A Northern City's Southern Shame (Exhibit/N-Y Historical Society)

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President Bush won only 24% of the vote in New York City in 2004. Abraham Lincoln did not do much better. In 1860, the president many of us regard as America's greatest won less than 35% of the city's vote. In 1864, he won even less — about 33%. Why most New Yorkers did not care for Lincoln is a question that will be answered to most visitors' satisfaction in "New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War," a well-designed, richly informative exhibition opening today at the New-York Historical Society.

"New York Divided" follows last year's "Slavery in New York."That exhibition told the story of the slavery that remained legal in New York State until 1827. The current exhibition takes us on a journey from the 1830s to the immediate post–Civil War period. Although slavery had been abolished in New York, the city's economy was as dependent upon slavery as ever. New York City had such close ties to the Southern plantation economy that as Southern secession loomed, Mayor Fernando Wood seriously proposed that the city secede from New York State to be able to carry on our lucrative commerce with the South.

New York was cotton broker to the world at a time when cotton amounted to half of all American exports. New York merchants innovated at a furious pace to maintain the city's indispensability to plantation owners. In 1818, the Yorkshire-born Quaker merchant Jeremiah Thompson inaugurated the Black Ball Line, the first regularly scheduled transoceanic (and intracoastal) packet shipping service in history. He thus became, as Robert Albion pointed out in his classic 1939 book "The Rise of New York Port," the pre-eminent cotton exporter in the country — and one of its richest men.

As "New York Divided" shows, New York merchants not only innovated, they also placated Southerners' sensibilities. ...

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