During the Debate over Abolition of Slavery, the White Male Youth Vote was Incredibly High… Because it was the Cool Thing to Do

Americans aged 18 to 25 continue to vote at the lowest rate of any eligible age group. Just over 40% voted in the 2016 presidential election, compared to over 70% of those 65 and older. Engaging young Americans about politics and turning them out to vote has been the goal of numerous projects and organizations like Rock the Vote, NextGen America and countless others. It’s a long-term issue of the 20th century, with even lower voter percentages in the 70s and 80s. However, there was once a point in American politics where youth voting, for white men at least, was a hugely important cultural activity.

During the debate over the abolition of slavery, the youth vote was incredibly high, and politics played an essential role in the lives of young men starting from childhood. Politicians and their campaigns intentionally engaged youth in ways that would seem strange today; after all, casting the first vote was considered an important rite of passage into manhood. Sadly, this was also a time when only white men could vote, so women and people of color were not able to share in the culture of political engagement.

An 1863 painting, Young America, depicting children engaging in politics. Jon Grinspan / Vox

Cassius Clay and the Birth of the Wide Awakes

Cassius Marcellus Clay, after whom Muhammad Ali and his father were both named, was a staunch abolitionist Republican from Kentucky who fought to end slavery in the United States. In 1860, he was giving a speech in Connecticut when he was attacked on-stage by a pro-slavery Democrat. A young Republican bodyguard jumped on stage and attacked the Democrat, protecting Clay. The story of this event quickly spread in Connecticut, and the bodyguard and his friends used the notoriety to form a new organization dedicated to abolitionism: the Wide Awakes.

The newly formed Wide Awakes got to work quickly, holding late night meetings at local watering holes to discuss current political issues. Members were required to attend local government meetings and promote Republican candidates, not unlike the requirements set for officials of political parties today. Members also began staging demonstrations, often showing up at the homes of elected officials in the middle of the night yelling at them until they agreed to discuss the issues with their membership. One can clearly see the roots of modern resistance groups like Indivisible in a group like this.

An Iowan member of the Wide Awake. Jon Grinspan / The Ohio State University Libraries

On a much stranger note to modern sensibilities, the Wide Awakes also had very distinct costumes that they wore the wild parties they threw quite often. Members would wear black robes, black capes, and top hats, and would often carry torches emblazoned with their logo: a wide open eye. Sadly, both robes and flames have come to be associated with white supremacist activities in the years since, with the iconic and terrifying white sheets and torches of the Ku Klux Klan. One note for context: the Democratic and Republican parties switched platforms and ideas about the role of government between the 1860s and 1930s. Modern Democrats have more in common with the Republicans of the 1860s and vice versa.