Ep. 87: Profiles in Locodom: Fernando Wood

Nicholas Mosvick joins us to discuss the complexity of Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York who wished the state seceded during the Civil War. 

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Nicholas Mosvick joins us to detail the life of Fernando Wood and how he was the mayor of New York who wished the state would have seceded during the Civil War. Wood was best known for being an ideologue rather than a political agitator.

Was Fernando Wood a Van Buren man or a Calhoun man? Did Fernando Wood represent a glorious American future? Was Wood sympathetic to the South?

Further Reading:

Fernando Wood: A Political Biography, written by Jerome Mushkat

Mayor Wood’s Recommendation of the Secession of New York City, speech by Fernando Wood

Related Content:

The Roots of Modern Libertarian Ideas, written by Brian Doherty

Tensions in Early American Political Thought, written by Joseph R. Stromberg

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00:03 Anthony Comegna: Today we begin what will be a sort of periodic series. We spent a great deal of time rediscovering America’s first libertarian movement, vulgarly called Loco-Focoism, and now as we follow the lives of the last Loco-Focos through to the end, we should pause from time to time to take stock and find meaning in what they did. Therefore, we’re going to start an investigation of a wide array of profiles in locodom. We will choose several individuals from the movement whose biographies represent the many different types and styles of Loco-Foco. And first up, we have Fernando Wood, New York City’s war-time mayor. A Loco-Foco going back to the mid-1830s and the consummate political double dealer. To see what we can make of Wood and his influence on the Loco-Foco movement, I’ve invited PhD candidate, Nicholas Mosvick on the show. Mosvick is writing a dissertation on civil liberties during the Civil War at the University of Mississippi, and he is one of the very few experts on Fernando Wood.

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01:12 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.

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01:22 Anthony Comegna: Okay. So, Nicholas let’s start off talking about Fernando Wood’s very, very early life. Is there anything relevant from his upbringing, his childhood, his days as a young man that went into informing his very long and influential political career?

01:41 Nicholas Mosvick: Yes, well there’s probably two things that stand out. And one is that his family background was that of Quakers. So, his first family members to come over to the United States came over in 1650 from Wales and his father in fact, was kicked out of the Quakers for being too militant. He also had a grandfather who had his own disputes with the Quakers during the Revolutionary War. So, Wood has background as a Quaker and it’s believed that makes him somewhat peaceful and calm as a politician. The other important thing is that very early on, just around 20 years old, he’s already an entrepreneur, as a cigar maker running a factory in Richmond. So, he has this background as an entrepreneur that’s going to be very important because Wood will be a rising political figure as a very young man who has not forgotten his background as an entrepreneur.

02:49 Anthony Comegna: How did he end up as a cigar manufacturer in Richmond? How did he manage to become a young entrepreneur like that without a start from his family?

03:02 Nicholas Mosvick: It’s unclear to me. The background of running a factory in Richmond at 20 comes from a biography that was made of Fernando Wood while he was actually mayor. In that biography, they have official biography, does not actually specify. So in some ways I think his rise as an entrepreneur is sort of part of his political myth that sells him as a working class politician. So, as we’ll talk about what is really an important part of the early Tammany Hall politics, right? So, his ability, as we’ll talk about later, early in his political career to connect to working New Yorkers is an important part of his political appeal. But I’m not sure how it is he ends up in Richmond because very soon after that he’s back in New York City as a cigar maker.

04:13 Anthony Comegna: Now see, that’s very interesting to me. Like so many of these other figures, a lot of the details of his life, especially early on, are very spotty and it’s hard to get a firm grasp on what a young man on the make and on the move is dealing with day-to-day or exactly what his motivations might be too. But he does end up getting caught up in the swirls of Loco-Focoism in the mid-1830s. And I wondered if you could give us an idea of what is his philosophy as he first starts to get involved in politics and what are the issues that are really concerning to him?

05:00 Nicholas Mosvick: Well, I think it’s the issues that stand out, right? The 1830s are a time of a lot of economics… Not just panic, but some very important economic events. So, we have the panic of 1837, which is really a seminal event in the 19th century. This comes on the tail of Andrew Jackson’s time as President and his famous Specie Circular, so his push for hard money. And so, there’s a reaction to this panic that for Wood and other Democrats who are with Tammany Hall, to shift them to more conservative views. And that has to do with who they necessarily blame for these economic events. And really going back to the panic of 1819, the conservator reaction is to blame the larger financial order for these economic panics.

