The House Divides

The Panic of 1857, coining on top of the frenzied expansion of the boom years, increased the pressure on the nation’s poorly soldered-together political system. The weakest seam did not lie along the Mason-Dixon line; in their direct dealings, North and South had managed to maintain the balancing act begun two generations earlier at the Constitutional Convention. Rather the crisis came out west, where the vast territories won from Mexico in 1848 were proving difficult to digest. In 1850 another deal was cobbled together, whose provisions included admission of California as a free state and the passage of a Fugitive Slave Act facilitating the extradition of escapees. But powerful forces in both slave and free states were no longer willing to settle their differences by a Solomonic divvying up of the spoils of empire. Neither side was willing to be excluded from the trans-Mississippi territory; increasingly, each side wanted it all.

During the long period of prosperity the South had gotten expansionist. As British industrial demand sent cotton prices soaring, planters sought to spread slave production west, along with the legal and political support system slavery required. They were seconded in this by white small farmers, squeezed into marginality by the pressures of competition with big planters and hoping migration would improve their condition. Even though some of the new western lands were not fertile grounds for cotton production, the planters nevertheless wanted new slave states carved out of them in order to maintain the balance of political power in the Congress and Electoral College.

The North had promoted expansion as well. Dynamic capitalists had grand visions of an integrated and nationwide industrial economy, stitched together by rail lines; they also dreamed, less loftily, of speculative bonanzas in cheap government lands. Small farmers wanted to reserve the new states for “free labor”: they didn’t want to compete with huge factories-in-the-fields staffed by slave labor and suffer the fate of southern poor whites.

The North was also growing more culturally aggressive. To the liberal bourgeoisie the global capitalist boom seemed conclusive proof that slave societies were contrary to history’s march—morally undesirable, economically inefficient, and doomed. While “respectable opinion” still backed away from the abolitionist call to assault the institution in its southern lair, it listened with increasing enthusiasm to the new Free Soil movement’s counsel: leave slavery alone in its heartland but block its westward expansion; penned up, it would eventually die.

Far-sighted Southerners experienced anticipatory suffocation and demanded immediate breathing room. Some went beyond insisting on the right to open new plantations in the West to calling for equal access to the North itself—regaining the right, for instance, to travel freely with their slaves. They grew ever more vehement, too, in their insistence on an explicit veto power over Democratic Party policy and federal government activity and successfully blocked programs many northerners desired: a protective tariff, a homestead bill, a northern transcontinental rail route. On the cultural front southern ideologues matched the North’s denigration of their society with a vigorous defense of paternalistic slavery as morally superior to heartless capitalism.

As each side grew more convinced that the nation could no longer exist half slave and half free, that it must become all one thing or all the other, the divided American house began to crumple. In the end it was the center—the Kansas-Nebraska Territory—that failed to hold. On January 4, 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas (Democrat from Illinois) introduced a bill looking toward the entry of the territory into the Union, which left the question of its slave or free status entirely up to a vote by local residents. This sounded democratic (“popular sovereignty” he called it), but in fact it shredded the old Compromise of 1820 in which Congress had banned slavery in that part of the continent no matter what the desires of its residents. This (to Free Soil eyes) treacherous blow, together with ensuing proslavery initiatives such as the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, which barred Congress from forbidding the transport of slaves to northern states, seemed conclusive evidence of a Slave Power design to make slavery lawful in all the states, North as well as South.

Free Soilers decided that if slavery in Kansas was to be decided by its residents they would rush northern settlers to the territory in time for the vote. Southerners countered with their own westward race. In short order, rival groups of settlers, in a kind of election riot writ large, were shooting their way toward majoritarian status. It was in outraged response to the bloodbath in Kansas that the Republican Party had crystallized—a definitively sectional organization that fused antislavery Whigs and Democrats. It also had a strong (though not dominant) nativist streak. Republicans tended to see the Roman Church and the Slave Power as corporate monoliths that restricted individual freedom and to condemn Irish immigrants and white planters alike for lack of economic enterprise or self-discipline.

