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Benjamin Wood (1820-1900)New York Daily News
President Lincoln attempted to use public patronage to recruit Democratic allies. But, noted historian Allan Nevins, "he could be as hostile to enemies like New York Peace Democrat Ben Wood as they were to him..."1 Benjamin Wood was the brother of prominent New York politician Fernando Wood and was Fernando's sometime partner in the shipping business. Wood bought the New York Daily News in 1861 and immediately turned it into the newspaper voice of Fernando's Democratic political organization and an anti-war voice for Peace Democrats. Bill Kauffman wrote in American Enterprise that "Ben was no less colorful than Fernando: He ran lotteries, wrote a pro-secession novel, and helped inspire the city's anti-draft riots."2 And he was not caught up — as many other Democrats were — in the pro-War fervor that characterized the weeks after the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12. When the New York State Democratic Committee met in early August, Benjamin Wood was a rare voice against rallying behind the Union movement.
The newspaper was always anti-Lincoln and frequently blatantly racist. Even before Wood bought, the Daily News editorialized in the 1860 campaign if that Mr. Lincoln was victorious, "we shall find negroes among us thicker than blackberries swarming everywhere."3 The anti-Lincoln rhetoric continued to flow freely at the Daily News in the early months of the Civil War. "The extra session convened by President Lincoln came together for the avowed object of promptly endorsing the most stupendous series of frauds, political villainies, and usurpations of power that have been perpetrated in any civilized country since the days of Henry the Eighth...and it has fulfilled its mission with a reckless disregard of conscience and duty worthy of the satellites of an abolition administration,' the Daily News proclaimed on July 22. " It has set at naught the solemn precepts of the fathers of the republican; treated the constitution as a dead letter; passed laws of the most fundamentally destructive and unconstitutional character; given its sanction to murders, massacres, illegal imprisonments, robberies of the treasury, and the withdrawal of all security of life and property to private citizens, and foreshadowed negro insurrections, wholesale confiscations and authorized anarchy as a necessary portion of the immediate future."4
Such incendiary rhetoric led an investigation of the Daily News — and other Democratic newspapers such as the Journal of Commerce edited by William C. Prime, the Freeman's Journal edited by J.A. McMasters and the Day Book — by a federal grand jury. The grand jury charged that the Daily News printed material "calculated to aid and comfort the enemy."5 Although the courts took no action, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair did. "After the New York postmaster refused to accept the Daily News for mailing, on orders from Washington on August 22, 1861, Wood shipped his newspaper to other cities by railway express. This system worked for a few days until the government got wind of what was going on and placed detectives on express trains out of New York. The Daily News then suspended publication."6 After writing one unsuccessful novel, Fort Lafayette; or Love and Secession, over the next 18 months, Wood restarted the Daily News as an evening paper in early 1863.
The Daily News was so controversial that it even became an issue at the New York Democratic State Convention on September 4, 1861. The Albany Regency organization wanted to seat the Tammany Hall delegates from New York City and bar the Mozart Hall delegates of Fernando Wood's organization. When the delegates voted to seat both New York City groups in equal number, the more mainstream Tammany and Regency groups were agitated. "The Regency had suffered a defeat; but the convention having adjourned to the next day, [State Chairman Dean] Richmond and his aids labored for reconsideration, declaring that the admission of Mozart would be construed as an endorsement of Ben Wood and the anti-war policy of the Daily News," wrote historian Sidney David Brummer.7 Richmond understood that such an association would hurt the entire Democrat state ticket in November.
