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March 3, 2011
No Mean CityBy Greyhawk
(Continuing the tale of Fernando and Abraham begun here.)
His honor chose an interesting line of scripture to illustrate his vision for the city's future. Though his actual call for secession from the Union was still five years away, some of his listeners might have caught an air of sedition in the comparison to a free city of the Roman empire, knowing from their Bible study that such "were permitted to use their own laws, customs and magistrates. They were also free from being subject to Roman guards." Well-versed others among the electorate, good men and Christians all, would also recognize the quote - perhaps with no little concern - as part of the apostle's defense against a lynching. Thus more than a few of Mayor Wood's constituents likely paused a moment to wonder what exactly he meant by that... But not for long would they worry it; it was an inspiring description of a worthy goal - who could argue against it? - and there was business at hand and it was time to get to it.
Certainly "taken to an extreme" - but is the above image an extreme example, or merely typical of 1860 New York City?
Given the abundance of evidence, it's easy enough for a twenty-first century reader (at least one who's read this particular history) to conclude that New Yorkers of the mid-nineteenth were all-in-all an unruly and racist lot, whose concern for their fellow man never grew to encompass that annoying part about "fellow," and whose definition of "man" would exclude just about anyone who didn't look an awful lot like the one they saw in the mirror - an individual who lived by the simple motto "what's in it for me?" The modern reader would be right.
But even then New York was the American city with the most of anything. (By 1850, for example, a New Yorker could claim his city had more Irish residents than Dublin, and depending on your definition of Irish, he'd be right.) By 1860: "The total population of metropolitan New York was nearly 5 percent of the whole American population, a mass of people greater than that of all but four of the thirty-four states."
And most of anything includes exceptions to the rule.
Greeley, whose exhortation to the less-privileged of New York's youth to "Go west, before you are fitted for no life but that of the factory" would be outrage enough for those who saw the same young men as voters, whether they could find factory work or not - is lampooned with ol' Abe in the cartoon above for one of the many other reasons local Democrats couldn't stand him. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, declared Lincoln's speech was "one of the most happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this City," adding for good measure that "No man ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience." He at least made an impression on Greeley, and in May won the Republican nomination for president; a brief description of Greeley's part in that is here.
But whatever influence Horace Greeley had over the Republican Party (he was a founder, and deserves credit for naming it) the grand new party had little enough influence in his town, where they could never hope for a majority of the vote, and without a major split among Democrats (in New York City, "Democrats" was already synonymous with Tammany Hall) Republicans had no chance for gaining a significant public office. Such splits happened (and would again). Slavery wasn't the only issue of the day (nativists against immigrants was a political battle some nativists didn't yet realize they'd lost), but even though many free soil Democrats had left the fold, the Democracy, as Tammany was commonly called by its members, was not yet the more harmonious machine it would become under Boss Tweed.
While achieving that united Democratic front was always as difficult as it was desirable, in 1860 it was imperative. So as the elections approached...
(Links and brackets added above.)
It's obvious from the description of the Greeley float that anyone taking an anti-slavery stand in America's largest city would need a thick skin - but they knew they needed more than that. The violent rhetoric employed by their opponents often led to violent action. New Yorkers living in 1860 could cite countless examples from within their own lifetimes, the most horrific involved race. Years before, when bible-thumping, temperance preaching protestant reformers first added abolition to their list of annoying character traits, Tammany Hall had responded with the power of the (newly politically empowered) mob. ("Civic pride" could be part of their motive - New York abolitionists had earned anger and hatred not just of New Yorkers, but most of the South - the city's reputation was damaged, and something had to be done.)
The Tammany bosses may not have expected the intensity of the days-long orgy of fire, looting, and lynching that ensued; violence directed not only at white abolitionists, who "went so far as to say that the negro should be debarred from no society on account of his origin or color," but also - in the words of post-Civil War Tammany apologist William Gover - "against the poor, unoffending blacks, who should not have been made to suffer for the wild and impolitic teachings of Tappan and his followers." (Gover wrote his history in 1875, New York had repealed the $250 property requirement for blacks in 1870; they were considered "voters" - if not fully human ones - by the time he penned his account.)
Tammany members must have felt some responsibility for the death and destruction; after the army ended the violence (they had to charge three barricades to do it) and filled the jails with rioters, they secured the release of all but a few of those unfortunates who'd been detained. Whether they'd participated or not, those riots were a vivid memory for most of the leading figures (and voters, of course - at least the living ones) of the 1860 election campaign in New York City; many had just launched their political careers at that time.
But old or young, this promised to be the most important election of their lives:
By October 1860, New York State appeared to be the likely president-maker... if Democrats could keep Republicans from winning New York's block of votes, the largest in the nation, they might prevent Lincoln from getting a majority of the national electoral vote, throwing the final election into the House of Representatives, where Lincoln would likely lose. The critical question for both sides was whether the Democrats could turn out a sufficiently large popular vote downstate to overcome the upstate vote for Lincoln.Emotions ran high, but behind the scenes, influences beyond the purely political shaped the day:
Still, most leading businessmen worked for Lincoln's defeat. The richest bankers and largest merchants forced contending Democratic candidates to fuse into a joint Union ticket, then promoted it vigorously. One group of dirty tricksters rigged a stock market panic, hoping to scare the country into thinking a Republican victory would create financial chaos.
