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Mr. Lincoln and New Yorkers

Image of New Yorkers
House Speaker Galusha Grow visited President Lincoln in the White House one night. Seeing the initials W and W on one of the pigeonholes on President Lincoln’s desk, Grow said: “Pardon my curiosity, but I cannot help wondering what W. And W. stands for.” Smiling, President Lincoln, said “W and W. Stands for Weed and Wood, Thurlow and Fernandy — a pair of them.”1 Democrat Wood and Republican Weed represented the unique set of powerful New Yorkers with which Mr. Lincoln had to deal.
Fernando Wood “was at all times and in all places a trimmer of the first-order,” wrote Lincoln chronicler Rufus Rockwell Wilson. “During the first years of the war he persistently misread the underlying Union sentiment that swayed the North, and more than once proved a thorn in the side of Mr. Lincoln, but the latter always made a way to ignore or outwit him. On the other hand, while mindful of the selfish motives which often shaped Mr. Weed’s actions, he was from the first keenly aware of the latter’s political acumen and skill in the management of men, and, exercising due caution, he never failed to enlist that acumen and skill when he felt that they would aid him in the great task of preserving the Union. In few words, Mr. Lincoln knew how to sue Mr. Weed, and at the same time artfully feed the latter’s sense of his own importance.”2
Weed and wood were unique personalities — but New York had a host of colorful and mentionable characters with which Mr. Lincoln was forced to deal — from preacher Henry Ward Beecher to editor James Gordon Bennett. Although New York was removed from the battle front, the city was not removed from the vicissitudes of war and there was a clear propensity of the merchant and laboring classes to panic and protest. Given the political and religious splits in the city, such sensitivity was perhaps natural. It was magnified by the presence of the country’s largest and most influential newspapers which competed for influence and sales. “Men in New York men who are sensible in most things, are the most easily terrified and panic-stricken of any community,” wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles in his diary in September 1862. “They are just now alarmed lest an ironclad steamer may rush in upon them some fine morning while they are asleep and destroy their city. In their imagination, under the teachings of mischievous persons and papers, they suppose every Rebel cruiser is ironclad, while in fact the Rebels have not one ironclad afloat. It only requires a sensation paragraph in the Times to create alarm.”3
In June 1863, Welles recorded a similar emotional response as Confederates invaded Pennsylvania: “General [John E.] Wool, Governor [Edwin D] Morgan, and Mayor [George] Opdyke make a combined effort to retain the Roanoke at New York, and write me most earnestly on the subject. The idea that New York is in danger is an absurdity, and, with a naval force always at the navy yard and in the harbor, and with forts and military force, is such a remote contingency that the most timid lady need not be, and is not, alarmed. Morgan and Opdyke, Governor and Mayor, have responsibilities that are perhaps excusable, but not General Wool, who feeds on panic and fosters excitement.”4 What Welles seemed to have forgotten that “Governor Morgan” was by then “Senator Morgan” and a not easily excitable man.
Ironically, New York City was in danger — but from its own citizens. Only a two weeks later, a different kind of panic seized New York City. This time it was justified New York was the site of four days of rioting against military conscription — that the Lincoln Administration has imposed on the city.
“Even as national issues and decisions affected New York, New York events affected the nation, if only because it was the most populous and richest state in the Union. Census takers counted 3,880,735 people in New York in 1860, nearly 800,000 more than in 1850 and almost one million ahead of the next most populated state Pennsylvania,” wrote historian Paula Baker.5 Panic seized Washington as well as New York.
The pressure on Mr. Lincoln from New York began before the election and continued afterward.
Preston King wrote John Bigelow on November 12: “I think there is no danger of Lincoln making any declaration to anticipate the day of his inauguration, but I am glad that Mr. Bryant wrote — for we cannot be too secure upon such a point.”6 The curious nature of New York politics was illustrated by a letter from New York Republican boss Thurlow Weed to Secretary of State William H. Seward in November 1863:
I have been two hours with Pa. Gentleman It was a strange revelation, for he represents V[allandigham] of Ohio, W[ood]. of N-Y, and other strange People, including McClellan, all of whom he proposes to bring to the support of the Country!
I was unprepared for this, but of course was not surprised.
I saw [Dean] Richmond at Albany yesterday, and explained [freely?] to him. He went heartily into the Programme for finishing Rebellion, saying that upon that basis the Democracy of New-York would come promptly to the rescue.
