THE biography of Fernando Wood, a three-time mayor of New York City and a nine-term congressman, is in many ways a microcosm of national life, urban developments, and Democratic party operations during the nineteenth century.
Despite his achievements, Wood seems notable for the wrong reasons. According to the conventional interpretation, he was the model for scores of corrupt machine bosses, beginning with William M. Tweed of Tammany Hall. While mayor, Wood encouraged street gangs and class violence. His notion of making New York a free city republic on the eve of the Civil War was tantamount to treason. During the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, he was a disloyal Peace Democrat and racist whose activities proved that he deserved his notoriety.
This view is debatable at best and obscures Wood's real significance. An understanding of the man begins with the three goals -- money, respectability, and power-that obsessed him. After achieving material success at a fairly young age in the best tradition of the self-made man, he turned to politics as a natural extension of his drives. Over the course of a controversial career that electrified generations of Americans for nearly fifty years, Wood followed a consistent ideology rooted in Jacksonianism and the equalitarian politics of the Locofocos that generated his values and policies.
When he began his first mayoral term in 1855, multiple unprecedented crises gripped the city government, its institutions, and its traditional leaders, casting doubt on the ability of people to govern themselves. Wood confronted the situation with bold, innovative reforms, far beyond the scope of previous mayors. In the process, he created several unique advances in the art of governing cities. He was New York's first modern mayor, a prescient city builder whose proposed improvements in the quality of urban life anticipated several of the divergent strands that formed the later and often contradictory Progressive Movement. He championed the interest of the working class and immigrants, and sought to