Given the overriding financial concerns, for most upper class New Yorkers party-driven political interests in and of themselves had no more influence over their vote than questions over the morality of slavery - that is to say, none. New York banks had many outstanding loans to Southern business interests - and to many in the North who depended on that business. New York shipping and textile mills depended on slave-picked Southern cotton, as did merchandisers who sold their finished product. The city had similar financial ties throughout the United States, but the South was the issue at hand. Potential losses were incalculably large - and likely cascading. This was as true in 1860 as it had been in 1834, but now the problem was larger than one of image, and couldn't be solved by sending a message to a handful of local abolitionists. The war would turn out to be less of a financial Armageddon than most anticipated (in fact, for most it was immeasurably profitable - their pleasantly surprising first exposure to the concept on such a large scale) but looking at ledgers and foreseeing a chain reaction of future disasters beginning in November, 1860 was hardly a pastime reserved to those with fevered minds.
So the strategy was win New York state, the battleground was New York City - where the upper crust (meaning money and power) were on board. Fernando Wood's thugs could deliver him enough votes to win a four-(or five-)way city mayors race, but in this case that wouldn't enough. The remaining question was tactics; in this case, how to get the average (and below average) New Yorker (the bulk of voters there and anywhere) to believe their interests were with the South. The solution was the same as it was in 1834 - make them feel threatened, too. Tell them (ironically) the big money men wanted this war in order to free the slaves - to bring another few hundred thousand workers in to compete with them for jobs - and drive wages down. (Pay no attention to the few hundred thousand getting off the boats from Europe in the harbor every year - these are blacks we're talking about, and once they've got the white man's jobs and money they'll want their white women, too!)
As far as persuading Manhattanites, the Democrats' tactic was a success - Lincoln lost in New York City by a two-to-one margin. (He did no better in '64, receiving only 33.22% of the vote.) As Walt Whitman observed on Lincoln's pre-inaugural second visit to the city in1861, "...he possessed no personal popularity at all in New York City and very little political" (along with "I have no doubt (so frenzied were the ferments of the time) many an assassin's knife and pistol lurked in hip- or breast-pocket"). The tactic had worked, but for many that second visit was a bitter demonstration that the strategy had failed. The Republican ticket took the state by more than 60,000 votes, and Lincoln took the White House.
Lincoln's victory was wholly sectional. The Republican had carried every county in New England, 109 of 147 counties in the Mid-Atlantic states, and 252 of 392 counties in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. He received no votes in nine states in the Deep South, and won only 2 of 996 counties in the entire South.
At least, "wholly sectional" as long as you ignore the city with "a mass of people greater than that of all but four of the thirty-four states." (Something no resident thereof - certainly not the mayor - would be willing to let Lincoln do.)
The effort was doomed, but the battleground was the only one with a hope for Democratic success, their "fusion party" was a fusion in more ways than one. New York was a city with an established (if ever-changing, thus always uneasy) and mutually-dependent balance of power between Tammany-controlled (via the growing mass of population in the slums) government and the financial sector. (Two institutions arguably more subject to forces in chaotic flux than the will of any person or group.) Members of either (and many were members of both) had developed certain understandings and expectations of one another; certain things were understood, and while breaking written rules and agreements was acceptable on occasion, violations of unwritten rules would irretrievably end a man's career. (His life being of less concern - but that could be forfeited, too.)
The most strident call for unity in the face of the Republican peril came from the top of those swirling, chaotic forces that made New York City what it was at the start of the Civil War. There stood Mayor Fernando Wood, a man who'd ridden the turbulence of the times to power, if not lasting glory. He'd picked the winning side in the city's immigration wars, but he had also learned to unite factions during his up and down political career. (Which he'd resurrected for his first successful run at mayor in 1854 by supporting the governor's veto of a temperance law, declaring that - while not a drinking man himself, mind you - an American man had certain unalienable rights; if he wanted to have a drink or own a slave that was his own business and no other's).
Though Wood was a divorced man (but since remarried, although the divorce court had decreed his adulterous first wife "shall not marry again during the natural life" of Fernando Wood; "What became of her remains problematic," Wood biographer Jerome Mushkat concludes - noting at least one rumor that she'd become an alcoholic prostitute...) accused of questionable business and financial practices, he won the 1854 election with a Lincolnesque 33% of the vote to his nearest opponent's 31. (That was prohibitionist alderman James Barker, candidate of the short-lived nativist American - or "Know Nothing" - Party.) Wood didn't enchant a majority in that close race, but in fact he was so popular with some segments of society (Irish gang members, for example) that in New York's predominantly Irish "bloody sixth" ward he received 4,000 more votes than there were voters, overcoming the seemingly damning revelation that he - the staunch friend of the immigrant - was secretly a member (on the executive committee, even) of the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party, too.
