At 4 A.M. on March 30, 1867, Secretary of State William H. Seward and Baron Edouard Stoeckl, Russian Minister to the United States, signed the Treaty of Cession, by which Alaska passed from Russian to American hands for a mere $7.2 million, culminating three weeks of intense negotiation carried on in unusual secrecy.
Seward rushed the treaty to a secret session of the Senate for immediate ratification, fearing that delay would allow time for opposition to mount. He enlisted the support of the influential Senator Charles Sumner, who became a champion of the cause but privately admitted, “Abstractly I am against further accessions of territory but this question was so perplexed by considerations of politics and comity and the engagements already entered into by the government, I hesitated to take the responsibility of defeating it.”
This spokesman, however lukewarm on the subject, presented a three-hour speech to the Senate in which he stressed the riches in furs and fish to be reaped from the new land, and the obligation of the United States to act favorably toward Russia, which had supported the Union (where England and France had not) in the recent Civil War. Sumner also stressed the creation of new industrial interests on the Pacific and unlimited commerce with Japan and China, which would contribute to the supremacy of the United States throughout the world.
It was this argument and all that it implied that was most closely related to Seward’s own ambitions and notions of grandeur. Drawn to both the power of manifest destiny and the drama of a limitless American frontier, Seward saw himself as leader of jingoist Americans impatient to see all of North America under United States dominion. “The Russian outposts in North America,” said Seward stoutly, “will yet become the outposts of my own country.” With six members absent from the Senate, the treaty was narrowly ratified by a vote of 27 to 12 (a two-thirds majority was required). Another vote was taken in an effort to make it unanimous, resulting in a final tally of 37 to 2, which constitutes the official record today.
News of the acquisition was released to the press in early April 1867. Then began the diatribes against Seward and his “Icebergia” or “Polaria,” which, according to the New York Herald, was “an ice house, a worthless desert with which to enable the Secretary of State to cover up the mortification and defeats he has suffered with the shipwrecked Southern policy of Andrew Jackson.”
The New York Tribune said, “Ninety-nine hundredths of Russian America are absolutely useless; the remaining hundredth may be of some value, but is certainly not worth seven million dollars. The expense and trouble of a territorial government, in this distant and uninhabitable land would far outweigh any advantage from its codfish or bearskins. By the next session of Congress we trust the folly of the purchase will be made so plain that the House will refuse to make the necessary appropriation.” Thus was the myth of “Seward’s Folly” foisted upon Americans, featuring Seward as the sole proponent of a foolish venture that only later by some mysterious act of providence became a heroic coup of inestimable value.
The entire subject of Alaska’s acquisition is, in fact, riddled with ambiguity, tainted with bribery and tangled political intrigue. Seward was not the sole champion of the cause, nor the first. Nor were the Russians laughable fools, as has been suggested, with no understanding of what they had on their hands.
Russia’s occupation of the land that is now Alaska lasted 126 years, significant mainly in that it prevented Great Britain from assuming what would probably have been lasting control. Russia’s interests were exclusively economic and her presence was embodied in the Russian-American Company, which held a monopoly on trading rights as far south as the 55th parallel.
The Grand Duke Constantine, brother of Czar Nicholas I and head of the Admiralty, noted, designs of America and Great Britain on this province and recognized Russia’s inability and unwillingness to defend it if the need arose (preferring at the time to consolidate troops on the mainland).
The powerful Hudson Bay Company had wangled a lease on southeastern Alaska in return for 2,000 otter skins annually (a lease that conveniently expired in 1867); the British had established a trading post at Fort Yukon; American whaling boats were encroaching on Russian waters; 1857 brought rumors of a planned Mormon colony on Alaskan soil; and as early as 1832 Russia knew about the presence of gold in Alaska but concealed it in fear of an onslaught of hungry prospectors.