06:16 Anthony Comegna: Now, as you said, he shifted his views during the panic of 1837, as did a lot of other Democrats. If you’ll just permit me a sort of diatribe here about the ins and outs of early Loco-Foco politics. Wood was somebody who was, in my research at least, he first shows up on Tammany Hall’s young Men’s General Committee, which is one of the steering committees to nominate candidates and to drive Tammany Hall policy, but it’s reserved for young activist, young Democrats. And then there’s the Old Men’s Committee, which is supposed to be your seasoned citizens, who are well-versed in how Tammany works. And Wood gets recruited to the Young Men’s Committee because he has been reading William Leggett and he’s been involving himself somewhat in the radical Loco-Foco politics of the day, but he’s still seen by Tammany Hall as a conservative and they think they can get him on the committee as a conservative force within the young men’s orbit. And everybody knew that it was the young men who were represented by Loco-Focoism, right? So, you get the right young men on the young men’s Committee and the conservatives can still take the wind out of Loco-Foco sales, but then the flower riot changes things. How would you say Wood is a radical?

07:52 Nicholas Mosvick: Well, my knowledge of Wood tends to be a little later in his career, but what I would say his overall career suggests is that his consistent radicalism has to do with sort of… As you suggested in some ways, bridging this gap between this Loco-Foco tendency towards what we would now call libertarianism and these older conservative values. And that really goes back to his perspective as a young man and entrepreneur, his ability to connect with working people, and again, to really bridge this divide. In some ways, what makes Wood a radical is his ability to kind of jump ship politically at times, to take these views that are somewhat surprising. So, as we’ll talk about during the Civil War, that’s how Wood really shifts from someone known as more conservative to someone known as a peace Democrat.

09:02 Anthony Comegna: Just, I suppose, just to finish up the brief story of his early politics in New York City, he was that peace Democrat. His position on the Young Men’s Committee was, let’s make peace between the Democratic Party of Van Buren and this new thing, the Equal Rights Party, the sort of protest party among the Loco-Focos, right? So, especially for me, there’s Fernando Wood on The Young Men’s Committee, and then there’s someone like Levi Slamm, who has been a character recurring on the show. Levi Slamm is the Equal Rights Party official responsible for calling meetings and he refuses to call meetings because he wants Loco-Focos to make joint nominations with Tammany; meaning he wants them to work with people like Wood and make peace with the Democratic Party. So, he refuses to call meetings and the Equal Rights Party dies. And they do merge back with Tammany Hall, thanks in part to people like Wood playing that role of peace Democrat. And his biographer, Jerome Mushkat, says that Loco-Focoism was both an ideological imperative and a useful political expedient to him.

10:19 Nicholas Mosvick: I think that’s a good way to describe his career because that is going to make sense of how Wood acts both as mayor and then later is a peace Democrat during the Civil War who will find himself elected to Congress in 1863. Really that driving dynamic of pushing both for peace, maintaining ideological commitments, especially to strict constructionism and limited constitutional powers for the federal government, but also this ability to simultaneously maintain his political edge or his really ability to keep his own political dynamic together. That will very much remain true during the Civil War, where his so-called Mozart Hall Democrats will maintain power at least in the middle of the Civil War.

11:26 Anthony Comegna: What can you tell us that’s especially important about his career in between these early days of Loco-Focoism and the Civil War? ‘Cause I think most people who ever have heard of him probably heard about him as the Mayor of New York City who wanted the city to secede from the union during the war. But there is, surely, a lot to fill in, in between there. So, what about his time? He had a brief stint in Congress in the early 1840s. As I understand it, it’s at least a little bit unclear whether he should be classified as a Van Buren man or a Calhoun man, what’s your point of view?

12:10 Nicholas Mosvick: Yeah. I think my reaction of that is the reason is it kinda goes back to what we were just talking about, this dynamic that Mushkat talks about. This kind of ability to step between ideologic commitments and political commitments. And he’s only in Congress for one term and you do see him take some of these more unique and radical positions. So, for instance, he gives a lengthy speech in 1841, known as the Fiscal Speech, advocating against the bank. So, being against the bank nominally makes him a Van Buren man, but he also adds that he believes in the falsity of the… He believes that the… Wig profits, I’m sorry, the false wig profits are pushing their ability to support this independent treasury through what he calls magic, right? So, his attack on the business class and the mercantile class of New York…

13:23 Nicholas Mosvick: Once again, this really goes back to his early days, but in some ways that can show him as a Van Buren man. And he also makes a famous speech in 1843 against the tariff. Once again, in some ways, I think this can show him to be a Van Buren man, where he talks about the need to avoid any protectionism and to keep only the reward of honest industry and that he was in favor of non-interference. So, in tarrifs and the bank are both examples of the sort of corruption that would have been reflective of the Van Buren and then the Jacksonian perspective. Sort of the spirit of the age, right?