The new party ran General John C. Fremont for president in 1856 on a platform dedicated to northern capitalist and small farmer interests (tariffs, homesteads) and the extirpation of the “twin relics of barbarism” (slavery and Mormon polygamy). Fremont lost, but the party picked up powerful adherents. New York’s William Seward signed on; the Whig senator had been an early opponent of the Slave Power and by 1858 was convinced that “an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces” was at hand.

The idea of an irrepressible conflict between North and South did not warm many hearts in New York, that most southern-connected of northern cities, and the metropolis would prove to be a fierce opponent of Republicanism-with-a-capital-/?. But the new party’s antisouthern militancy did attract two strategically placed constituencies, whose affiliation would have resounding local impact: the tiny African-American community and a small but extremely influential coterie of professionals and businessmen.


In 1860 the city’s 12,574 African Americans had no territorial base, no cultural stronghold. The Irish had pushed them out of the Five Points, and they were strewn about the city in isolated, vulnerable clumps. Some had migrated east to streets abutting the East River docks. Others (perhaps about five thousand) had drifted north to the area bounded by Houston on the north and Canal on the south, concentrating in Greenwich Village streets—Minetta Lane, Bleecker, Thompson, Sullivan, and MacDougal—near to jobs as servants for the Washington Square gentry. Others still, perhaps fifteen hundred, had pressed on farther, into blocks west of Sixth Avenue between 23rd and 40th streets, or to Seneca Village before it was dismantled to make way for Central Park.

In Brooklyn more than a hundred black families had trekked out to Weeksville and Carrville, the settlements begun on former farmland back in the 1830s and 1840s, to Crow Hill (the future Crown Heights), and to Fort Greene, where work was to be found in the nearby shipyards. Here too the black population was dwarfed by the inrush of white immigrants: where in 1800 one of every three people in Kings County had been black, by 1860 the proportion had dropped to less than one in fifty. In Staten Island a black community grew up at Sandy Ground (near today’s Woodrow) in the late 1830s, after free blacks migrated north from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to work the oyster beds in nearby Prince’s Bay. In Queens there were African-American communities in Flushing, Newtown (in today’s Corona), and Jamaica (near the Green at today’s Douglas Avenue between 1715! and 175th streets).

Work opportunities had continued to contract. In 1852 the newly formed Longshoreman’s United Benevolent Society announced its intention to reserve waterfront jobs to its own (overwhelmingly Irish) membership and to “such white laborers as they see fit to permit upon the premises.” By 1855 few blacks worked the docks, apart from occasional strikebreaking stints under the protection of city police. It was much the same with other unskilled positions. As the African Repository reported in 1851, “the influx of white laborers has expelled the Negro almost en masse from the exercise of the ordinary branches of labor. You no longer see him work upon buildings, and rarely is he allowed to drive a cart of public conveyance. White men will not work with him.”

For black women domestic service remained an option, though in 1855 only 3 percent of the city’s servants were African Americans, and many of these worked either for the very rich or in brothels, as laundresses, charwomen, and maids. Black men did hold on to jobs as waiters in the dining rooms and kitchens of the great hotels and restaurants and, indeed, organized a union that won higher wages. Other remaining possibilities included laboring for Brooklyn and Queens farmers, going to sea, and working in skiffs for white oystermen (as did the Sandy Grounders) culling mollusks with iron rakes.

Despite—and in response to—these handicaps, a semiautonomous African-Ameri­can community flourished, organized around black churches. Methodists remained numerically dominant. Mother Zion’s new 1840 edifice was perhaps the largest blackowned Protestant house of worship in the world, and AMEZ churches formed the nuclei of communities at Weeksville, Sandy Ground (near Crabtree Avenue), and Flushing (still extant in a downtown parking lot).

Presbyterians, fewer in number, were extremely influential, thanks in part to the dynamic series of leaders who succeeded Sam Cornish as pastor of the First Colored Presbyterian Church. The Rev. Theodore Wright stayed nineteen years and transformed a struggling institution into a formidable establishment, and when he died in 1847, the community held a mammoth funeral march. Under the Rev. James W. C. Pennington—an escaped slave who had worked as a blacksmith, taught himself to read and write, and became a teacher and minister—the church changed its name to Shiloh Presbyterian and moved to a building at Prince and Marion that could hold sixteen hundred.

