Fernando Wood was born in Philadelphia on June 14, 1812. After a meager education, he worked at a number of jobs, twice failing in businesses of his own. By 1836 he had entered shipping, and in 1849 he made great profits shipping goods to San Francisco as the gold rush began. Wood invested his profits in New York and San Francisco real estate and acquired a great fortune, which enabled him to devote full attention to politics, long his major interest.
In 1836 Wood joined Tammany Hall, the powerful Democratic organization in New York City, and rapidly became one of its leaders. In 1841 he entered the U.S. Congress for a single term. Wood ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York in 1850, when the Tammany organization split, but in 1854 he won the post in a heated campaign. As mayor, Wood labored to reform city government and through patronage to increase his political power. In 1856 he was reelected.
Opposition to Wood from disappointed office seekers and the Republican state legislature led to confusion in city administration and the establishment of two police groups (one of which tried to arrest Wood). Wood was defeated for reelection in 1857 and expelled from Tammany Hall. Although he had sponsored a number of liberal programs, including the preservation of Central Park from business exploitation, his administration was marred by excessive graft and generally poor management.
As a rival to Tammany, Wood established Mozart Hall, an amalgam of businessmen, mechanics, immigrants, and stevedores, which helped Wood reestablish his power on the local level. In 1859 he was again elected mayor. He also became a large contributor to the national Democratic party.
Wood espoused compromise with the South before the Civil War and opposed the war once it began. In 1860 he headed a pro-Southern delegation to the National Democratic Nominating Convention. In January 1861, during the secession crisis, he proposed the secession of New York City from the state and the establishment of the city as a free port, independent of the "tyranny" of Albany.
After the battle of Ft. Sumter, Wood supported the war effort momentarily. When defeated for reelection as mayor in 1861, he reverted to the opposition. In 1863 he joined Clement Vallandingham in organizing the Peace Democrats and, capitalizing on New York's war weariness and dissatisfaction with the Emancipation Proclamation, won election to Congress for a second time. Except for the years 1865 to 1867, Wood served until 1881 in the House, where he was an ardent opponent of Radical Reconstruction. His greatest success came in achieving tariff reform. Wood died at Hot Springs, Ark., on Feb. 14, 1881.
The best biography of Wood is Samuel A. Pleasants, Fernando Wood of New York (1948), which is essentially a political study, balanced in interpretation but generally sympathetic. Wood's milieu is excellently treated in Philip S. Foner, Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict (1941).
Mushkat, Jerome, Fernando Wood: a political biography, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1990. □