The Peace Democracy consider their game played out. But can they be useful? The Pa. Gent. reminded me that V. received the largest vote ever cast by the Democracy of Ohio. I told him that I had no Friends who were against the Government, and no Enimies for who are for it. At the close of the interview I saw that he was in communication with the P-M-G.7
Richmond was the New York Democratic chairman. Weed was the powerful Republican boss although his influence was diminishing by the beginning of the Civil War. The two were represented part of the ever-shifting coalition of those willing in New York to support.
By 1860, New York politics had gone through a 12-year period of turmoil, hardshell Democrats against softshell Democrats, former Barnburners against the Albany Regency, Mozart Hall against Tammany Hall. “At the beginning of 1860, the Republicans had control of most of the state patronage through their possession of the gubernatorial chair and of three of the five most important state offices; they likewise had a two-thirds majority in both branches of the legislature, both the United States senators, and a majority of the congressional delegation,” wrote historian Sidney David Brummer. “The national patronage was still in the hands of the Democrats. The opposition to the Regency in the up-state counties was too weak to render it doubtful that the followers of the Regency held the federal offices in the greater part of the state.”8
New York politics in the early 1860s was no place for timid souls. “The New York legislature of 1860 was notoriously and flagrantly corrupt, at least 80 per cent of its members being venal,” wrote historian Glyndon Van Deusen. “A lobby that outnumbered the lawgivers fastened itself upon them, and long before the session was over the stench of the legislature’s proceedings was plainly evident in the environs of the capitol. ‘God grant we may never look upon its like again,’ said Thurlow Weed, and Hamilton Fish seconded his prayer. Preston King put the matter mildly when he said that such men forfeited public confidence in the Republican party. He might have added with justice that the Democrats in the legislature were fully as bad as the Republicans.”9
The New York City elite were driven by similarly greedy motives. “It is one of the minor ironies of history that when cannon fire at Fort Sumter began the Civil War, the loyalty of America’s biggest city was much in doubt,” wrote historian George J. Lankevich. “In the 1860 presidential campaign, Manhattan did not support Abraham Lincoln for president, and on January 7, 1861, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that to protect its commercial predominance and its excellent trading relationship with the southern states, the city withdraw from the Union and declare it’s a free city.” He believed that Manhattan’s continued prosperity depended on its ties to southern plantations. Beyond that, Wood argued, wasn’t a war on behalf of the inferior black man absurd? The mayor believed that an independent city would have no financial difficulties, since a modest import tariff could generate enormous revenues.”10
Party lines in New York were hard to follow. But sometimes, party lines were less important than railroad lines. Both parties had leaders who were active railroad executive and promoters. Democrat Dean Richmond was an executive of the New York Central which operated the main lines between Albany and Buffalo. So was Albany Democrat Erastus Corning, who served as head of the New York Central for 11 years until he was replaced in a coupled by Richmond in 1865. Attorney John V. S. L. Pruyn, who served as a state senator before he was succeeded Corning in Congress in 1863, was an active railroad director who would have succeeded Corning as head of the New York Central had not Richmond beat him to the honor.
New York City Republican Edwin M. Morgan, onetime Whig State Chairman, had worked with Corning in the consolidation of the New York Central. At one point in 1854, Morgan wrote Corning: “I learned today that a bill to regulate the speed of locomotives through cities has passed the House and might pass the other. I tel [sic] Mr. Weed and have his reply. I think any ‘regulation’ of speed or fares by legislation injurious to the Rail Roads and to the public.”11
But Republicans were not always happy to help the New York Central — in part because of the Democratic executives like Corning and Richmond who ran it. Historian Sidney David Brummer noted that in the 1860 legislative session, three “bills of a partisan nature were aimed at the new York Central Railroad. Many Republicans believed that the influence of this corporation was used against their party and in behalf of the Democrats; and despite the denials of that accusation on the part of the directors, a persistent agitation was kept up for several years against the company. One of the bills prevented voting by proxy by railroad stockholders, the intent probably being to get control of the road from Erastus Corning by depriving him of the votes of foreign stockholders, and perhaps (as charged) to transfer the road’s influence to Republicans.”12 The railroad has insulated itself from such criticism by 1863 — splitting the composition of its board between Republicans and Democrats.
Wherever New York railroads were discussed, Thurlow Weed was sure to be in the vicinity. In 1860 Weed admitted — in a peculiarly convoluted and defensive way — that “there have been legislative measures, right in themselves, and promotive of the general welfare, in which we have had, in common with other citizens, ultimate or prospective interests. In this category belong New York city railroads.”13 Republican Weed’s interests were so defined that the New York Central’s Erastus Corning, a Democrat, took a trip to Europe in 1856, he left Weed to watch over his railroad interests.
