For the past few weeks, the focus of my research has been on the letter “To the People of Louisiana, their Executive and Representative Greeting” by Fernando Wood.
As mayor of New York City in 1861, Fernando Wood published the letter during the secession crisis to defend the legitimacy of the Confederate States of America and to propose the secession of New York City itself. The letter sparked intense debate throughout the city as it polarized the citizens into two camps: those who believed that Fernando Wood was a lawful dissident, and those who felt that he was traitor to the country. Even now, it is hard to classify Fernando Wood’s letter as protest, treason, or sedition. While Wood felt that he was exercising his freedom of speech, Lincoln and the Republican Party remained unconvinced that Wood’s actions amounted to legitimate disagreement with the government; they feared that Fernando Wood’s letter would appeal to a large audience in New York City and deprive the Union of a major industrial center. However, it can be equally difficult to classify the letter as treason; while Wood included sympathetic statements to the South, he did not call for any direct support for the Confederate States, such as sending supplies to the rebelling states. As for sedition, the incitement of rebellion against the government, Wood might have been in trouble for criticizing the Union government and encouraging people to disobey its commands, but his words never directly called for an overthrow of Union authority. Given the broad range of evidence for protest, treason, and sedition, it seems incredibly difficult to define Fernando Wood as a dissident or as a traitor.
Fernando Wood’s letter opens up discussion of the freedom of speech and the need for public order. Should a citizen be banned from expressing his or her viewpoints if they cause unrest among the population, or does the First Amendment guarantee an unconditional right to the freedom of expression? Throughout our nation’s collective history of activism and political struggle, the consensus has been that if dissent has the potential to cause unrest, then it is too much of a risk to public order and the state must intervene. The American government, in many situations, has cracked down on the freedom of expression and the right to assembly in order to maintain the tranquility of the population. If dissent causes massive protests and riots, then it is illegal.
However, not all speech that the government deems as “illegal” is morally unjustifiable; as stated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did [against Soviet authority] in Hungary was ‘illegal”. As we look at examples of dissent, disagreement, and the possible violence that results, it is of utmost importance to remember that our country was born from all three. Nowadays, the Declaration of Independence is hailed as one of the greatest expressions of human freedom and democracy. In 1776, it was one of the greatest acts of treason against the British Empire and incited violence against the Crown for eight bloody years.
So when we consider dissent and the disruption of public order that often accompanies it, we need to understand that government criticism is crucial to a healthy democracy. Whether it comes in the form of Fernando Wood’s letter or Thomas Jefferson’s declaration, extreme disagreement has always been a part of American politics and has played an essential role in developing the national dialogue. As other dissenting movements both at home and abroad attempt to challenge the status quo, it seems that a temporary disruption of public order is a small price to pay to overturn a system of abuses.
By: George Li