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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....

The miscreants at the head of the Government are bending all their powers...to secure a perpetuation of their ascendancy for another four years, and that triple method of accomplishing this purpose, is to kill off Democrats, stuff the ballot boxes with bogus soldier votes, and deluge recusant districts with negro suffrage.

The people are notified that one of about two and a-half of our citizens are destined to be brought off into Messrs. Lincoln & Company's carnel (sic) house. God forbid. We hope that instant measures will be taken to prevent the outrage....

If the workingmen of this city are disinclined to be forced into a fight for emancipation. let them clamor so loud for peace that their voices shall be potential with our rulers.14


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.

When Mr. Lincoln commenced his official career as the Federal Executive, he was particularly careful to avoid startling the masses with the shadow of the coming policy. To have given even an intimation of the Abolition-disunion purpose that has since been developed would then have aroused a popular resistance that would have been fatal to the realization of the scheme. The design, undoubtedly already conceived, was vailed from public view by the most unequivocal assurances of an opposite intention. In his inaugural address Mr. Lincoln said: "I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I authority to do so. I have no inclination to do so."

Compare those lines with the conditions of the Amnesty Proclamation, and mark the contrast and the contradiction. And again he alludes to "a proposed amendment to the Constitution, to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service," and says: "I depart from my purpose to say that holding such a provision to now be implied constitutional law, I have no objection to its being made express and irrevocable." Well, in the face of that "implied constitutional law," then acknowledged, the Administration, chiefly by Executive proclamation, constitutionally the weakest but by usurpation the most powerful element of our Government, have not only "interfered with the domestic institutions of the States," but have assumed for the Federal authority the control of the very existence of the institution of slavery. That institution, too, which has hitherto been held sacred under the name of the elective franchise has been tampered with in the North till its virtue is gone, and in the South, according to the intent of the Amnesty, has been withdrawn from the body of the people, and given exclusively to a few thousand Federal retainers, sworn to the Abolition creed. It is even claimed by the partisans of the Administration that the terms of the 'Amnesty' give the slaves themselves the privilege to reconstruct the State Government according to their wishes; witness the following extract from a speech delivered, on Monday last, at the Freedman's Celebration at the Cooper's Institute: "I hope that the Amnesty Proclamation will be so construed as that any ten thousand black men may organize and demand and obtain a republican form of government." Yet this Executive, who now proclaims that no Southerner shall enjoy the elective franchise except upon taking an oath to vote for the destruction of slavery, and who designs, according to the interpretation of his adherents, to include the negroes of the South in that one-tenth of the population to whom the right of suffrage is confined, asserted at his inauguration that he had no "purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery," and believed that he had "no lawful authority to do so." What change has been made in the Constitution that now gives him the authority which he then disavowed? What power abrogated that "implied constitutional law," which he then admitted forbade Federal interference with slavery? This is the explanation: Mr. Lincoln in the first place appreciated the necessity of deceiving the people, because then he was unsupported in despotism by armies drilled into perfect subordination to his will. He deceived them by protesting his innocence of Abolition purposes; he deceived them by quoting the true spirit of the Constitution, and afterward acting in direct opposition to his own interpretation; he deceived them by luring them to arms with the battle cry of Union, and having reduced some half million of them to the condition of automatons by the restraints of military discipline, he renounces the old battle cry and boldly unfurls the flag of Abolitionism.

Meanwhile, while their kindred perish to serve the purpose of fanaticism, the masses of the North are witnessing the transformation of their Government to an absolutism. Their liberties vanish, their rights are ignored; the weapons bequested to them to keep tyranny aloof are snatched from their hands and turned against them; the ballot box itself, intended for their protection, is made the instrument of their destruction. Therefore, we say, the masses are slow to reflect upon their actual political condition; or ere this they would have understood their peril, and have intersposed [sic] the shield of popular moral resistance, without awaiting to be goaded to the sterner remedy of revolution.16


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.

The News will be our especial organ, & will be a medium of the interchange of sentiments & opinions of the friends of peace touching the momentous concerns involved in the existing crisis.

I entreat your kind offices & influence in extending the circulation of the News throughout the entire field of our labour.18


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).

 

Footnotes

  1. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 62.
  2. Bill Kauffman, “The Blue, The Gray and Gotham”, American Enterprise, July-August, 2000, p. 51.
  3. Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, p. 865.
  4. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 153 (New York Daily News, July 22, 1861).
  5. George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, p. 243.
  6. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 117.
  7. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 161.
  8. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 326.
  9. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 119.
  10. Frank Abial Flower, Edwin McMasters Stanton, p. 253.
  11. George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, p. 243.
  12. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 28-29.
  13. Daniel Van Pelt, Leslie’s History of the Greater New York, Volume I, p. 412-413.
  14. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 273-274 (New York Daily News, July 1863).
  15. New York Daily News, 1864.
  16. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Lincoln as They Saw Him, p. 369-371 (New York Daily News, January 10, 1864).
  17. Robert S. Harper, Lincoln and the Press, p. 326.
  18. George Fort Milton, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, p. 244.

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