Fernando Wood was an intriguing figure in New York City politics during the middle of the nineteenth century. A self-made success in business, he used the independence that came from wealth to pursue politics, which he did for thirty years.
Born in Philadelphia on June 14, 1812, Wood had an undistinguished beginning to his business career, failing in two businesses before starting a successful shipping concern. The California gold rush of 1849 earned him a great deal of money, which he wisely invested in San Francisco and New York real estate. This made him wealthy enough to engage in politics for the rest of his life.
Wood joined Tammany Hall in 1836 and soon rose to important positions. He went to Congress in 1841 for a single term. After running unsuccessfully for mayor in 1850, but he was elected to the office in 1854 and re-elected in 1856. His administration had a mixed record, with the protection of Central Park from commercialism on the plus side but widespread corruption and inefficiency as well. Defeated in 1857, he was expelled from Tammany, but he responded by establishing Mozart Hall, with the support from a range of interests including business and labor. In 1859, he was returned to the mayor's office.
As the Civil War loomed, Wood represented the thinking of New York City businesses with investments in the South. He favored accommodation to Southern demands and took part in the 1860 Democratic National Convention as a pro-Southern delegate. On January 6, 1861, during the interregnum between Lincoln's election and inauguration, Wood proposed that New York City should itself secede from New York State and become a "free port" with many advantages:
Why should not New York City, instead of supporting by her contributions in revenue two-thirds of the expenses of the United States, become also equally independent? As a free city, 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. In this she would have the whole and united support of the Southern states, as well as all the other states to whose interest and rights under the Constitution she has always been true.
His proposal was not acted on and when Fort Sumter was bombarded, he came briefly to the support of the Union cause. Defeat for reelection in 1861 brought him back to his natural position of opposition and he was an organizer of the Peace Democrats along with Clement L. Vallandigham" in 1863. He served one term in Congress but was defeated in the election of 1864^. Returned to Congress in the following election, he served until his death on February 14, 1881.
While in Congress, Fernando Wood was a constant opponent of radical reconstruction and was censured by the House in January 1868 for the use of unparliamentary language. In his last two terms in Congress, Wood served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Fernando Wood was a shining example of someone who never accepted defeat as permanent. His success in business came after two personal failures. His record in mayor elections was defeat, victory, defeat, victory, and defeat. He followed this with a Congressional record of victory, defeat, and then repeated victory until his death. He was an independent thinker and a democrat as well as a Democrat.