14:16 Nicholas Mosvick: But he also talks in that speech about Europe in this kind of global beard of the age, pushing towards free trade, and I don’t know if that makes him stand out in some ways against the Van Burenites. But he is taking this to the next step. So it’s not just that terror or corrupt protectionism but they also go against the spirit of the age, towards free trade.

14:51 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, he does sort of… I’m glad you brought up that phrase of spirit of the age because he does kinda strike me also as a young American, I don’t know that he’s too much of a politician for many historians to classify him with the literary movement, but he does seem to be very touched by that idea of manifest destiny in some sort of glorious future that Americans are fulfilling based on Loco-Foco abstract principles. But yet, he’s somebody with his nose to the ground in politics, and he’s able to flip between camps and pursue that vision in sort of a practical way that oftentimes the more agitating Loco-Focos didn’t really have patience for. I find it interesting that even the big politicians like Van Buren or Calhoun didn’t have patience for that, and I think they didn’t have patience for his position as an ideologue. His sort of romanticism about the American future. They were too pragmatic and politically minded, but Wood…

16:01 Nicholas Mosvick: So then some way…

16:03 Anthony Comegna: Go ahead.

16:04 Nicholas Mosvick: Then some ways that reflects on his age, this really connect to your description of him as a young man in the 1840s. That’s very true, right? We’re talking about Wood in his early 30s maybe right, and those he’s dealing with, the Van Buren brothers and Calhoun are much older. Calhoun will die in 1850. Van Buren by this point is in his 60s, right? So we’re talking about a generational divide as well, right?

16:41 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, and like I said, he tries to, again, play sort of a peace Democrat and he poses to the Calhoun people as their ally, and he goes to secret strategy sessions of the Calhounites throughout the 1840s, especially leading up to, I think, the 1844 nomination and he gives the Calhoun people advice about wrangling delegates and meanwhile he’s reporting to Van Buren everything about the Calhoun people’s movements and Van Buren people see this as the worst kind of double dealing which they do themselves all the time, but they don’t like it when they can’t trust somebody, so they have no respect for Wood, they don’t like him. And then, Calhoun gets him a patronage job and Wood stays neutral in the Free Soil election of 1848. Again, he’s not an agitator he might be ideolog, but he’s not an agitator.

17:48 Nicholas Mosvick: Yeah, and that’s an important distinction because we can let the kind of thing that is shot through his political career is that he has these obvious ideological commitments but he’s really able to keep his delicate political balance that in some way is really impressive, right?

18:09 Anthony Comegna: So take us through his time as Mayor and leading into the Civil War, what’s important to note about him and how does he ultimately end up the mayor who wants New York to secede?

18:23 Nicholas Mosvick: Well, I think one thing that stands out that gives us a little bit of insight into Wood as mayor for one is that, Wood runs for mayor in a fascinating time in American politics. So he runs against a know-nothing candidate and a reform candidate. So, the Wig candidate actually barely gets any votes in this election, but it’s a four-way of election really, in some ways, Americans might think of not only 1856 election but of course the 1860 election as being one of these heavily contested elections because no one got a clear majority so Wood actually wins the mayorship with only around a third of the vote, right? So he gets in and in his inaugural address in 1855, I think this stands out to me, he talks about his faithful adherence to the framers of the Constitution and the principle of Republicanism that no power should be delegated, which can be exercised by the people themselves. Has this really important commitment to popular sovereignty.

19:40 Nicholas Mosvick: And then he immediately puts himself into a political battle. Wood believes that, as mayor, he should be Head of the Police Department, right? He complains that the chief of police is made too independent. And he also complains that the New York City Council has too much control over his decision making power. He believes that the mayor should basically be like a president, he should have removal power of any officers underneath him and that basically the police should be like his army. They should be his army force. So, he’s making this play for power and, at the same time, in the same inaugural address, he’s also pushing for things like reducing larger expenditures for public schools. So again, he shows his character as conservative, but he’s also pushing for more power and he is also talking at things about corruption.