Editor George F. Thompson was arrested "on June 10, 1862, his house searched, and his private papers examined," wrote Robert S. Harper in Lincoln and the Press. "He was then taken to Washington where publisher Benjamin Wood, serving in Congress, was under investigation by the House Judiciary Committee."8 Harper claimed: "As a newspaper editor, Wood poured out his propaganda unmolested, but as a member of Congress his course was not so serene. Charges were brought against him for disloyal sentiments expressed on the floor of the House. The committee to which the charges were referred put them in a pigeonhole and took no action."9
Historian Frank Abial Flower wrote: "In June, 1862, a committee was appointed to inquire into the allegation that [Wood] had communicated Federal information to the enemy. He gave out that he intended to attack the Government in reply to the proceedings. By Stanton's orders the telegraph wires leading to the capitol were switched into the War Department so he could follow the speech, and officers were detailed to clap Mr. Wood into the Old Capitol Prison in case the promised remarks should be too disloyal. Contrary to expectation, Wood said nothing offensive; but his paper, the New York News, was suppressed for seditious utterances and disloyal practises and not permitted to resume publication during a period of eighteen months."10
Historian George Milton Fort wrote: "In the late 50's both Fernando and his brother, a member of Congress, were the owners of lotteries which had been chartered by Southern States. The woods were bound to the South by other bonds, and openly championed the slavery cause in the Daily News. The paper's staff had a generous sprinkling of Southern sympathizers as rabid in their views as were the most pronounced Abolitionists at the other extreme. Editors from the South seldom visited the metropolis without calling at the Daily News office."11
Historian Sidney David Brummer wrote that "of Wood's last administration of the city government [1859-1861], it is enough to mention here a letter signed by three successive foremen of grand juries, wherein permission was requested of the district attorney for the publication of evidence taken before those bodies, tending to prove that before Wood as mayor would approve of the valuable street cleaning contract, it was an indispensable condition that one quarter of the contract should be given to his brother Benjamin, and that the latter was the owner of one-fourth of the then existing contracting. According to the district attorney's reply, confirming these assertions and appending the evidence, the contract was awarded at the rate of $279,000 a year although a responsible person bid $84,000 less."12
The New York Daily News played an important role in stirring up controversy about the draft in New York City that led to riots in mid-July 1863. "One of the newspapers of the city," wrote historian Daniel Van Pelt, "scrupled not to act as the organ and mouthpiece of such hostility to the Administration as had taken shape in the mass meeting of June 1862....The Daily News unblushingly charged that 'the evident design of those men who have the Conscription Act in hand in this State is to lessen the number of Democratic votes.'"13 In July the Daily News editorialized:
The manner in which the draft is being conducted in New York is such an outrage upon all decency and fairness as has no parallel and can find no apologists....The proper quota to be drawn from this city would be about twelve thousand. Instead of this number, however, over twenty-two thousand are being drafted....
When President Lincoln was up for reelection in 1864, Wood's vendetta continued. He editorialized: "No influence except compulsion can induce any respectable proportion of the people to cast their votes for that compound of cunning, heartlessness, and folly that they now execrate in the person of their chief magistrate."15 The unremitting character of Wood's attacks is reflected in an editorial, "Mr. Lincoln's Treachery," which was published on January 10, 1864:
The masses, generally, are slow to reflect upon their actual political situation. Absorbed in the occupations that yield them subsistence, they have often no leisure, and oftener no inclination to study the gradual changes that are being wrought in their system of government. They take a superficial glance at passing events, condemn or approve according to their hasty conceptions, but in most cases shrink from the labor of thorough analysis, and avoid the responsibility of taking an active and conspicuous part in opposition or support of the theories and measures adopted by those in power. Sometimes, upon the eve of an important election, they shake off their apathy, and give way to brief spasms of excitement; but rarely does the citizen take the trouble to explore the labyrinths of party action, or weigh in an exact balance the sometimes ruinous consequences of legislative or executive conduct. He reads in the public prints that his fellow-countrymen have been dragged off to prison or sent into exile; he hears of the suspension of judicial writs; he is conscious that the Constitution and the law have been repeatedly violated by men in office, and understands that his form of government is undergoing some mysterious process of mutation; but, until the foot of tyranny is at his own threshold, until his own fireside is invaded, and injustice and oppression made him their victim, he fails to appreciate the extent of the wrong, the imminence of the danger, the necessity for his individual exertions in behalf of the common weal. At last, when despotism has completed its net, the masses awaken to the consciousness that they are in the meshes. Too late then to interrupt the action of the loom that weaves those tangles around Liberty; or if interrupted, it must be by the application of the strong hand. The engine must be shattered, the web rent asunder by the last terrible agency of political change, and armed revolution. When the people have endured beyond their patience, they appeal to that awful vindicator, and are either confirmed in bondage or disenthralled.
In early 1864, Wood hired Phineas C. Wright, former head of the copperhead Sons of Liberty, to be the editor of the Daily News. "To say the Wood brothers were not aware of Wright's connections would be nothing short of ridiculous. The war course of the News would indicate that Wright was hired because of his connections," according to Robert S. Harper in Lincoln and the Press. "He took up his editorial duties on January 18, 1864, and there is evidence that he spent his first day on the job writing a circular letter which was mailed to leaders of the Sons of Liberty all over the North. The letter, dated 'January 18,' gave the Daily News office, 19 City Hall Square, as the place of origin."17 Wright wrote:
I have this day connected myself with the Editorial Department of the 'New York News.' You will remember that the News has, from the first, advocated the principles inculcated by Jefferson & his illustrious compeers, and has fearlessly & openly denounced the usurpations of power which have wrested from the citizen his cherished rights, and thrown down the last barrier between him & irresponsible Despotism.
Despite his antipathy to the President, Wood's Daily News did not endorse Democratic candidate George B. McClellan in the 1864 campaign. McClellan's repudiation of the Democratic National Platform's peace plank was unacceptable to Wood. After the Civil War, Wood continued to direct the Daily News until he died at 80. The Daily News itself survived only six years longer than did Wood. (The current newspaper of that name is a newer creation).