Biographers of these New Yorkers commented on the intermingling of business and political interests. August Belmont biographer David M. Black wrote: “Jay Gould, trying to make the Erie Railway Company respectable, had suggested a reorganization that would bring August [Belmont] onto the company’s board along with such other reputable businessmen as J. S. Morgan, John Jacob Astor III, and Erastus Corning; but the existing board rejected the proposals.”14 Glyndon Van Deusen, biographer of William H. Seward wrote that Weed’s influence on railroad legislation extended to Congress and his political ally Seward: “Later that same year [1856] Weed wrote that he had $10,000 invested in Georgia railroads, and that it might be jeopardized if a bill for a naval depot on the Georgia coast failed to pass. Seward replied that he would do what he could. He undoubtedly asked friends to support the measure, and he himself spoke for the bill and voted against amendments. The measure became law.”15
Close in relationship to railroads and often in competition to them were canals. Erstwhile Governor Horatio Seymour was involved in a Wisconsin canal company that often took him out of New York State. Biographer Stewart Mitchell wrote that in 1858 Seymour sought out the help of another prominent Democratic lawyer who was to later become governor and run for President in 1876: “Seymour came into personal contact with Samuel Jones Tilden, who had taken an interest in the western investments of the Green Bay and Mississippi Canal Company. Writing to him from Appleton, Wisconsin, in August, 1858, Seymour described his tour in the company of their joint friend, Erastus Corning, and the ardent prohibitionist, Delavan — he who had vouched for the sincerity of the unpopular veto of 1854. Among other things Seymour urged Tilden to use his influence with the railroads he served to turn immigration on the canal company’s lands in northern Wisconsin, even though their officers might prefer to book people the full length of their lines into Minnesota and Iowa.”16
Railroad connections were good for raising political funds but they could be deadly for political ambitions — which is why the politicians associated with them seldom ran for public office. Republican businessman Edwin D. Morgan was the exception to that rule but even he found that anti-railroad prejudice hurt him. One Buffalo business leader wrote him after his 1858 nomination for governor: “There is a great stir here that you are a Central R.R. man in preference to the [Erie] Canal…”17 In a subsequent letter, the same business informed Morgan of the Buffalo scuttlebut that “Weed is all Central R.R. and they say Weed gave you the nomination and that you will listen to him too much for the Interest of the canal…”18
A major conflict over railroad development occurred in 1860 when street railway legislation was advanced by New York City lobbyists in a New York Legislature where corruption and venality were standard operating practices. According to the New York Evening Post, “so shameless a body of men never came together in our state.”19 The avaricious nature of the railroad lobbyists was persistently opposed by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who had developed into a political opponent of Thurlow Weed. “This sentiment gathered momentum in the Tribune as 1860 approached,” wrote Greeley biographer Jeter Allen Isely, “When a new Republican governor, Edwin D. Morgan, was inaugurated at Albany early in 1859, Greeley privately advocated that constant pressure be exerted upon him to prevent peculation. Throughout that year and the railroads of the state to pay tolls on their freight, the returns to be used in canal maintenance and improvements. The canals were state owned and were suffering from competition. It was pointed out that Albany lobbying obstructed this legislation, as well as enactments which would adjust freight rates and prevent the excess charges of short over long hauls. Informed readers could see that Greeley was hitting at Weed’s machine.”20
Legislation was developed in 1860 which would have given the railroad interests franchises to run street railways on a grid in New York “in perpetuity. The railroad interests had packaged five separate bills into one omnibus “Gridiron Bill.” Historian Sidney David Brummer noted: “The Tribune said of this bill that it was ‘generally regarded as a scheme to divide about $1,000,000 between the lobby kings who devised and the members who voted’ for it.”21 According to historian James A. Rawley, “In unity it was hoped to find voting strength. The Governor was well aware of the need for further street railroads in his home city. He had earlier recommended that the number be increased, but ‘care should be taken…to render the valuable franchise a source of income to the city.” Despite the offer of “‘responsible individuals…to pay a large bonus into the treasury of the city of New York,’ the omnibus bill proposed to give away these franchises without cost or equivalent. Those who would profit by the jobbery included New Yorkers George Law and Peter B. Sweeney — and Thurlow Weed. The New Yorkers were interested in the franchises per se; Weed’s interest was more oblique. The supple maker of presidents and governors had his eye on a delayed ambition — election of Seward President of the United States in November. Campaign funds were urgently needed; for want of money Pennsylvania had been lost in 1856. The New Yorkers were willing to pay lavishly for aid in passing their bill. An extraordinary, if incalculable sum of money changed hands.”22 But noted the authors of A History of New York State, “Whether any part of the contribution was actually paid is unknown, and it is also unknown whether Weed personally profited from the venture.”23
Tribune Editor Horace Greeley himself “favored a plan which would benefit the municipal government by turning all railway profits above a reasonable sum into the city treasury,” wrote Isley. “The bills as drawn up granted interlocking directorates construction rights in perpetuity on all the city’s main thoroughfares as well as on all those which deemed destined to bear heavy traffic in the future.” Weed lobbied hard for the bill — but apparently did not lobby Governor Morgan directly. Newspaper editors were not so circumspect. They expressed outrage very directly. According to historian James A. Rawley, “William Cullen Bryant had written Morgan that the railroad bills ‘are the most outrageous misappropriation of public property that had ever been known in the annals of legislation on this continent.’ The Express called the legislature ‘probably the most discretitable [sic] deliberative body ever assembled in the capitol.'”