20:50 Nicholas Mosvick: One more example we might talk about during his time as Mayor, is both that while he runs against a know-nothing candidate, he still shows himself to be a critical of immigrants. He says, “Immigration is not detrimental as a whole, among them are honest, industrious and thrifty people whose presence here may be called a blessing to this country, but it is to that proportion to which I allude like the Belgians, have been sent out of their country as either paupers or criminals.” So, he’s suspicious of, in particular, Belgians who might come into the city. So he really comes in and he has this concern, that’s rather consistent as Mayor with crime. So, one of his real major goals is trying to empower himself as mayor to get rid of crime in New York City.

22:00 Anthony Comegna: Now, that quote is particularly interesting to me, not just because it sounds plucked out of our own day; although I hardly think Belgium would be on the receiving end of criticism today. [chuckle] I’ve spent time around Belgians and they are fine people, at least they are now. But, it leaps out to me because he very much is a racist, he is a northern racist who has lots of awful things to say about African-Americans, free and enslaved, he’s very callous toward their interests and he definitely is a member, at least as far as I can tell, of the sort of doe face wing of the Democratic Party as it relates to slavery and race relations; but it is obviously interesting to see him criticizing white immigration too. What do we make of that?

23:00 Nicholas Mosvick: Yes, yeah. I think what we make of that is that part of what informs his view as a politician is simply his suspicion of outsiders. That in the 19th century Wood is among those conservatives who are looking for sort of a pure form of American Republicanism and a American moral character. If we go back to his time as a young man, not only do we think about him as an entrepreneur, we’re talking about his commitment to a form of manifest destiny, but the question for that, when we think of manifest destiny as historians, it is of course for who, right? And Wood has to answer that question, and he gives, I think, a recognizable 19th century conservative answer to that question, which is good Republican citizens who are likely white Protestants. So, he’s not a know-nothing, but he still probably shares some of that suspicion with outsiders. Those who can be trusted to be committed to both this political project but also this moral project.

24:24 Anthony Comegna: Now, he’s the firmest of Democrats all the way through the Civil War and Reconstruction period, so tell us just about the clash between him and the Lincoln administration while he is mayor of New York City during the war.

24:45 Nicholas Mosvick: Well, so, Fernando Wood he not only clashes with the Lincoln administration as mayor but even once he’s out, and he will be running for Congress really shot throughout the war he is clashing with Lincoln. And really in some sense, would make himself a leader of these New York politicians, these Democrats who are opposing Lincoln, and it really starts in the first year of the war. For instance, as you suggested Wood is sympathetic to the South. He’s sympathetic to secession, right? And that’s in some ways a first. No, no, it’s a first schism, because there will be these Democrats who will become referred to as war Democrats. Something that Fernando Wood would have sneered at, but the idea being that they’re very much committed to fighting the Confederacy and winning this war, they have no qualms about secession. They believe what’s happened is wrong. So from the get-go, Wood is placing himself in opposition.

26:00 Nicholas Mosvick: And then shortly after the war starts, Lincoln and the Republicans start war time policies that would, in his brethren belief are unconstitutional and wrong including the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and of course the arrest of some Democrats in particular Democratic newspaper editors so they basically believed that Lincoln and the Republicans are using the war in their increased powers to go after their political opponents, and in some ways, we can see that this pushes Wood over time towards becoming more radical. He doesn’t start the war as a peace Democrat, but somehow by 1863, he’s really talking about pushing for peace with the Confederacy.

27:00 Anthony Comegna: Now. So then how does that lead us to New York City should be a free trade-free state. That’s a leap that it seems like the vast majority of Americans would not have been making. So what is it about his thinking that says, “This is the way to go”?

27:24 Nicholas Mosvick: I think, I believe that it’s really a combination. For one I think Wood very much sees himself as a powerful figure, and he’s not incorrect in that, right? He has a significant backing but he also, I think, understands that even if there is sort of this war going on between both Mozart Hall, his supporters and Tammany Hall that New York Democrats broadly don’t support the Lincoln administration. There’s sort of the sense that… Well, of course, we could do this, because here in New York, not only are there [28:08] ____ riots but really throughout the war in 1863 in particular, there’s really a lot of opposition to the Lincoln war policies amongst New Yorkers and especially New York Democrats. So, there’s a sense that it’s at least possible and of course, Wood already ideologically believed, that succession isn’t wrong.

