During the General Campaign of 1860, Stephen Douglas
(Northern Democrat, pictured) was the first presidential candidate to campaign by traveling great distances. Since it was rather unseemly to do so, his "Cover Story" was that he was traveling to visit his mother, and might as well campaign on the way. Republicans mocked his cover story, saying that he certainly seemed to have many relatives, since he kept traveling and campaigning; Lincoln stayed in Springfield, Illinois, not saying or doing much. By not saying/doing much, millions of Northerners started to see him as the embodiment of their hopes and ideals.
The campaign imagery of Lincoln as a "Rail-Splitter" started in Illinois politics in order to provide a political identity, and a "hook" for name-recognition with voters. Using split rails for fences was incredibly common in the still mostly-rural U.S.; split rails represented hard work, success, and optimism for millions by 1860 . . . in the Election of 1860, Lincoln's rivals (Douglas, Breckenridge, Bell) were unable to equal the political symbolism of the Republicans.
Most historians believe that grassroots movement started in February, 1860, when Cassius M. Clay, the most famous Southern Abolitionist from Kentucky (pictured), visited Hartford, Connecticut. Clay was escorted around Hartford parade-style, and the onlookers were very impressed, so much so that Republican "Marching Clubs" were formed . . . it was the birth of the Wide-Awakes. The Wide-Awakes in Hartford would march in the dead of night, with only their drums and boots on the ground making noise, and with many torches as well. This quickly became a political fad across the North as 1860 unfolded, many "enlisting" to be in a Wide-Awake group. In St. Louis, a local shopkeeper tutored local Wide-Awakes to the basics of military formations . . . the name of that shopkeeper . . . Ulysses S. Grant.
The Summer of 1860 was hot and dry, which led to ruinous fires in Southern states such as Texas. Originally, the fires were blamed on natural causes, but before long, the combination of continued fires and the growing influence of the Wide-Awakes led Southern newspapers to a false conclusion. Not long after Lincoln became the Republican nominee in Chicago, Southern newspapers started to claim that the fires were started by African slaves, and those slaves were inspired, and perhaps told/funded to do so by the Wide-Awakes. A rash of lynchings occurred, especially in Texas, trying to "get to the bottom" of the Abolitionist/Wide-Awake Conspiracy. Northern whites were even lynched with African slaves; in Texas, a Methodist minister was lynched due to his moderate attitudes towards slavery; his skin was taken from his corpse in order to be displayed as a public trophy.
But the Republican campaign became something that was neither intended or envisioned - they were about to be viewed as far more radical than moderate in the North and South. "Split Rails" epitomized the Republican Party's doctrine of free labor; quite often, Lincoln was portrayed in the campaign literature with a mallet (which was the tool actually used to split rails). The visual representations of Lincoln wedging rails to make fences showed power, but would Lincoln drive a wedge between the North and the South, leading to conflict?
In 1854, a mob of Abolitionists in Boston tried to free a captured slave by storming the building where he was held; a deputy was even killed in the process. The African slave was to be taken back South by his owner, so Federal troops escorted the "prisoner" away from the building, physically beating back those that tried to save him. It was the first time since the Revolutionary War Era that this level of civil disobedience existed in the city; to the tremendous glee of most of its citizens, Boston was once again a battleground for freedom. To Boston, and other like-minded citizens, Lincoln was viewed as just another "Chair-Warmer" in the White House for another four years; to them, Lincoln didn't go nearly far enough against the evils of slavery and Southern influence.
these street battles actually increased the number of Northern recruits to the Wide-Awakes.
On 16 October, 1860, the largest and greatest parade of Wide-Awakes occurred in Boston; the number of participants in the parade exceeded ten thousand. Twenty-five years before, the Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison was nearly lynched by a mob of Bostonians for his radical views; the parade passed in front of William Lloyd Garrison's home on purpose, with Garrison standing on his porch, "reviewing the troops".
The creation of, and the growing numbers and influence of the Wide-Awakes, meant that the Republicans had to use them to gain votes in the Election of 1860. Southerners, fueled by the belief that Wide-Awakes were behind a conspiracy using African slaves to commit waves of arson, came to view Abraham Lincoln as a threat to their existence, property, and prosperity. Lincoln never left Springfield while he campaigned for President, and he did his absolute-best to stay on a moderate course of action. However, events and people that Lincoln couldn't control led to Northerners viewing Lincoln as a champion against slavery, while Southerners saw Lincoln as a threat to their very existence.