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“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain
For a few cynical wags and critics, Ben Domenech is best known as former “The View” co-host Meghan McCain’s husband. But that is unfair. The soft-spoken, cerebral, and calm Domenech is a celebrated writer and editor in his own right, and as of late, an occasional weekly host on Fox News “Primetime,” including this past week.
Domenech’s day job is serving as publisher of a popular and highly-respected libertarian-conservative website, TheFederalist.com, which features a stable of outstanding fellow journalists, including the estimable Mollie Hemingway. He also authors his own daily newsletter, The Transom, to which I subscribe for the bargain price of $30 annually. He publishes almost every day; it is part of my morning routine.
Since I do not regularly watch Fox News Primetime, I’ve missed Domenech’s opening monologues for the hour-long program that precedes Tucker Carlson. Fortunately, Domenech has been posting his terrific monologues via his newsletter.
And this week, he’s started with a historical reference and theme – the “Wide Awakes” – the Hell’s Angels of 1860.
Historian Jonathan Grinspan best tells the story of the Wide Awakes of 1860 and how they came to be so named.
A band of “sleepy Gotham politicians” gathered in a Manhattan tavern late one evening in 1860. It was a windy Thursday night, and the atmosphere inside the dimly lit establishment was subdued. The bosses ordered ale and settled into a lazy debate about the usual political topics. They cursed the Republican party, analyzed their presidential ticket, and worried about the possibility of secession, all while getting steadily drunker in the cozy tavern.
They first heard the noise around midnight. From uptown came the clash of a marching band followed by the advancing tread of hundreds of boots on the cobblestones of the Bowery. Soon the stench of burning oil filled their nostrils, and the tavern’s dark windows began to glow from the outside. Tipsy and curious, the insiders spilled out onto the street to join a throng of dazed New Yorkers. There they watched as large formations of young men, clad in shimmering black capes and soldiers’ caps, came stomping down the middle of their island. Each bore a blazing torch, and none said a word. Pushing through the crowd, the sobered politicians shouted, “Who are these Wide Awakes?”
You may not know about The Wide Awakes, but you should. There were hundreds of thousands of them in 1860, and their organizations stretched from Maine to California. They were a militaristic fraternity dedicated to human liberty. They had banners and marches and baseball teams, they carried oil lamps, wore capes, and wielded bats. And they stumped for a rising Republican railsplitter named Abraham Lincoln.
The Wide Awakes were working class populists — mostly young men with no real power or wealth. Party bosses and political elites looked down on them, as they did Lincoln. Grinspan noted that “Some Republican leaders even complained about the absence of ‘the intelligent classes’ in the Wide Awake ranks, which they claimed were made up of ‘the mechanic, or laborer, or clerk.'”
And yet, he also writes, “Many of the movement’s supporters—and even some of its vociferous opponents—believed “there never was, in this country, a more effective campaign organization than the Wide Awakes.” They were everywhere – at the massive rallies that supported Lincoln, acting as security to prevent the harassment of pro-liberty speakers across the country. Everyone knew their symbol: a giant eye, opened to see the truth.