Fernando Wood was one of the most charming rogues ever to serve as mayor of New York. In his later years, he adopted a debonair and elegant bearing, but that pose was far removed from his origins and character. The son of a cigar maker, Wood successively owned a cigar shop, ran a dockside tavern, and operated a fleet of sailing vessels, managing to amass a fortune before the age of forty. He served a term in Congress as a loyal follower of Tammany, and in 1850, as an adventurer just back from San Francisco and the gold rush, he ran for mayor, only to lose to the Whig coalition. His already rather unsavory reputation did not help his cause, and diarist Philip Hone noted that “the incumbent of this office should be at least an honest man. Fernando Wood, instead of occupying the mayor’s seat, ought to be on the rolls of the State prison.”
By 1854, however, Wood had somewhat overcome his past reputation and was acting as conciliator to bring together all the diverse groups within the Democratic spectrum. Although his loyalty to Tammany was certain, Wood tapped into voters’ anger at the Forty Thieves and spoke the language of reform. Historically, it was one of Tammany Hall’s most endearing traits that it periodically demanded a purging of the system, a cleansing that only it could administer. In 1854, Wood’s campaign promised to restore lost honor to city politics. He promised also to obtain from Albany greater home rule for the city, to limit both prostitution and gambling, and get animals off the city streets. On November 7, he was elected because the Irish Sixth Ward cast four hundred more votes for him than it had registered voters. The first of New York’s modern bosses came to power in a fashion soon to become familiar….
During the presidential race of 1860, both Wood and the Tammany organization agreed that abolitionism rather than slavery was the cause of America’s difficulties. In good demagogic fashion, Wood denounced the Republican Party as a “fiend which stalks within the narrow barrier of its Northern cage” and contrasted this with the nationwide support enjoyed by Democratic candidates. Both Wood and Tammany did their best to elect Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, and the “Little Giant” received twice as many votes in Manhattan as did Lincoln, although the Republicans carried New York State. Wood sincerely believed that much of New York’s prosperity depended on its Southern connections and that an accommodation with the planter aristocracy was in the city’s best interest.
After Lincoln’s election–indeed after South Carolina had seceded–this belief led to an extraordinary mayoral message to the Common Council on January 7, 1861. Wood suggested that Manhattan, in combination with Staten Island and Long Island, secede from the United States and become an independent city-state. The financial basis of this new entity would be secure because of its trade dominance and the enormous tariffs it was certain to collect. Although most people ridiculed the idea, it did not become “outrageous” until war erupted in the spring and buried the plan.
When the South fired on Fort Sumter, Wood proved capable of reversing himself. He ordered Mozart Hall [his own creation in opposition to Tammany Hall after the latter disowned him] to organize a volunteer regiment and waved the flag of patriotism as fervently as anyone else did. But he never really seemed to favor active prosecution of the war, and the conflict marked the end of his career as Manhattan’s leading political figure. His ambivalence toward the Union tinged Mozart Hall with treason, and when the mayor sought reelection in December 1861, he finished third. His only accomplishment was to cost Tammany Hall the election by splitting the Democratic vote. In time-honored fashion, Wood now made a deal with the organization he had so long fought. Tammany Hall agreed to pay Wood’s campaign debts and to nominate him to Congress in 1862 if he removed himself from city politics. Duly elected to Congress, Wood became a leader of the nation’s “Peace Democrats” for the duration of the war. He ultimately served eight terms in Congress and became influential in currency and tariff policy.
SOURCE: New York City: A Short History, by George J. Lankevich (NYU Press, 2002), pp. 94-95, 99-100