Pennington was followed by Henry Highland Garnet, whose family had also escaped to New York from a Maryland plantation. Garnet’s father, a shoemaker, became an important member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and sent his son to the African Free School #i, until financial straits forced the youth to sea in 1829 as a cabin boy. While Henry was away, a relative of Garnet’s master came to their home determined to seize them all. His father and mother jumped from an upper-story window and escaped. His sister was caught and taken before the city recorder but with the help of white abolitionists was able to prove herself a resident of the city. Henry returned to find the family home abandoned, the furniture destroyed or stolen, and his father still in hiding. Enraged, he bought a huge knife and dashed up and down Broadway hunting for slavecatchers, until his friends spirited him out of town to save his life. Garnet became a militant abolitionist and pursued a ministerial career under the wing of Theodore Wright. After holding pastorates upstate and winning acclaim for an incendiary address at the 1843 National Negro Convention in which he urged armed uprising on southern bondsmen, Garnet assumed Wright’s old pulpit in 1855.

In the meantime, Charles B. Ray, another blacksmith turned clergyman, had established the tiny Bethesda Congregational Church (1845), having previously served as editor and proprietor of New York’s Colored American, the short-lived (1837-41) successor to Freedom’s Journal. Yet another important newcomer emerged in 1847, when six Brooklyn residents who were members of Manhattan’s Abyssinian Baptist Church bought lots in downtown Brooklyn and erected the Concord Street Baptist Church of Christ.

New York’s African-American churches were too poor to support substantial social welfare programs, but their members did take a hand in supporting an establishment, dedicated to the black community, that had been founded by white Quaker women. In 1836 Anna M. Shotwell and her niece May Murray had discovered two little Negro orphans on the steps of an old house. On learning that no existing nurseries accepted blacks and that the almshouse relegated black children to a squalid cellar, the women established a Colored Orphan Asylum, got the Common Council to donate twenty lots on Fifth Avenue between 43rd and 44th streets, and by 1843 had opened an impressive structure there, the first of its kind in the United States.

The Colored Orphan Asylum received support from the city, the state, and private organizations (when the old Manumission Society finally dissolved in 1849, it transferred all its assets to the asylum). The black community too gave aid, via regular collec­tions at Mother Zion, St. Philip’s, and Abyssinian Baptist and an occasional fair by “Colored Friends” of the institution. In addition, James McCune Smith, the city’s leading black doctor, served as its attending physician throughout the era. Smith, born in New York City of free black parents in 1813, had been educated at the African Free School, tutored privately in the classics, and in 1832 had gone to Scotland for a five-year course of study at the University of Glasgow, earning three degrees. On his return, though barred by white doctors from the New York Academy of Medicine, Smith practiced medicine and ran an apothecary shop.

This cadre of black ministers and doctors organized a remarkable number of ad hoc and ongoing organizations. When southern spokesman and Secretary of State John C. Calhoun alluded snidely to the “vice and pauperism of the African race in the north,” a protest meeting designated Dr. Smith to draft a pamphlet that took vigorous and welldocumented exception to Calhoun’s remarks.

When education for black children was neglected by the city, the New York Society for the Promotion of Education Among Colored Children (whose president was Charles B. Ray) won some modest improvements from the Board of Education, though not the dismantling of segregated schools they sought.

Antisegregationist activists made greater headway combating discriminatory practices in public transportation. Black ministers had long protested omnibus and horsecar company policies that forced black passengers to ride outside on the front platform or wait for a vehicle bearing the sign COLORED PEOPLE ALLOWED IN THE CAR—known as a “Jim Crow” car after Daddy Rice’s minstrel character, which had become an allpurpose derogatory label for blacks. Many walked rather than be humiliated, but this option had grown more onerous as the city expanded: the Rev. Wright’s fatal illness was brought on from the exhaustion of walking miles uptown to see prospective donors and then miles back downtown, “under the full muzzle of the July or August sun.”