Governor Morgan vetoed the railway bill. But too much money was at stake and the legislature overrode his veto. “Governor Morgan interposed his vetoes, but the leaven of corruption was too widely diffused even to secure a third part of the legislature on the honest side,” editorialized the Evening Post.24 The Tribune’s Greeley might have made more of the issue but he did not want it to threaten the Republican chances of winning the White House. Greeley “would not challenge the Albany machine until after the Chicago convention,” wrote Isley.25
Another bill before the State Legislature which was heavily opposed by Richmond would have placed tolls on the railroads. The bills split the political parties and made effective legislation impossible. According to historian Sidney David Brummer: “The Assembly refused to accept the [Senate] substitute, each house clung to its own bill, and thus the attempt to toll the railroads failed. The Tribune charged that the loss of the bill involved the setting aside of a policy which had previously ‘received the deliberate and hearty assent of the Editor of the Albany Evening Journal,’ that Weed had become ‘a powerful element in the combination headed by Dean Richmond which defeated’ the bill, and that ‘individuals made large sums out of the stock speculations based upon an early and certain knowledge that the Governor’s recommendation as to Railroad Tolls was to be defeated.'”26
Weed admitted later that political fund raising was behind his railroad lobbying in 1860. “Obnoxious as the admission is to a just sense of right and to a better condition of political ethics, we stand so far ‘impeached’,” he wrote in his newspaper, the Albany Evening Journal. “We suppose it is generally understood that party organizations cost money and the presidential elections especially are expensive,” admitted the party’s chief strategist and fund-raiser. “Believing that railroads were essential to the City of New York, and that legislative grants for them would be obtained, we conceived and attempted to carry out the idea of making these grants available politically.’27
Some of these issues were revisited in the 1863 legislative session which passed “a Broadway and other New York City railroad bills. These enactments, which as the divisions show were the work of no particular party, brought to mind the scandalous ‘gridiron’ Legislature of 1860,” wrote historian Sidney David Brummer.28
By the end of the Civil War, Democratic National Chairman August Belmont, was also involved in the railroad business. “More and more often August’s name was being linked to the Erie and the Tweed rings, both of which were composed of people for whom he had little use and no respect,” wrote Belmont biographer David M. Black. ‘But he like most New York financiers was doing business with them.”29 No wonder when up-and-coming Republican politician Chauncey M. Depew was considering a job offer from Cornelius Vanderbilt after the Civil War that would have forced him to turn down an appointment as U.S. Minister to Japan, Vanderbilt said: “Railroads are the career for a young man; there is nothing in politics. Don’t be a damned fool.”30 By 1867, Vanderbilt had taken over and expanded the New York Central system.
Such railroad magnates liked to have their way. One of those involved in the Gridiron Bill, George Law, wrote President Lincoln on April 25, 1861 to complain about the failure of the federal government to keep open the railroads through Maryland: “The public mind is already excited to the highest point that this state of things has been so long tolerated; and the people are determined that free and uninterrupted communication with the seat of government shall be immediately established, not by circuitous routes, but by the direct lines of communication that they have heretofore traveled over. And it is demanded of the government that they at once take measures to open and establish those lines of communication and that they protect and preserve them from any further interruption. Unless this is done, the people will be compelled to take it into their own hands, let the consequences be what they may, and let them fall where they will. It is certainly desirable that this be done through the regularly constituted authorities at Washington; and the government is earnestly desired to act without delay.31
Law, of course, was being more than slightly unreasonable; the government was still having difficulty get troops from New York City into Washington to defend it and no one had more interest in reopening the railroad link to Washington than President Lincoln. But reasonableness was not something Mr. Lincoln came to expect from New York City politicians or from newspaper editors or businessmen. Their interests were too diverse, their appetites were too big, and their feuds were too divisive.
