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
With the exception of an inept handling of the Fort Sumter crisis at the very outset of the war, he built up a creditable record as Secretary of State. But at the beginning of Lincoln’s second term, he suffered two very serious reverses. On April 14, 1865, he was grievously wounded by a would-be assassin involved in the same conspiracy that brought about Lincoln’s death. It was two months before Seward could return to his desk at the State Department, and when he did, some of his old drive was gone.
More serious was his identification with Andrew Johnson’s Reconstruction policy. In August, 1866, Johnson launched his famous—and ill-fated—“swing-around-the-circle,” taking his case to the people over the heads of the Radicals. When Seward, conceiving it to be “a duty to the President and the country,” agreed to go along, he signed his political death warrant. “It is a sad fact,” Bancroft remarks, “that Seward’s popularity had gone and was never to return, to any considerable extent, while he remained in public life.”
In October of 1866, shortly after Seward returned to Washington, Edouard de Stoeckl was arriving in St. Petersburg on leave. Conferences were in progress at the Foreign Office on the future of the RussianAmerican Company, whose affairs had gone from bad to worse since the Grand Duke had last instructed Stoeckl to explore the possibilities of a sale. All the old arguments for selling were reviewed, and everyone agreed that if the United States could be jockeyed into making another offer, Russia should snap it up.
Stoeckl’s instructions were carefully prepared. In the first place, the boundaries of the proposed cession were delineated. High-ranking officers in the Imperial Navy were anxious not to have the Yankees—friendly or not—too close to the Russian mainland, so they recommended retaining the Commander Islands and the Kuriles. (The latter were, economically speaking, a part of Alaska, but the admirals had their way. Thus Soviet Russia can thank the Czarist Navy for the fact that the United States has no toe hold in Asia.) But the Bering Sea islands, the Aleutians, and the Alaskan mainland—all these were to be included in the package. In addition, Stoeckl was told to insist:
- —That the property rights and freedom of religion of Russian citizens in Alaska be respected, and that once the purchase was completed, they be given the choice of remaining there or returning home;
- —That during the transition period the United States assume the company’s obligations to feed, clothe, and house those who decided to stay;
- —That the Americans honor the Hudson’s Bay Company lease in southeastern Alaska as well as an existing contract to supply ice to the American Russian Commercial Company.
Stoeckl received one further order: under no circumstances was he to accept less than $5,000,000.
He returned to his Washington post in March of 1867, sought an interview with Seward, and after some diplomatic sparring made clear the reason for his visit. Though his bargaining instincts told him to conceal his eagerness, the offer must have seemed to the beleaguered Secretary almost too good to be true. Here was an opportunity at one stroke to further his long- deferred dreams of Manifest Destiny and perhaps to assure himself a place in history. At the very least he was likely to recover some of his lost prestige.
He was shrewd enough to realize that getting the purchase approved would take a bit of doing, but realist enough to know, too, that he had a great advantage working for him: the friendly feelings that the American people then entertained for the Russians and their rulers. Throughout the North, men of all political persuasions remembered with warm gratitude the visit of the Russian fleet to New York and San Francisco during the recent Civil War ( see “A Royal Welcome for the Russian Navy,” AMERICAN HERITAGE , June, 1960). The voyage had been dictated by Russian self-interest, but that fact was not generally known here for many years; most Americans had taken it as a gesture of support for the Union at a time when the rest of Europe seemed about to recognize the Confederacy. Moreover, Alexander II’s liberation of the serfs in 1861 had been favorably compared in the United States to Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves.
Still, Congress was locked in a determined battle of wills with Andrew Johnson, and was likely to reject anything, good or bad, that bore the stamp of his administration. Seward knew that only if he could make Congress and the American people believe that a rejection of the Russian offer would be an insult to the Czar could he win their approval. To do that he would have to arrange matters so as to give the Senate, when the treaty came before it for advice and consent, the idea that the United States had already been committed to the purchase and could not honorably renege.
Accordingly, his negotiations with Stoeckl went forward in secrecy. In general, the tentative draft that he and the Russian minister finally agreed upon for submission to their respective governments followed the lines of the instructions Stoeckl had received before leaving home. The only sticking points were the price and the matter of honoring Russia’s outstanding contracts in Alaska.