The first major breakthrough came thanks to the gritty determination of a twentyfour-year-old schoolteacher. On a Sunday afternoon in July of 1854, Miss Elizabeth Jennings, on her way to play the organ at services of the First Colored Congregation Church on Sixth Street near the Bowery, attempted to board a Third Avenue car at Pearl and Chatham. The conductor told her to wait for the colored car, but after an altercation he grudgingly allowed her entrance, though saying: “Remember, if any passenger objects, you shall go out, whether or no, or I’ll put you out.” Jennings’s response—“I am a respectable person, born and brought up in New York, and I was never insulted so before”—roused in turn the conductor’s ire: “I was born in Ireland and you’ve got to get out of this car,” he said. She refused, he tried dragging her out, she clung to the window. He called on the driver to help, and together they pried her loose and threw her to the street. Though badly hurt, Jennings climbed back on. Finally the driver galloped his horses down the street until he found a policeman, who ejected her.

The young woman reported this to her church and to her father, Thomas Jennings, a successful tailor with a long record of activism in the black community. Born in New York in 1798, Jennings had dug trenches to help protect the city during the 1812 war, worked in the African Society for Mutual Relief, and helped found the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Now the Jenningses sued the Third Avenue line and were represented by attorneys from the firm of Culver, Parker, and Arthur, including Chester A. Arthur, a twenty-four-year-old recent law school graduate and future president of the United States. When the case came to trial in February 1855, the judge instructed the jury that the company was a common carrier and bound to carry all respectable persons, including “colored persons, if sober, well-behaved, and free from disease.” The jury awarded Jennings $225. After this, most Manhattan railroads ceased discrimination.

Most, but not all. When Shiloh’s Rev. Pennington, encouraged by Jennings’s victory, set about tesdng other lines, he was forcibly expelled from a Sixth Avenue car. Three weeks later blacks organized the Legal Rights Association—with Thomas Jennings as president—to raise funds for Pennington’s (and similar) cases. When this suit reached Superior Court in December 1856, however, the judge decided for the company, saying it had every right to decide who rode its cars. The decision encouraged the Eighth Avenue Railroad to hold fast to segregation until 1856, when Peter S. Porter, treasurer of the Legal Rights Association, after being beaten, kicked, and banged about “most ferociously,” brought suit and won an out-of-court settlement allowing blacks to ride on the same terms as whites.

The African-American community’s most ardent struggle, however, was (as it long had been) against slavery itself. Blacks were active in the American and Foreign Anti Slavery Society. In addition, numbers attended mass abolitionist meetings like those held in Morris Grove, Brooklyn; supported the nationalist Weekly Anglo-African, founded in 1859 by two black printers in the city; worked in the Liberty Party; and helped raise funds for the defense and repatriation of the Mendi Africans who had seized their slave ship, La Amistad, and secured their freedom.

Their riskiest enterprise was harboring runaway slaves and helping them on their way to Canada. The New York Vigilance Committee was still going strong—presided over by Wright, then Ray—with funds gathered by Garnet and Pennington on speaking tours in the British Isles and at annual fairs black women held at the Broadway Tabernacle. New York became a major way station on the Underground Railroad; Ray dealt with over four hundred runaways in one fifteen-month period during 1848-49. City blacks provided sanctuary, food, and clothing—in private homes, in the Mutual Relief Hall (said to have a secret room the length of the building), in the boardinghouse on Dover Street run by passionate abolitionist William P. Powell for “the better class of colored seamen,” and in the churches of Manhattan and Brooklyn: notably Mother Zion, Siloam Presbyterian, Bridge Street Methodist, and Concord Baptist.

After 1850, when President Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Law, their work became considerably more dangerous. As the act applied ex post facto to former runaways, many escapees who had remained in New York now fled town—the number of blacks in the city dropped from 13,815 in 1850 to 11,840 in 1855—or went to ground. In 1850 James Hamlet, a thirty-year-old fugitive, had been working for the past three years as a porter for the merchant firm of Tilton and Maloney. Seized on the street, Hamlet was arrested and returned to his Baltimore owner, leaving behind his wife and two children. Days later, on October 2, 1850, enraged blacks and sympathetic whites crowded into Mother Zion for a protest meeting. Presiding officer William P. Powell asked: “You are told to submit peacefully to the laws; will you do so? (No, no.) You are told to kiss the manacles that bind you; will you do so? (No, no, no.)” Eight hundred dollars was raised to purchase Hamlet’s freedom, and on October 5 five thousand blacks cheered, sobbed, and sang hymns as they welcomed him home to New York.