Thus, Constantine anticipated economic infiltration and loss from within, and advocated sale of the province before this should occur. Russia, furthermore, had few friends in the world and wished to maintain friendly relations with America, particularly in union against a traditional foe, Great Britain. Senator William Gwin early recognized Alaska’s economic potentialities and, speaking unofficially for President Buchanan, offered Stoeckl $5 million for the purchase in 1859. The Czar and Foreign Minister Gorchakov, originally opposed to the idea, began to entertain the proposal seriously, but the Civil War intervened and negotiations stopped.
During the war years an enterprise was begun that, although it ultimately failed, maintained American contact with Russia, interest in Alaska, and power in the Pacific and in Asia. Ambitious entrepreneur Perry McDonough Collins founded the Collins Overland Line (a subsidiary of Western Union), whose goal was to lay a cable from California north through British Columbia, Alaska, and the Bering Strait to the mouth of the Amur River in eastern Asia.
His imperialistic attitude, quite popular at the time, is evidenced in his remark “The earth will persist in being eight thousand miles in diameter and some twenty-four thousand miles in circumference. (As) everybody does not live on Manhattan Island, we very confidently conform to circumstances, and take the world and whatever there is in it, or upon it and do the best we can.” Collins and Hiram Sibley, president of Western Union Telegraph Company, met with Gorchakov in 1864 and learned of the Foreign Minister’s willingness to sell Alaska. At the same time, U.S. Minister to Russia Cassius Clay advised Seward of the benefits to be derived from the purchase.
In 1866 Constantine, with permission from the Czar, sent Stoeckl to Washington to close the deal for an amount no lower than $5 million. The price ultimately agreed upon in the treaty was $7.2 million. Apparently only about $7 million ever reached Russia and this after a bitter fight in the House, its members slighted and outraged by Seward’s stealthy handling of the deal and the Senate’s hasty ratification.
The bill was in fact presented far appropriation months after the transfer of territory had occurred at Sitka, delayed partly by impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson. Perhaps no one really knows where the balance of the money went (although a House investigation was undertaken to find out), but rumors were rampant of bribery both of the press and politicians, including General N. P. Banks, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Thaddeus Stevens, and the brazenly unscrupulous Robert J. Walker, a former senator. Seward and Stoeckl, both eager for feathers in their caps, feared the opposition of ardent anti-expansionists, with good cause.
Members of the House hotly proclaimed that the land was “virtually valueless” and an irresponsible waste of money. “To suppose that anyone would leave the United States,” said Representative Benjamin F. Loan, “to seek a home in the regions of perpetual snow, is simply to suppose such a person insane.”
Together Seward and Stoeckl enlisted the aid of Walker, who claimed to have urged President Polk to acquire Alaska as early as 1845. Walker wrote a series of articles endorsing the purchase, which appeared in the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle, whose editor, John W. Forney, received $30,000 in return. Walker, himself amply paid, took the liberty of invading the House of Representatives to stress the attractions of Alaska—the fish, gold, minerals, even the “charming” climate of Sitka. According to the New York Herald, the “illustrious Premier,” Seward, was meanwhile “working the telegraphs and the Associated Press in the manufacture of public opinion night and day.
On July 14, 1868, the bill was passed in the House by a vote of 113 to 43, with 44 abstaining. The complacent Walker went to New York with $21,000 in gold certificates and $2,300 in greenbacks. There, his pockets were immediately picked of $16,000 worth of gold Treasury certificates! The police managed to find the thieves but Walker, because of the delicacy of the situation, declined to press charges—just one of the suspicious circumstances that resulted in an investigation of the funds.
Alaska’s entry into the United States certainly had a dubious and bungling beginning, signifying no long-range policy on the part of the government. Stoeckl’s readiness to grease palms and Seward’s persistence and unwavering enthusiasm took center stage, but the maneuver involved a wider cast of characters and more developments than are generally remembered.
Seward was not alone in his “folly”, many newspapers across the country supported him, but even his advocates could anticipate a mere fraction of the tremendous riches that would eventually come from “the region of perpetual snow.”