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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
There is evidence that the dinners had their effect, but what really seems to have swayed a considerable portion of the senators was not Seward’s pressure tactics or the mere force of Sumner’s example, but a brilliant three-hour speech in behalf of the treaty which Sumner delivered in the Senate on April 9.
He began with Peter the Great and Vitus Bering and traced the history of Russian America down to the moment at which he spoke. Then he bore down hard upon the reasons why he believed the United States should buy: Alaska’s commercial advantages to the Pacific coast states; the opportunity to extend the nation’s boundaries and aid the spread of republican institutions; and finally, regard for Russia: “Even if you doubt the value of these possessions, the treaty is a sign of friendship.”
At full oratorical tilt Sumner thereupon launched into a long, glowing description of Alaska’s population, climate, and natural resources. In the intervals between Foreign Relations Committee hearings the Senator had been doing a prodigious amount of homework, absorbing every bit of information he could lay hands on relative to these remote territories. Sumner’s chief source of knowledge seems to have been the Smithsonian Institution, which fortunately had available precisely the materials he required.
During the Civil War the Western Union Telegraph Company, at the instigation of Perry MacDonough Collins, had planned and actually begun construction of an overland telegraph line from Puget Sound north through British Columbia and Russian America, across Bering Strait and then through the lonely reaches of Siberia to St. Petersburg. On the North American end of the project, Robert Kennicott, a young Chicago naturalist, had agreed to go along as Chief of Explorations on the condition that he be allowed to take a team of assistants to gather for the Smithsonian and the Chicago Academy of Sciences reports on the flora and fauna of the country. The telegraph line was abandoned when Cyrus W. Field in 1866 succeeded at long last in completing an Atlantic cable, but Kennicott’s reports to the Smithsonian—and those of his lieutenant, Harry Bannister—were invaluable ammunition in Sumner’s and Seward’s campaign to purchase Alaska.
Sumner’s speech and Seward’s ceaseless lobbying finally carried the day. But it was a narrow squeak. When the treaty was brought to a vote, twenty-seven senators answered “Aye” and twelve “Nay.” Since the Constitution required only a two-thirds majority of those present and voting, the treaty had scraped through—but with only one vote to spare.
The formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States took place at Sitka the following October 18. At 3:30 that afternoon Prince Maksoutoff, the Russian governor, strode out to the parade ground in front of his residence, accompanied by General Lovell H. Rousseau, Washington’s official representative, and Captain Alexei Pestchouroff, his Russian opposite number. Russian and American troops presented arms. As Pestchouroff gave the signal for the Russian flag to be lowered, the American flagship in the harbor boomed out a salute, and the guns of the Russian fort answered. Thereupon, turning to General Rousseau, Captain Pestchouroffi said: “By the authority of his Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias, I transfer to you, the agent of the United States, all the territory and dominion now possessed by his Majesty on the continent of America and in the adjacent islands, according to a treaty made between these two powers.” Rousseau accepted in similarly formal language. As our flag was raised, wrote the Alta California ’s reporter,
The Russian eagle had now given place to the American, and the national colors floated over a new, wide-spread territory. Our dominion now borders on a new ocean, and almost touches the old continent—Asia. Democratic institutions now extend over an area hitherto the possession of a despotic government. The occasion inspired the soul of every American present, and as the officers retired three mighty cheers were given, and we all rejoiced that we now stood on American soil. …
The Russians at Sitka did no cheering. Hardly a score of them, except those whose official positions required their presence, attended the hand-over ceremonies; Prince MaksoutofFs wife, it was reported, retired to her room immediately and wept bitterly. Said the Alta California ’s man: “It was impossible for the more patriotic of the resident population not to have a feeling of sorrow while seeing the flag under which they were born lowered from its time-honored position, never again to float over their island home.”
The purchase was not out of the woods yet, however: there still remained the problem of getting the House of Representatives to appropriate the $7,200,000.
For a year after the Senate’s ratification of the treaty, the House—and all of official Washington—was absorbed in the efforts of the Radicals in Congress to impeach Andrew Johnson. The Alaska appropriation came up for decision in June, 1868. Seward and its other advocates anticipated some trouble, for there were in the House several pockets of opposition. Many had still not forgiven Seward for going so far with the treaty before consulting anybody; he was, these congressmen felt, presenting them with a fait accompli and making the House a rubber stamp for his actions. And the treaty was almost blocked by the perennial anxiety of the lower chamber for maintaining its prerogatives as against those of the Senate.