Despite these occasional successes, the 1850s were dark days for African-Americans. Even some of the most militant began to abandon hope for a future in the United States and to reconsider their opposition to colonization. Henry Highland Garnet, despite his impeccable antislavery credentials, had become convinced, as had many western land reformers before him, that emigration might provide opportunities unavailable in New York City. In the summer of 1858 Garnet became the first president of the African Civilization Society, a group that included wealthy whites, and he promoted efforts to develop black colonies in Africa.

Garnet was vigorously opposed by those like Frederick Douglass, Dr. James McCune Smith, and the Rev. James Gloucester (of Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church) who preferred to stay and struggle within the political arena. This was no easy matter, however, as most blacks were still barred by stiff property requirements from voting at all. Such eligible voters as existed had organized themselves, in 1838, as the Colored Freeholders of the City and County of New York. During the 1840s and 1850s they met periodically with other such groups from around the state to demand universal suffrage. By the late 1850s there were forty-eight local suffrage clubs in Manhattan, eighteen in Brooklyn, and an umbrella organization, the New York State Suffrage Association. In 1860 they succeeded in getting the legislature to submit the question to the voters. James Gordon Bennett—who the year before had called for the reenslavement of northern blacks—rallied the opposition, urging “white men” not “to consummate the act of self-degradation which will bring them down to the level of. . . the niggers of the Five Points.” The referendum lost by only 337,900 to 197,000 at the state level. But in New York City, it was rejected by 95 percent of the voters.

Given this generally dismal situation, it is not surprising that the rise of the Republican Party kindled hopes in the black community. In September 1858, at a New York Negro Suffrage Convention, the majority urged the state’s eleven thousand eligible black electors to vote Republican to ensure the “defeat and ruin of the so-called Democratic party, our most inveterate enemy.” But Garnet noted that Republicans loudly protested they had no intention of abolishing slavery in the South and that even those who did support equal suffrage rights, such as Horace Greeley, routinely disparaged blacks as “indolent, improvident, servile and licentious.” Garnet counseled support for the Radical Abolitionist Party, the favorite of white abolitionists like the Tappans. Nevertheless, African Americans would overwhelmingly identify with—and be identified with—the Republican Party, to such a degree that it would be called by its enemies the “Black Republican” Party.


Among the city’s earliest white converts to Republicanism were journalists and ministers. Before taking up his Central Park duties, Frederick Law Olmsted had won prominence as a commentator on the southern way of life. In a series of books about his travels below the Mason-Dixon line, Olmsted had cast a critical eye on the world the slaveholders had made, less for its effect on suffering slaves than for its inefficiency. Horace Greeley of the Tribune stressed slavery’s barbarity more than its supposed unprofitability. Citing British and Dutch precedents, he pronounced slavery a retrograde movement, contrary to the laws of motion of Christian civilization, and condemned planters—who loved posturing as cavaliers—as violent, degraded, and ignorant. Greeley also condemned New York’s support for slavery—“In order to line our pockets, must we utterly stifle our souls?”—and was seconded in this by William Cullen Bryant of the Post, who departed the Democrats for ceasing “to serve the cause of freedom and justice.”

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher had swung into the Free Soil camp in the mid-1840s, though he remained opposed to abolitionism and feared liberating the South’s “vast horde of undisciplined Africans.” In 1848, however, Beecher began appearing at the Broadway Tabernacle, crucible of the antislavery crusade, and speaking out with Lewis Tappan and Frederick Douglass. After 1850 he urged defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act—“We are determined to break any law that commands us to enslave or reenslave a man, and we are willing to take the penalty”—and he began holding sensational (and titillating) mock “slave auctions” at Plymouth Church, in which weeping men and women of his prosperous Brooklyn congregation heaped cash and jewels on collection plates to buy the freedom of light-skinned young women and children. Beecher also called on New Yorkers to extend the rights of citizenship to their own black citizens and refused to ride any streetcar line in Brooklyn that segregated its passengers. When Kansas became a battleground, he told northern emigrants heading there that “Sharpe’s rifles are a greater moral agency than the Bible,” and soon the Free Soilers smuggling guns to the territory took to calling them “Beecher’s Bibles.” By 1856 Plymouth was hosting the most radical abolitionists—like Wendell Phillips, who had been refused a venue by virtually every church and hall in both cities—and in that same year he became a Republican (his congregation gave him two months off to campaign for Frémont).

