NYC Mayor Fernando Wood. Photo taken between 1855 and 1865. Image via Library of Congress
Yes, you read that correctly. The mayor of New York City in the 1860s, Fernando Wood, supported slavery in the South during his time in Congress before becoming the mayor of our beloved city. On January 7th, 1861, Wood motioned to secede from the Union and make Manhattan an independent city. Wood’s declaration followed suite to South Carolina’s secession, the first state to secede.
The New York Times was rather hilarious when it reported the statement, “To any dyspeptic sufferer, who requires a good laugh to put his blood into more active circulation, we recommend the moderate perusal of Mayor Wood’s Message to the Common Council.” Wood’s “message to the common council” could be found in its full text here.
The Times’ mockery, however, actually doesn’t make much sense in context of the New York City of the day. New York, despite its liberal patterns, was truly divided when it came to the slavery debate. Wood really wasn’t that crazy. New York had close ties with the South, and in fact, much of its wealth came from Southern cotton exports passing through New York. According to Brooklyn by Name, it is estimated that in 1800 nearly one-third of Brooklyn’s population were slaves, “a number proportionally greater than anywhere else north of the Mason-Dixon line. Indeed, various pockets of Brooklyn remained ambivalent on the [slavery] issue.””
Unfortunately for Wood, his legislation didn’t make it through the council once the first Civil War shots were fired at Fort Sumter that April. Once the war actually started, New York became a bulwark of patriotism for the Union. In response, the South was furious. A confederate paper even reported, “New-York will be remembered with especial hatred by the South to the end of time.” Ouch.