Fernando Wood, New York City mayor, U.S.
representative, and leading Peace Democrat, was born in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, to Rebecca Lehmann Wood and Benjamin Wood, a merchant. His father
engaged in several unsuccessful business ventures, then moved the family to New
York City in 1821 where his luck was little better. Young Wood attended a
private school, but left home at age 13 to support himself by working at a
variety of menial jobs. He moved to Philadelphia and in 1831 married Anna
Taylor. The next year his father died, so the couple moved to New York City,
where the twenty-year-old Wood labored to provide for his mother and younger
siblings as well as his new bride. He and his wife divorced in 1839.
Like his father, Wood was not a prosperous
businessman, but he learned he possessed a talent for politics. He joined the
Tammany Hall club, sided with the anti-national bank faction of the Democratic
party, and quickly rose to prominence. He was elected to the U.S. House of
Representatives in 1840 at the age of 28. Shortly after taking office he married
Anna Richardson, the daughter of a well-connected judge from upstate New York.
The couple had seven children; she died in 1859. In Congress, Wood opposed the
Whig program of national banking, tariffs, and internal improvements, except
when they benefited his district.
Wood lost his seat in 1842 due to redistricting,
but in 1844 received a State Department patronage position as dispatch agent at
the port of New York. He used his wife’s money to invest in real estate,
eventually becoming wealthy as a result. He was, however, successfully sued in
1848 for cheating his partners out of their due share of the profits from a gold
During the 1850s Wood was the perennial
Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City: 1850, defeated; 1854, elected;
1856, elected; 1857, defeated; 1859, elected; 1861, defeated. He tried to unify
a factionalized party and a city deeply divided by class, religion, ethnicity,
and race. He supported moral and social reforms, such as establishing Central
Park and the City University of New York and controlling vice. In deference to
working-class immigrants he did not strictly enforce state liquor laws, and he
endorsed public work projects during the financial panic of 1857. Democratic
infighting led to an eventual schism, with Wood forming Mozart Hall as an
organizational rival to Tammany Hall.
Limited mayoral authority and a Republican state
legislature further circumscribed Wood’s ability to accomplish his political
goals. The state-city power struggle over law enforcement produced rival police
forces, rioting, and a court case, which finally ended in triumph for the state
legislature. This antagonism provoked Wood to suggest in 1861 that the city
secede from the state of New York. Because of his pre-war sympathies for the
South, his political enemies claimed he supported the Confederate cause. In
fact, during his last days as mayor he had urged a million-dollar tax to raise
Union troops. At the end of his term he married Alice Mills, the 16-year-old
daughter of a rich merchant; they had nine children.
Reflecting the unpopularity of the Civil War in
New York City, Wood won election to the U. S. House in 1862 as a Peace Democrat.
Two years later he was instrumental in convincing delegates to the Democratic
National Convention to adopt a peace plank, calling for an immediate cease-fire
and negotiated settlement with the Confederacy. In November 1864 he lost his
reelection bid, but was returned to office in 1866 and served in Congress until
his death in 1881. He supported low tariffs and hard money and, after 1877,
served as chair of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. He worked hard, but
his influence was limited by his unwillingness to compromise.
Source consulted: American National Biography.