Republicanism made inroads in the business community too. Some Wall Streeters—particularly financiers promoting a transcontinental railroad and merchants whose trade dealings were not southern oriented—joined Beecher in attacking attempts to introduce slavery into Kansas. Such men gave financial aid to send free-state settlers to the territory or turned out for protest meetings in City Hall Park, and some entered the


Beecher Selling a Slave Girl from Plymouth Pulpit. (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

new Republican Party. These were chiefly former Whigs, like clothing manufacturer and merchant George Opdyke, sugar and coffee importer Edwin Morgan, banker Simeon Draper, and flour and tea merchant George Griswold, though Democrats too joined up, like Isaac Sherman, a millionaire involved in western trade and railroads. Others were led to the Republican fold via their religious convictions, including William Dodge and Pelatiah Perit.

In the 1856 presidential campaign, a small nucleus under the leadership of Moses H. Grinnell set out to win Wall Street converts. In addition to offering a moral and cultural critique of the South, they stressed the practical business advantages a Republican victory might bring. They invited N. P. Banks, speaker of the House of Representatives and a recent convert to Republicanism, to address a crowd of twenty thousand from the steps of the Merchants’ Exchange. Banks argued that the election of Democrat James Buchanan would hurt trade with Cuba (because a prosouthern administration would try to annex it for slavery), block a northern transcontinental rail route in favor of a southern one (diminishing New York’s chances of capturing the China trade), and slow up river and harbor improvements.

Banks’s appeal failed. The critique of the South might tug at moral and cultural heartstrings and speak to particular practical interests, but the facts of New York’s situation dictated a continuing southern alliance.


Whatever their private views about the southern social order, the city’s key economic actors—the shipowners who hauled cotton, the bankers who accepted slave property as collateral for loans, the brokers of southern railroad and state bonds, the wholesalers who sent goods south, the editors with large southern subscription bases, the dealers in tobacco, rice, and cotton—all had come to profitable terms with its slave economy. Their attitude had been reinforced by the aftermath of the Panic of 1857, when the South rebounded far more quickly than did the West—clear evidence that European demand for cotton was higher than that for foodstuffs. “Cotton is King,” said the editor of Scientific American in 1858.

One merchant spelled out the implications to Samuel J. May, a prominent abolitionist: “Mr. May, we are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil, a great wrong. But a great portion of the property of the Southerners is invested under its sanction; and the business of the North, as well as of the South, has become adjusted to it. There are millions upon millions of dollars due from Southerners to the merchants and mechanics alone, the payment of which would be jeopardized by any rupture between the North and the South. We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates endeavor to overthrow slavery. It is not a matter of principles with us. It is a matter of business necessity,” he concluded: “We mean, sir, to put you abolitionists down, by fair means if we can, by foul means if we must.”

May’s correspondent perhaps overstressed the cynicism of the prosouthern commitment. Many businessmen had close personal as well as commercial ties to southern planters and refused to stereotype them as barbarian slaveocrats. New York merchants vacationed with planters at Saratoga and other watering spots, intermarried with them, and, for all their official republican disapproval of aristocratic manners, were themselves often closet cavaliers. In October 1860, when the nineteen-year-old Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and a retinue of British peers paid the city a visit, the elite fell all over itself to do him honor. Shops closed down. Business was paralyzed. A huge crowd turned out to acclaim the procession of the resplendent prince and his party up Broadway (with the notable exception of Colonel Michael Corcoran’s Sixty-ninth Irish Regiment, which refused to join the line of march). At a grand ball next evening at the Academy of Music, a glittering crush of nabobs gathered to jostle and squeeze the royal person—so many that a section of the floor collapsed.

But interests remained fundamental to the alliance, including some quite nasty ones. From January of 1859 to August 1860, nearly one hundred vessels left New York harbor on slave trade business. Many had been built here, as shipbuilders hurt by the panic turned to the production of slavers. The profits could be enormous—$175,000 on a single voyage—as steamers could carry many more slaves than had the old sailing vessels.

