(July 16, 2018) As noted in the four previous posts, desires to protect slavery expressed in the secession documents of selected Southern states contribute significantly to the popular notion that Northerners entered the Civil War to free the slaves. Nonetheless, official resolutions of the four Northern states examined so far (Minnesota, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania) undeniably show that their chief goal was to keep the Union intact. None of the Northern documents indicate an intent to free Southern slaves. To the contrary, they typically included resolutions denying that the federal government had such authority. Today’s post analyzes the January 11, 1861 joint resolutions of the New York General Assembly. By that date only four of the eventual eleven states that would join the Confederacy had yet seceded.
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New York summed its perspective in only three resolutions. The third merely stated that the document would be distributed to political leaders in other states. The second expressed support for the citizens of selected slaves states that had not yet seceded and who where urging their states to remain Union-loyal.
But the first proclaimed New York’s readiness to go to war to preserve the Union. Specifically, the legislators resolved that they were “profoundly impressed with the value of the Union and determined to preserve it unimpaired.” They regarded the Union as valuable because “it conferred prosperity and happiness on the American People.” Finally, they concluded that New York was prepared to provide “whatever aid in men and money [President Buchanan] may require to enforce the laws and uphold the authority of the Federal Government.” It fails to even hint that New Yorkers wanted to free Southern slaves.
Like the resolutions of other Northern states, New York’s provide only vague reasons for wanting the Union preserved, such as the “prosperity” and “happiness” it provided to all Americans. Such abstractions are not convincing explanations and may be deliberate obfuscations. Even historian Gary Gallagher who accepts the platitudes at face value, concedes that the average Northerner was preoccupied “then, as now, [by] economic concerns.” Blacks represented only about one percent of the population in the Northern free states where they were largely irrelevant to the affairs of the typical white man.*
No spot north of the Mason-Dixon Line worried more about the potential economic consequences of disunion than New York City. According to historians John and Charles Lockwood, “Much of the South’s cotton exports passed through New York, and the city’s merchants took 40 cents of every dollar that Europeans paid for Southern cotton through warehouse fees, shipping, insurance and profits. Cotton—and hence slavery—helped build the new marble-fronted mercantile buildings in lower Manhattan, fill Broadway hotels and stores with customers, and build block after block of fashionable brownstones north of 14th Street. If seceding Southern states formed their own nation, New York merchants could expect to lose much of that lucrative trade.”
As a result, on January 7, 1861 Mayor Fernando Wood formally suggested that the city’s governing council declare Manhattan independent from both the state and the federal Union. He envisioned the city becoming an independent city-state similar to the seaport free cities of northern Germany. His proposal came less than three weeks after South Carolina seceded and two days before Mississippi became the second state to secede.
Wood’s idea was not as surprising as it might seem today. In 1861 New York was both America’s largest and wealthiest city. At a time when tariffs represented ninety percent of federal revenues, two-thirds of them were collected at the Port of New York. As an independent city state, New York could keep that tariff revenue for itself. “As a free city,” Wood said, “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.” Although the council failed to adopt the mayor’s proposal the city’s businessmen desperately wanted to avoid the economic consequences of disunion.
*Gary Gallagher, The Union War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 42, 44