Today marks the 150th anniversary of another Civil War milestone: the proposal by Mayor Fernando Wood to the city council that New York City secede from the Union, in order to continue its relationship with the South, just as southern states were beginning to declare their secession.

I’ve co-authored an opinion article coming out soon describing this event, and discussing its broader significance for our understanding of the Civil War and the role that slavery and race played for the North and the South. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a quick picture of the role of slavery in New York up to the time of the Civil War, as a counterweight to the myth that the North at the outbreak of the war consisted of free states eager to abolish the scourge of southern slavery.

First, a side note: I’m currently attending the four-day American Historical Association (AHA) annual meeting in Boston, and in particular, a multi-session workshop on slavery and public memory. I plan to report back here  on some of the latest scholarship related to slavery, race, and public history, all themes directly related to this blog and my work at the Tracing Center.

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Exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, South Carolina was on the verge of seceding from the Union over the issue of slavery.

At the same time, New Yorkers were preparing to make a dramatic statement in support of the southern cause and in favor of southern slavery, which had long been the backbone of the northern economy and society. At a meeting held near Wall Street on December 15, 1860, a crowd of more than 2,000, including many of the city’s most prominent citizens, would gather to voice their opposition to both civil war and abolition.

Why does the response of so many in New York, and throughout the North, to the threat of secession surprise many Americans today?

All these years later, on the eve of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, northerners are generally portrayed as anti-slavery and eager for abolition—or else as basically opposed to slavery, but grudgingly willing to compromise in order to preserve the Union. In fact, however, the North was largely not abolitionist, and most northerners still depended on southern slavery for their livelihoods. The Civil War broke out as a result of southern fears about northern interference in the institution of slavery, and northern insistence on keeping the Union intact. It was not even remotely the moral crusade to end slavery that is often hinted at today.

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