28:35 Nicholas Mosvick: And, I think, lastly, there’s that sense especially by 1863, that there are enough Democrats who are pushing for peace elsewhere in the North that New York City leaves, other cities might go to, or at least other areas of the North. We might recall that this is around the time that Clement Wingham the representative from Ohio has been arrested by the Lincoln administration for speaking out against the war policies and he’ll be shortly after sent to the south and Linking Ham is another major peace Democrat. So there’s this sort of linking of arms in the sense that they have as much cloud as they’re going to have at that time to be able to push for their policies.

29:33 Anthony Comegna: It will be quite some time before we catch up to reconstruction on the show, but we will get there. Needless to say, New York City never successfully secedes. Boy, it would have been nice, but nonetheless Wood is an important figure moving forward in the Democratic party, bringing again, these old factions back together after the war and trying to reunite what used to be this old big Loco-Foco Coalition. So I sort of see people like Wood as the Free Trade Democrats who would ignore or give up any kind of racial equality issues, they don’t care about that, they care mostly about free trade limited government. And then there’s the other Loco-Focos, people like William Cullen Bryant or John Bigelow who took over for William Leggett at the Evening Post. They went with the Republican Party because the inequalities related to race and slavery were so much more important to them at least momentarily than free trade.

30:38 Anthony Comegna: But after the war and after abolition somebody like Wood still being around in the Democratic Party serves again as a vehicle to bring these factions back together and to heal the wounds opened by the slavery politics to the more radical egalitarian Loco-Focos. They can say, “Oh, well, we accomplished abolition, we got our main goals and we smashed the slave holders’ monopoly, so now we can come back to the Democratic Party and fight against the money power, the banks and all that stuff again.” And Wood is again, this list conduit back to some sort of Democratic consensus. What do we make of this person in the end? What impact did he have on the Libertarian movement of his day?

31:31 Nicholas Mosvick: I think what we make of him is part of it is, what you just alluded to it is that, after the war, it it says a lot about the politics of the day that there’s also this desire to go back to the way things were. So he starts off as a young man. We talk about him kind of representing some of these new ideals in the 1840s pushing for free trade globally and these more libertarian Loco-Foco positions, and by the late 1860s, that’s sort of wanting to return to a world that doesn’t really quite exist anymore, but because Fernando Wood, also was a racist who supported slavery, it was far easier to really attach himself back to some of those pre-trade positions. So, I think what this tells us is the degree to which 19th century political history and the Loco-Foco and early Libertarian movements are complicated narrative. So once they informed us about these radical movements that may have pushed Americans to support positions that ultimately would be for the better, support of free trade for one. But these were also personally people who weren’t necessarily attached to the same moral commitments we have now right there.

33:14 Nicholas Mosvick: Not only racist, but suspicious of outsiders, their idea of community, their idea of who really is involved both in this democratic project, in this free trade project is also inherently limited. And the Civil War in some ways doesn’t change that for somebody like Fernando Wood. But he maintains power after the war, precisely because for a lot of Americans once the war is over, they are hoping to heal the wounds and sort of return to the world that they knew and once again, I think part of that story, I know that once we get to reconstruction and we talk about reconstruction, that really isn’t something that could happen. So it’s a forlorn hope.

34:07 Anthony Comegna: Yeah, yeah, and just like eventually, as people Wood die, really the whole concept of Loco-Foco-ism dies with them. And as I’ve alluded to a little bit before, people like Benjamin Tucker are left behind to sort of gather the pieces back together and they have to adopt this new word, this strange European import, libertarian.

34:33 Nicholas Mosvick: I think the last thing I would add because I didn’t really talk enough about it during the Civil War, which is that this sort of complicated narrative, this complicated person that Wood is, is a peace Democrat who is sympathetic to the south, but we can also understand him as someone really being committed to peace throughout. In the sense that someone would want to avoid the increasing and awful violence of the civil war is something we should try our best to understand. Not because we’re looking to question the war or its outcome itself, but trying to understand why a position like that, would be rational in 1863, when the war was really starting to reach the heights of its bloodshed. And I think that’s important to understand that there’s a moment in which a movement for peace has some really legitimate prospect because the war has become such a bloody awful mess.

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35:50 Anthony Comegna: Nicholas Mosvick is a PhD candidate in American History at the University of Mississippi where his research focuses on the constitutional arguments over conscription during the Civil War. He has a JDMA from the University of Virginia School of Law’s legal history program, and he has worked for the Cato Institute as a legal associate in the Center for Constitutional Studies. Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes, for more information on the Liberty Chronicles visit libertarianism.org.

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