Monday, June 6, 2011

Should New York City secede from the Union?

Here's an odd little proposal I found. In January 1861, with civil war looming, the mayor of New York City made a speech suggesting that the city secede from the Union and become a free city, thus preserving its valuable trade links with both sides. Mayor Fernando Wood had built up quite a political machine for himself, which the Republican state legislature was always trying to break down, so he had little sympathy with the Union cause.

Mayor Wood argues that New York City has drawn residents from every part of the Union, and has commercial interests in every state. Not only that, but New York has sympathy with 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. 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. 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. If we have derived sustenance from the Union, so have we in return disseminated blessings for the common benefit of all. Therefore, New York has a right to expect, and should endeavor to preserve a continuance of uninterrupted intercourse with every section.

Therefore, the city should seriously consider seceding from the Union and becoming an independent free city, able to trade with everyone. Wood strongly resents the perceived injustices the city has been laboring under, and claims that the rest of the state lives only to plunder New York's riches. (In those days before income tax, the Union depended on tariffs for tax income, and New York City was the main source of that money; if the city had seceded, it would have been a financial disaster for Washington DC.) He feels no obligation to the rest of the Union:

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 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.

What an interesting idea! It actually had quite a lot of support in New York City, which was a bastion of anti-Republican and pro-Southern feeling. Merchants were terribly worried about losing Southern business, and workers feared that their jobs would disappear if freed slaves arrived, willing to work for less. But once the war actually started, New York citizens turned right around to support the Union, much to the fury of Southerners hoping for the city's support.

So Mayor Wood did not get his wish, but neither did he have to worry about losing income. The North's industrial expansion during the war provided New York City with plenty of business after all.

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