New York City’s Close Brush with Secession 1861

In January 1861, New York City’s Common Council voted for secession from the Union and the State of New York in order to continue trade with the Slave South as independent city under the name “Tri-Island”.

Between the 1830s and 1860s, New York City had grown into an economic and political powerhouse and transformed into the cosmopolis it is now. But the city’s success and prosperity were largely built on the backs of Southern slaves. Even though slavery in New York ended 1827, and Upstate New York was a stronghold of the abolitionist movement, New York City was dominated by pro-South and pro-slavery sentiments.

Wall Street’s banks financed cotton plantations and provided loans to slave holders. New York insurance companies sold policies to slaveholders, protecting their investment in human cargo and property. Brokers and merchants exported cotton to New England and British textile mills, dominating the cotton trade between Southern ports like New Orleans and Charleston and Liverpool and Havre. NYC businesses turned cotton into fine clothing and linens and sold luxury goods from Britain and New England to Southern consumers.

Financial gains from the cotton trade allowed for a huge expansion of the shipping industry, increasing profits even more. Wealthy slave owners from the South often visited NYC and spent fortunes. Especially during the summer heat, they stayed in NYC’s hotels for extended time with their families and slaves (until bringing slaves to New York even for limited time was made illegal in 1841).

Beginning in the early 1850s, New York City the center for the illegal transatlantic slave trade. Ship builders and outfitters made a fortune building and outfitting slave ships for slave traders.

New York shipbuilders built vessels designed for slave trade or converted ordinary ships into slave ships. Outfitters provided lumber and iron to add compartments with grids belowdecks, chains and shackles, and water and food supplies for they long journey. Although the transatlantic slave trade was outlawed 1807, it was a lucrative business with little risk in New York City where corruption and bribery flourished and slave traders, if caught, got off with a slap on the wrist.

The Democratic party was permeated with racism, and leading Democrats, supported by the conservative press, increasingly defended Southern slavery and white supremacist views and policies. They eagerly cooperated with slave catchers and kidnappers, making NYC a dangerous place for not only fugitives but also free black people throughout the 1830s and 1840s, and worse after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850, forcing citizens and officials of free states to cooperate in the return of runaways.

Fears and the inability to reconcile slavery with the ideals of freedom and equality led to rising anti-slavery activity among black and white abolitionists, and even though a majority of NYC voters still supported the Democratic party, anti-slavery voices became louder and the city more and more divided over slavery and NYC’s loyalties. The tension grew even more after the Panic of 1857, which caused NYC’s businesses significant losses.

After Lincoln’s election, New York City’s merchants, Journal of Commerce editor Gerard Hallock and Democratic politicians organized a meeting on December 15, 1860, at the office of a cotton merchant at 33 Pine Street to discuss rumors of South Carolina’s impending secession and the danger to the City’s economy. Over 2000 merchants came to demonstrate their support for South Carolina and the South and asking for time to find a compromise and alternative to secession. But South Carolina withdrew from the Union, owing New York City still 200 Mio. USD of unpaid debts.

NYC’s businessmen were shaken by the prospect of not only losing these 200 Mio. USD, but also any future business. Discussions of seceding from the United States took place throughout the winter of 1860/1861. The idea was not to join the South, but to continue trade with both the North and the South independently and avoid the financial problems involvement in a war would cause.

On January 6, 1861, New York City’s mayor Fernando Wood addressed the Common Council and suggested to withdraw from the Union as well as from New York State to establish an autonomous republic called the Free City of Tri-Insula, consisting of Manhattan, Staten Island, and Long Island. The Common Council voted in favor of his proposal and to secede, even before Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee withdrew from the Union.

Public discussion and controversy exploded, but when tariff policies by the Confederate states gravely disadvantaged NY merchants and businessmen, Unionist support in NYC grew. With the attack on Fort Sumpter on April 12, 1961, patriotic sentiment took over and the idea was dropped for good. Mayor Fernando Wood quickly changed his approach and even offered Lincoln – unsuccessfully – to support the Union in a military role. New York City’s lack of loyalty was not easily forgotten and forgiven by many Northerners. Still, the city continued to prosper, now profiting from outfitting the Union army with arms and supplies.

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