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Seward’s Wise Folly
In Alaska a much-abused Secretary of State saw a fabulous bargain, and what might have been a Russian beachhead became instead our forty-ninth state
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
Moreover, factors over which its directors had no control were jeopardizing its future. As early as 1844, in high government circles at St. Petersburg, a feeling had begun to grow that Russia’s future as a Pacific power lay in consolidating her position on the ocean’s Asian edge, specifically in the rich Amur River area of eastern Siberia, and in Korea to the south. Her fleet was badly outclassed by those of other European powers, notably England, and her collapse during the Crimean War, which ended in 1856, demonstrated her internal weaknesses. Only a nation strong at home can afford a losing adventure abroad; considering the limited amount of revenue Alaska was bringing in as the fur trade declined, Russia was reluctant to invest much more manpower, money, or attention there. And its defense would require all three, for Great Britain and the United States were becoming more and more interested in the American Northwest.
Already, in 1839, the Russian-American Company had leased an extensive tract in southeastern Alaska to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and during the Crimean War, in which England joined the allies against the Czar, these regions had been kept from falling into British hands only by means of a gentlemen’s agreement between London and St. Petersburg—still possible in those days before total war—to regard Alaska as neutral territory.
As for the United States, there was as yet no official government interest in Alaska itself; in fact, by the treaty signed in 1824 with Alexander I it had specifically renounced any claim to territory above 54° 40′ north latitude. But there was a keen rivalry with England for control of the Northwest. For the spirit of Manifest Destiny was abroad in the land. Texas was annexed in 1845, a clear title to Oregon south of the forty-ninth parallel was obtained from Britain in 1846, and then victory in the Mexican War brought under the Stars and Stripes the Rio Grande country, Upper California, and the vast region of New Mexico.
The Russians had no way of knowing when these ambitions might turn toward their domains. To them, in other words, it had begun to appear that sooner or later they would lose their American possessions anyhow; they preferred to cede them to the United States, a friendly power—and perhaps realize a little something on the deal—rather than simply watch hostile Britain gobble them up.
In 1854, when the Crimean War seemed imminent and it looked as if Alaska might fall into British hands, the Russian-American Company had cooked up a fictitious sale of its American holdings to the American Russian Commercial Company, which had been organized to procure ice for San Francisco. When Edouard de Stoeckl, Russian minister in Washington, broached the dummy transaction to Secretary of State William L. Marcy and California’s Senator William McKendree Gwin, both assured him it would never deceive England. But they told him that the United States government would make a formal, bona fide offer to buy Alaska if the Czar really wanted to sell. The gentlemen’s agreement between the Russian and British governments took the pressure off Stoeckl for the moment, but at the end of 1856 he was instructed by the Grand Duke Constantine to see if Washington was still interested. By that time, however, the United States had a crisis of its own to deal with. Not until after Appomattox would history produce the favorable atmosphere—and bring forward the man of action—to see the purchase through.
William Seward had been an advocate and a prophet of Manifest Destiny long before entering the State Department. Public men say many things under the pressures of the moment, but the expansion of the United States to the ultimate edges of the North American continent and to islands in all the seas that wash its shores—this ideal runs for twenty years through the speeches of Seward as governor of New York, as United States senator, and finally as Secretary of State.
He expressed it best at St. Paul, Minnesota, during the presidential campaign of 1860: … I now believe that the last seat of power on the great continent will be found somewhere within a radius not very far from the very spot where I stand, at the head of navigation on the Mississippi river … Standing here and looking far off into the northwest, I see the Russian as he busily occupies himself in establishing seaports and towns and fortifications, on the verge of this continent, as the outposts of St. Petersburg, and I can say, “Go on, and build up your outposts all along the coast up even to the Arctic ocean—they will yet become the outposts of my own country—monuments of the civilization of the United States in the northwest.”
When he took over the State Department in 1861 Seward was sixty years old, but he was a veteran of three decades of state and national politics and was a still-vigorous man at the peak of his powers. A slender, slouching figure with a voice made husky by too many cigars and too much snuff, he was, says Margaret Leech, a complex personality. “He was gentlemanly, subtle and smiling, but not quite elegant or effete … He was brilliant and cynical, but not quite a polished trifler … In spite of his sixty years, he attracted young men by his warmth and kindness, and by the unassuming simplicity of his manner.”
He started out as if to prove that the Republican party had made a mistake at Chicago in not nominating him instead of Lincoln. “It is doubtful,” remarks his biographer, Frederic Bancroft, “if it ever occurred to him that he could not best perform any task falling to the President or to any member of the Cabinet.”