While it was commonly held that some of biggest merchants in the city were in the trade, it was hard to pin this down. Merchants were unwilling to admit to their own participation in the illegal trade. Transactions were carried out through Cuban gobetweens, and captains used Spanish or Portuguese crews. But merchants were not reticent when it came to opposing all efforts—such as Seward’s in the Senate—to get more effective control over the trade. At the annual meeting (in May 1860) of so pious an organization as the American Tract Society, Daniel Lord and Hiram Ketchum led a large group of merchants in shouting down a resolution condemning the slave trade. And the Day-Book was indignantly amazed that anyone could find fault “simply because somebody takes a few niggers from the jungles of Africa to Cuba.”

Given this matrix of interest and ideology, most New York City merchants worked through the decade to banish the slavery issue from politics. The Kansas controversy did provoke a temporary outcry, in large measure because it seemed southerners were not keeping faith with the sectional truce, but for most the militancy didn’t last. The rise of the Republican Party seemed a far deadlier threat to the Union, and few New York City Whig merchants followed Seward, Weed, and Grinnell into the new party. In the 1856 campaign, therefore, most old-line Whigs either sat out the election or voted for Democrats and Know-Nothings; Fremont came in a poor third. Upstate, however, went overwhelmingly Republican, and Fremont carried New York by the huge majority of eighty thousand votes. That year was also the one in which Republican John King won the governorship and Republicans in the Albany legislature began hacking away at New York City home rule.

Democratic merchants continued to press hard for conciliation with a South given to ever-escalating threats of secession. In October 1859—at a mass meeting in Cooper Union attended by two thousand merchants—August Belmont, William B. Astor, Moses Taylor, William F. Havemeyer, and attorney Samuel J. Tilden organized the Democratic Vigilant Association, dedicated to battling Seward’s Republicans and convincing the South that New York merchants could still be depended on.

Republicanism found few adherents among workers, either. The artisan radicals who had been drawn to abolitionism in the 1830s had been alienated in the 1840s with its domination by upper-class evangelists, their inveterate enemies. By the 1850s few laboring groups strongly opposed slavery, apart from the Communist Club and several of the Turnvereine (whose defense squads protected antislavery meetings); fewer still joined the Republicans.

Like businessmen, workingmen believed that New York’s economy, and thus their jobs, depended on a southern connection that Republicanism endangered. There were other bases for antipathy. Many Republicans were anti-immigrant bigots. Working people were also deeply suspicious of the Republican project of creating a nationwide “free labor” regime. To the Republicans, it seemed, “freedom” meant simply self-ownership, the fact of not being a slave. A laborer was fully “free,” Republicans argued, when he was able to sell his labor, able to move from job to job in accordance with the changing demands of the marketplace.

Some Republicans—like Abraham Lincoln, a rising Republican luminary in Illinois—admitted that wage-work was incompatible with true freedom but argued that the free labor system allowed workers to climb out of their dependent and propertyless situation. This notion made sense to Lincoln’s (and Seward’s) rural and small-town constituency of farmers, craftsmen, and small businessmen; it didn’t resonate in the big city, where most workers were trapped in permanent proletarian status, and knew it.

Workers also resisted Republican doctrine that unions were despotic institutions, on a par with the Slave Power and the Catholic Church in their coercion of individuals. Workers, the new party said, like reformers of old, would do better to advance themselves individually, by adopting proper habits and values. To people who depended on collective modes of organization and action for survival, this smacked of pious hypocrisy, especially when it came from wealthy employers.

Finally, white workers rejected Republicanism because it was Black Republicanism. Working-class racism, already deeply held, was strengthened each time employers used African Americans as strikebreakers; that their own racial animus helped sustain the divisions that facilitated this practice was not an easily achieved insight.

When opponents of Republicanism looked about for a vigorous champion, the likeliest candidate—back from the political dead—appeared to be Fernando Wood. In 1858 Wood had bolted Tammany Hall and organized his own independent Democratic organization, known as Mozart Hall, after its meeting place at the corner of Bond Street and Broadway. In 1859 he ran again for mayor, with the powerful support of Bennett’s Herald.

