reenactment is an effort to explore what it's like "to be one of these young people back in 1860, actually walking the same streets that they did, following the same path and wearing sort of similar costumes and so forth and really trying to kind of capture this DIY feel behind the whole Wide Awake movement."

Those who dressed as the original parade marchers have on the capes as well as military-style hats. After Lincoln’s success, many would go on to join the Union Army. But today's events are mostly about their efforts to get out the vote. Says Durica, "They took to the streets in a very literal sense to try to get other people involved in the political process. And it really kind of resonates with the contemporary moment where once again we have younger people who maybe just like the Wide Awakes, can't make their feelings known at the ballot box, but still feel called upon. Part of the process was to put pressure on their elders to bring about the changes that they believe in.”

Durica, who says he isn’t intending to make a partisan statement, brings to mind the youth from Stoneman Douglas High School who earlier this year took to the streets and organized other students across the country to protest gun violence and regulations they see as too lax, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida. They have called on younger people and the public at large to get politically involved and vote.

Durica says it was great to see kids come out today with their families and get involved in the type of event that would usually be performed solely by re-enactors. “Instead you're actually being part of the event. When we kind of look at the past, we tend to think of it as being this kind of static thing, but it actually was very dynamic and fluid.”

Inside the Old State Capitol - in the same room where Lincoln gave his House Divided speech - a band plays music of the time in between a panel discussion.

Anne Moseley, director and curator of the Lincoln Heritage Museum, talks about a female auxiliary group from Middletown, Illinois - which she calls a “teeny, teeny tiny town." From this town though? Something big: an American flag about 24 feet long. “These ladies dyed the fabric, sewed it - put it all together - just for the rally of August 1860. Did these women get to go to the rally? No. Did they get to vote for Lincoln? No. But they took the time and the energy to put everything that they had to support their candidate," she tells the audience, seated at desks that once were used by state legislators.

Nick Wylie is a creator too, he’s an artist from Chicago. He’s wearing the traditional Wide Awakes garb. Wylie created some of the signs that were used - with a modern twist. Some are pink. It’s a relatively subtle reference. Wiley is undergoing an artist residency at the Springfield Art Association - where he’s looking into, as he puts it, a "controversial realm of Lincoln scholarship, to do with his sexuality.” In particular, he’s studying Lincoln’s relationship with Elmer Ellsworth, a close friend, best known as the first Union soldier to die in the Civil War. But why bring sexuality into something like this?

“Mining what we can from the histories that we have and finding the traces of queerness is considered by some, like a revisionist and apocryphal project. But for people in the queer community, I think it's important to understand that we didn't just pop up - that we've been part of American history since the beginning.”

Wylie's additions to the largely historical happenings today show how the country’s values have changed in the nearly 160 years since Lincoln first won the presidency. In 2015, Illinois resident and then President Barack Obama had the White House lit with rainbow-colored lights to celebrate the federal approval of gay marriage.

Still - some things remain the same - like efforts aimed to get out the vote. As the midterms draw near, it remains to be seen if youth involvement will sway any outcomes this time around. In a June poll and report  from the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic (titled 'American Democracy in Crisis'), less than a third of Americans aged 18 to 29 said they are “absolutely certain” they’ll vote in November.

Reproduced signs, including one Nick Wylie used some artistic license for.
Credit Rachel Otwell

The Illinois Humanities organization has three more participatory re-enactment events slated this year to celebrate that state's 200th year, including one this weekend in Kaskaskia. More information is here.