These feuds culminated in December 1864 when a lawsuit filed by former Republican Mayor George Opdyke against Albany Evening Journal editor Thurlow Weed came to trial. “At the trial dragged its slow length along in a welter of evidence concerning avaricious business transactions, sordid political deals and the legal fees that greed could extort from necessity, the veil of the temple of American civilization was rent in an unseemly fashion,” wrote Weed biographer Glyndon Van Deusen. He quoted a reported in the Rochester Democrat: “No one can rise from the perusal of this case without the conviction that politics as at present conducted, are, at least here, a dishonest pursuit, and that the struggle is not for principle, but for the chance of plunder.”32
But these were the men — and very few women — with whom Mr. Lincoln struggled to work in New York. Artist Francis B. Carpenter recalled a New York woman who attended one of the regular White House receptions:
At one of the “levees,” in the winter of 1864, during a lull in the hand-shaking, Mr. Lincoln was addressed by two lady friends, one of whom is the wife of a gentleman subsequently called into the Cabinet. Turning to them with a weary air, he remarked that it was a relief to have now and then those to talk to who had no favors to ask. The lady referred to is a radical, — a New Yorker by birth, but for many years a resident of the West. She replied, playfully, ‘Mr. President, I have one request to make.’ ‘Ah!’ said he, at once looking grace. “Well, what is it?” “That you suppress the infamous ‘Chicago Times,'” was the rejoinder. After a brief pause, Mr. Lincoln asked her if she had ever tried to imagine how she would have felt, in some former administration to which she was opposed, if her favorite newspaper had been seized by the government, and suppressed. The lady replied that it was not a parallel case; that in circumstances like those then existing, when the nation was struggling for its very life, such utterances as were daily put forth in that journal should be suppressed by the strong hand of authority; that the cause of loyalty and good government demanded it. “I fear you do not fully comprehend,” returned the President, “the danger of abridging the liberties of the people. Nothing but the very sternest necessity can ever justify it. A government had better go to the very extreme of toleration, than to do aught that could be construed into an interference with, or to jeopardize in any degree, the common rights of its citizens.33
As the 1860 elections demonstrated, these politicians were a difficult group to organize — split as they were by factions, by schemes, and by ambitions.


  1. Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time: A Memoir of the Civil War Era by the Newspaperman Who Knew Lincoln Best, p. 264.
  2. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 340.
  3. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 123 (September 10, 1862).
  4. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, p. 347 (June 27, 1863).
  5. Milton M. Klein, editor, The Empire State: A History of New York, (Paula Baker, New York during the Civil War and Reconstruction”).
  6. John Bigelow, Retrospections of an Active Life, p. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1909.
  7. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Thurlow Weed to William H. Seward, November 21, 1863).
  8. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 41.
  9. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 32.
  10. Glyndon Van Deusen, Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby, p. 245.
  11. George J. Lankevich, American Metropolis: A History of New York City, p. 113.
  12. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 40 (Letter from Edwin D. Morgan to Erastus Corning, April 18, 1854).
  13. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 42.
  14. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 22-23 (Albany Evening Journal, August 27, 1860).
  15. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 374-375.
  16. Glyndon Van Deusen, William Henry Seward, p. 263.
  17. Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 204.
  18. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 79 (Letter from Henry Martin to Edwin D. Morgan, September 11, 1860).
  19. Jeter Allen Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1863-1861: A Study of the New York Tribune, p. 278.
  20. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 79 (Letter from Henry Martin to Edwin D. Morgan, September 14, 1860).
  21. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 101 (New York Evening Post, April 16, 1860).
  22. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 99.
  23. David M. Ellis, Jams A. Frost, Harold C. Syrett, and Harry J. Carman, A History of New York State, p. 238.
  24. James A. Rawley, Edwin D. Morgan, 1811-1883: Merchant in Politics, p. 101 (New York Evening Post, April 16, 1860).
  25. Jeter Allen Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1863-1861: A Study of the New York Tribune, p. 280.
  26. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 45 (New York Tribune, August 20, 1860).
  27. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 23 (Albany Evening Journal, September 21, 1861).
  28. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 285.
  29. David M. Black, The King of Fifth Avenue, p. 374.
  30. Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 14-15.
  31. Jeter Allen Isely, Horace Greeley and the Republican Party, 1863-1861: A Study of the New York Tribune, .
  32. Glyndon Van Deusen, Thurlow Weed: Wizard of the Lobby, p. 315.
  33. Francis B. Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln: Six Months at the White House, p. 156-157.