"No man ever went into higher office under a deeper cloud of ignominy," declared Horace Greeley. But once in office Wood proved himself a champion of social justice and hero to the underprivileged, often finding them jobs in government or employment in public works. (For example, under his control the police department hired numerous Irish officers.) As for public works, he's also recognized for his part in the development of Central Park - and no doubt he made the trains run on time, too. His supporters dubbed him "the model mayor," and a few months after his term began his biography appeared on store shelves. In its pages New Yorkers were assured his reign had already greatly improved the image of their city in the eyes of the world:
"Even in Europe he is spoken of... A distinguished American artist, just returned from Rome, says that Fernando Wood is become a household word in the mouths of citizens of this country now living in the Eternal City. Ex-President Van Buren, in his late journey through the wild mountain region of Wales, was asked in a little wayside inn, by the landlord, particulars of the appearance and manner and peculiarities of the man whom they had learned to venerate."
He was, his biographer assured literate New Yorkers, "a fit ruler for you and me." (Italics added.)
It was also during his first term that he gave the "no mean city" speech above. In 1856 he sought reelection, and for the benefit of those New Yorkers who couldn't read: "...patrolmen were reassigned or given time off so the gangs of thugs on Wood's payroll could start riots at his opponents' rallies, attacking their speakers with rocks and bricks. At the polls, the mayor's toughs harassed voters, stuffed ballot boxes, and stole returns." The police had a Union of sorts, their dues were payable to the man who gave them their jobs: Fernando Wood, who "...had turned the police department into a patronage mill, filling its ranks with immigrant supporters, then systematically levying contributions from the officers to fund his reelection."
Which he also won. Perhaps surprisingly, his support wasn't limited to his criminal gangs and police, "a hundred wealthy bankers and merchants" had also reportedly asked him to run again. Wood was born poor in America (of non-Irish parents), and had made his fortune (a considerable one, and if questionable practices were involved, well, few would want anyone to examine their own ledgers or histories too closely...) in the city he now ruled. Perhaps the wealthy saw him as one of their own. Perhaps some simply admired his jib. Or perhaps the more affluent saw him as the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks - which (for a while at least) he was.
During his second term he refused to enforce a temperance law that the state finally passed. (It was said in those days that you could empty a Tammany Hall meeting by rushing in and shouting "your saloon is on fire!") Sadly, this term was also marred by several riots, including one between his police force and the one state officials created to replace it (in part because they knew he wouldn't use his private army to enforce their laws) and others (immediately after the supreme court found in favor of the state on the police issue) when gangs in the sixth ward rioted for what were no doubt unrelated grievances. (Some of this is captured in the recent film Gangs of New York, but I can't recall who played the part of Mayor Wood...) The state also decided to change the election year for mayor in New York City to odd numbered years, a move that had the coincidental side effect of shortening his second term to just one year.
He failed in that second reelection attempt. His blunder was to over reach; besides being Mayor he made himself (or tried, with some help from his friends) the head of Tammany Hall, and in doing so made too many enemies there. (Among them, young up-and-comer William "Boss" Tweed, who was watching and learning. Among other lessons: Tweed would later claim the more powerful office, but never make the mistake of making himself Mayor.) On the outs with Tammany, Wood formed his own organization, dubbed it Mozart Hall, and came roaring back two years later to at last win his third term in 1859.
New Yorkers who recalled Wood's no mean city speech from his first term might still have been surprised when two months after Lincoln's 1860 election Wood called for New York to secede from the Union, not to join the Confederacy (though he used the term throughout his speech) but to become its own "Free City" - like those in the days of ancient Rome:
When Disunion has become a fixed and certain fact, why may not New York disrupt the bands which bind her to a venal and corrupt master - to a people and a party that have plundered her revenues, attempted to ruin her commerce, taken away the power of self--government, and destroyed the Confederacy of which she was the proud Empire City? Amid the gloom which the present and prospective condition of things must cast over the country, New York, as a Free City, may shed the only light and hope of a future reconstruction of our once blessed Confederacy.
The early economic impacts of Southern secession were already being felt when one month later Mr Lincoln returned to town.
Posted by Greyhawk / March 3, 2011 6:15 PM | Permalink
Or "I don't need your civil war." (And don't fret over those foreign sounding names; the characters in this story are as American as apple pie...) February 18, 1861 - Montgomery, Alabama: Jefferson Davis sworn in as President of the Confederate States ... Read More
ANTICIPATIONS OF THE FUTURE ****** Washington, D. C, Nov. 11th, 1864. Edmund Ruffin The complete election reports have now been received. As anticipated, California, Oregon, Washington, and also Sonora (the new Pacific free state, formed of territory ... Read More
"Streetcars on Park Row, circa 1860," reads the caption accompanying this photo on the New York Times web site. "The large building in the background is the headquarters of The New York Times." It was a new building then, built just for the Times, and... Read More
He was more than just a model mayor - he was the model for every aspiring Democrat politician who followed him: "In 1849, at the age of thirty-seven, Wood retired from active business and entered a profession. Or to be precise, he created a profession... Read More
So there I was, writing about the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War (though the story of Fernando Wood has obvious parallels to our modern world...), when all of a sudden we got involved in the Libyan Civil War, and captured Osama bin Laden.... Read More
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
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