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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
Accounts differ on how the purchase figure was arrived at. The one accepted by most historians is that Stoeckl at first demanded $7,000,000 and that Seward upped his initial offer of $5,000,000 to $5,500,000 and then to $6,500,000. Each time the ante was raised, Stoeckl, who had scant respect for Seward’s abilities anyway and saw that he had set his heart on closing the deal, refused to budge. And finally he got his asking price. To quiet Stoeckl’s misgivings about the Russian-American Company’s outstanding contracts, Seward agreed to “add $200,000 to the consideration money on that account,” i.e. , to assist in liquidating them. The final price was therefore fixed at $7,200,000.∗
∗ Though Seward paid more than he wanted to, the price must be regarded as one of the greatest bargains in American history. Fisheries, Alaska’s biggest industry, alone have produced a total income of more than two billion dollars since 1867 and now bring in profits of about thirty million dollars a year. Minerals annually produce another twenty-five million. The interior forests are estimated to contain 350 billion board feet of timber. And the surface has hardly been scratched.
After a Cabinet meeting on Friday, March 15, Gideon Welles noted in his diary: “Seward produced a treaty for acquiring the Russian possessions in North America. All assented to submitting it to the Senate.” Simultaneously, Edouard de Stoeckl cabled the text of the agreement to the Russian Foreign Office (at U.S. expense), then sat back to await an answer.
It finally came on the evening of March 29, and Stoeckl at once rushed to Seward’s house with the news. He was shown into trie parlor, where the Secretary was enjoying a game of whist with members of his family. “I have a dispatch, Mr. Seward, from my government, by cable,” the Russian announced. “The Emperor gives his consent to the cession. Tomorrow, if you like, I will come to the Department, and we can enter upon the treaty.”
Tomorrow, Seward reflected, might be too late. Congress was scheduled to recess at noon, and he wanted the treaty signed and approved before then. Pushing his chair back from the whist table, he asked with a smile: “Why wait till tomorrow, Mr. Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty tonight.”
“But your Department is closed,” Stoeckl protested. “You have no clerks, and my secretaries are scattered about the town.”
“Never mind that,” Seward replied. “If you can muster your legation together, before midnight you will find me awaiting you at the Department, which will be open and ready for business.”
The clerks were rounded up, and Fred Seward (his father’s Assistant Secretary of State) was sent to get Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. By midnight, the younger Seward later wrote, “light was streaming out of the windows of the Department of State … By four o’clock Saturday morning, the treaty was engrossed, signed, sealed, and ready for transmission by the President to the Senate.”
A few hours afterward the Senate was called to order, and heard the Sergeant at Arms announce: “A message from the President of the United States.” Senators looked at one another, and someone muttered: “Another veto!” Astonishment swept the house a moment later when there was read to them instead “A Treaty for the Cession of Russian America,” and it grew immeasurably when Sumner, hardly noted as a champion of Johnson’s policies, rose to speak with knowing ease in its favor.
Though he had had very little sleep, William Seward had done his work well. The midnight summons from the Assistant Secretary had been Sumner’s first inkling that negotiations were afoot to buy Alaska, and as he waited at the State Department for the treaty to be made ready he had given no indication as to whether or not he would support it in the Senate. As a matter of fact his first reaction, he later confessed, had been negative. But two arguments, evidently pressed hard by Seward before the Senate convened later that morning, weighed heavily with Sumner: the commitment to the Czar, and the desire to beat Britain to a potentially valuable bit of territory.
Despite Seward’s lobbying with the other senators, Sumner at once perceived that he did not command the votes to win the necessary two-thirds majority. He went so far as to approach Stoeckl and suggest he save embarrassment by withdrawing the treaty, but Stoeckl refused. Sumner did, however, manage to have the matter referred to his Foreign Relations Committee, which meant that it would come up for a vote during the special session of Congress that President Johnson had called for the next day.
When Sumner reported the treaty out of committee on April 8, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune , an old political foe of Seward, launched a bitter attack and in the process revealed something of how the Secretary had spent the intervening week: Mr. Seward is engineering with all his personal influence and the influence of his department, to win the vote of the Senate and to create a public opinion that shall justify the ratification of the Esquimaux Acquisition. … Mr. Seward’s dinner table is spread regularly with roast treaty, boiled treaty, treaty in bottles, treaty in decanters, treaty garnished with appointments to office, treaty in statistics, treaty in a military point of view, treaty in a territorial grandeur view, treaty clad in furs, ornamented with walrus teeth, fringed with timber and flopping with fish. …