This time it was his opponents who were divided. The monied members of the Democratic Vigilant Association, including Belmont, Tilden, and Havemeyer, demanded that Tammany nominate one of their own, on pain of withholding vital funding. The Hall selected Havemeyer, allowing Wood to present himself as the protector of the true Democrat, the workingman, and the immigrant, against the “kid glove, scented, silk stocking, poodle-headed, degenerate aristocracy.” Republicans tried to fuse with Tammany, but the deal fell through and they ran their own candidate, George Opdyke, a wealthy importer. Wood blistered the Republicans for interfering with home rule in New York City and for threatening to estrange the South. “The South is our best customer,” Wood declared. “She pays the best prices, and pays promptly.” When the Times raised the old charge of excessive ambition—Wood wanted to become “Our Municipal Emperor,” Raymond said—the ex-mayor retorted: “Better have an iron rule than no rule at all, as is now.” When Wood won (with 38.3 percent to Havemeyer’s 34.6 percent and Opdyke’s 27.4 percent), his victory was hailed in the South by such organs as the Richmond Examiner.

All things considered, it was not altogether inappropriate that what would become the South’s national anthem had its premiere in New York City that year. Dan Emmett’s “I Wish I Was in Dixie’s Land” was first aired at the April 4, 1859, performance of Bryant’s Minstrels in Mechanics Hall. It was then published by the New York firm of Firth, Pond and Co. and later made its way down south. (In a further irony, Emmett may have drawn upon the work of the Snowden Family Band—an African-American touring group—in composing the song.)


The metropolis was committed to the status quo. As ever, however, the status quo refused to stand still. On October 16, 1859, convinced that “the crimes of this guilty land, will never be purged away, but with Blood,” John Brown struck at Harper’s Ferry.

Some New Yorkers had known of Brown’s plan. He had appealed to Henry Highland Garnet and Frederick Douglass for help, but African-American abolitionists had decided against participating in what seemed a suicidal exercise. When Douglass met with Brown just before the raid, however, he did pass along a contribution of twentyfive dollars from Elizabeth and James Gloucester (pastor of Brooklyn’s Siloam Presbyterian Church) and their letter of support urging Brown “to do battle to that ugly foe of slavery.”

New York’s white abolitionists, adhering to their nonviolent principles, had also backed away from John Brown. “Would not one Uncle Tom do more good by his pious submission to God,” Lewis Tappan had said to Brown’s request for arms, “than a score or a hundred men who should act exactly opposite?”

But from the moment news of Brown’s raid and capture arrived in New York on October 18, and through the ensuing weeks of his trial, the black and white abolitionist community was alive with prayer and sympathy meetings. Thomas Hamilton, editor of the Weekly Anglo-African, staunchly defended Brown’s right of insurrection, and “the colored women of Brooklyn” wrote Brown in his Virginia jail cell that we “recognize in you a Saviour commissioned to redeem us, the American people, from the great National sin of Slavery.” When Brown was hanged, on December 2, Henry Highland Garnet’s Shiloh Church held a large memorial meeting, and the colored women of Brooklyn and New York sent donations to the martyr’s widow and to the wife of his black compatriot, Lewis Leary. At the Broadway Tabernacle Church, Henry Ward Beecher produced the chains that had bound Brown to the scaffold, threw them to floor, stomped them with his heel, and cried, “The fate of the slaver states!”

Mainstream reaction was something else again. Businessmen denounced Brown as a madman. Bennett’s Herald said the “lawless violence” tolerated by Republicans on the Kansas frontier had come back east to haunt them. Fernando Wood excoriated Brown as a “fiend” and his “fanaticism” as a threat to the Union. The Democratic Vigilant Association called the raid a logical outgrowth of Sewardism and urged the business community to show the South they repudiated Republicanism’s pernicious principles.

The South didn’t bother waiting. New York drummers were expelled from several states. Many firms canceled outstanding northern orders. Others called for boycotting abolition-tainted firms and shifting business to “friendly” concerns.

Thoroughly alarmed, several thousand metropolitan businessmen gathered at the Academy of Music on December 19 to denounce Brown’s crimes and Seward’s ideas. Leading merchants thronged the speaker’s platform. The night rang with vigorous defenses of slavery as a positive good, ordained by nature.

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