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Venice on the Hudson
Fernando Wood’s vision of a free New York
In the long line of mayors of New York, Fernando Wood was neither the first nor the last to feel himself ill-used by the state legislature. Like those other mayors, Wood thought his city the beating heart of the state. He judged the state’s rural residents to be rubes, except when they were conniving corruptionists. He believed New York City would be better off without New York state, and he occasionally dreamed of effecting a separation.
Consequently, when the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 triggered the secession crisis, Wood interpreted the country’s calamity as New York’s opportunity. He wrote a letter to the members of the city council proposing an audacious act by the city. “It would seem that a dissolution of the Federal Union is inevitable,” Wood declared. “Having been formed originally on a basis of general and mutual protection but separate local independence, each state reserving the entire and absolute control of its own domestic affairs, it is evidently impossible to keep them together longer than they deem themselves fairly treated by each other, or longer than the interests, honor and fraternity of the people of the several states are satisfied.” America’s democracy was a government of opinion and sentiment. “Its continuance is dependent upon the continuance of the sentiment which formed it. It cannot be preserved by coercion or held together by force. A resort to this last dreadful alternative would of itself destroy not only the government, but the lives and property of the people.”
Lincoln wouldn’t be inaugurated for another two months, and he hadn’t stated explicitly what his response to secession would be. Wood here was telling the president—Wood’s letter to the city council was immediately published—that the use of force would fail and hence shouldn’t be attempted.
Having proclaimed secession a fait accompli, Wood urged the councilmen to make the most of it. “Momentous considerations will be presented to the corporate authorities of this city,” he said. “We must provide for the new relations which will necessarily grow out of the new condition of public affairs. It will not only be necessary for us to settle the relations which we shall hold to other cities and states, but to establish, if we can, new ones with a portion of our own state.”
New Yorkers had never lacked confidence in their city’s future, but the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 had sparked an economic boom that still continued, and New Yorkers were more bumptious than ever. “We must rely upon our own resources and assume a position predicated upon the new phase which public affairs will present, and upon the inherent strength which our geographical, commercial, political, and financial preeminence imparts to us,” Wood told the councilmen.
The New York mayor reached out to the South. “With our aggrieved brethren of the slave states, we have friendly relations and a common sympathy. We have not participated in the warfare upon their constitutional rights or their domestic institutions.” Wood distinguished level-headed dwellers of New York City from the crazies upstate. “While other portions of our state have unfortunately been imbued with the fanatical spirit which actuates a portion of the people of New England, the city of New York has unfalteringly preserved the integrity of its principles of adherence to the compromises of the Constitution and the equal rights of the people of all the states.”
New York City belonged not to New York state, Wood said, but to America and the world. “We have respected the local interests of every section, at no time oppressing but all the while aiding in the development of the resources of the whole country. Our ships have penetrated to every clime, and so have New York capital, energy and enterprise found their way to every state, and, indeed, to almost every county and town of the American Union.”
New York City had given as much as it had received. “If we have derived sustenance from the Union, so have we in return disseminated blessings for the common benefit of all,” Wood said. For this reason, New York City must not be bound by the interests of a single state or section. “New York has a right to expect and should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section.”
State legislators in Albany had long treated New York City as a cash cow. This was a greater threat to the city’s future than anything the South did, Wood told the councilmen. “Judging from the past, New York may have more cause of apprehension from the aggressive legislation of our own state than from external dangers.” Albany legislated for the benefit of the legislators. “Our interests and corporate rights have been repeatedly trampled upon,” Wood said. To date, New York City had failed to stand up for its rights. “Even the common right of taxing ourselves for our own government has been yielded, and we are not permitted to do so without this authority.”
The councilmen and Wood’s larger audience appreciated the reference to the no-taxation-without-representation principle of the American Revolution. The mayor segued into the style of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. “The political connection between the people of the city and the state has been used by the latter to our injury,” he wrote. “The legislature, in which the present partizan majority has the power, has become the instrument by which we are plundered to enrich their speculators, lobby agents, and Abolition politicians. Laws are passed through their malign influence by which, under forms of legal enactment, our burdens have been increased, our substance eaten out, and our municipal liberties destroyed. Self-government, though guaranteed by the state constitution and left to every other county and city, has been taken from us by this foreign power, whose dependents have been sent among us to destroy our liberties by subverting our political system.”
Having talked the council to the brink of separation, Wood now stepped back. “How we shall rid ourselves of this odious and oppressive connection, it is not for me to determine,” he said. “It is certain that a dissolution cannot be peacefully accomplished except by the consent of the legislature itself. Whether this can be obtained or not, is, in my judgment, doubtful.” Farmers didn’t lightly part with their livestock; Albany wouldn’t be in hurry to relinquish its cash cow.
And yet he couldn’t give up. “If part of the states form new combinations and governments, other states may do the same,” Wood reasoned. “California and her sisters of the Pacific will no doubt set up an independent republic and husband their own rich mineral resources. The western states, equally rich in cereals and other agricultural products, will probably do the same.” Here he meant the states of the Great Plains.
Finally his punch line: “Why should not New York City, instead of supporting by her contributions in revenue two-thirds of the expenses of the United States” —Woods exaggerated for effect—“become also equally independent?”
New York’s freedom would pay for itself. “As a free city, with but nominal duty on imports, her local government could be supported without taxation upon her people. Thus we could live free from taxes, and have cheap goods nearly duty free.” A free New York could count on the backing of her partners in the lucrative cotton trade. “She would have the whole and united support of the Southern states,” Wood said.
It was a bold step, but boldness was needed. “It is well for individuals or communities to look every danger square in the face, and to meet it calmly and bravely,” Wood said. “As dreadful as the severing of the bonds that have hitherto united the states has been in contemplation, it is now apparently a stern and inevitable fact. We have now to meet it with all the consequences, whatever they may be. If the confederacy is broken up, the government is dissolved, and it behooves every distinct community, as well as every individual, to take care of themselves.”
America looked to New York for leadership, Wood said. “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.”
Fernando Wood’s vision of a city-state at the mouth of the Hudson River never came to pass. Lincoln’s decision to wage war against secession dampened enthusiasm for a break for freedom by New York.
Yet if New York didn’t get independence, it got something more important to New Yorkers: it got rich. The Civil War kicked the industrial revolution in the American North into high gear, and no city benefited more than New York, whose factories produced myriad items the war effort required, whose docks and rail depots throbbed with the commercial traffic the war induced, and whose banks underwrote the war and all the other business activity.
New York didn’t become an American Venice; it became something better: an American London, seat of the capitalist empire Americans built in the half-century after Wood made his brash pitch to the New York city council.