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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
But here as in the upper house, Seward picked up effective allies. One was General Nathaniel P. Banks, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The other—and this was a surprise to many, since he was generally an opponent of the Secretary—was the all-powerful Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Banks won some converts by urging the same friendship-for-Russia argument that had proved so effective in the Senate. And Stevens disposed of congressional resentment over Seward’s highhanded conduct of the negotiations by saying: “If Congress had to be consulted before a treaty was complete then the provisions of the Constitution would be partly thwarted.”
Thad Stevens was dying that summer of 1868; sometimes it seemed to those who watched him in the House that only hatred of Andrew Johnson kept the man alive. Seward must nave been persuasive and Stevens large-minded: one of Stevens’ last speeches on the floor, on July 13, was an eloquent plea to his fellow congressmen to support a purchase which, he knew, would redound to the credit of an old political foe. The next day the appropriation passed, 113 to 43, and the President signed it into law on July 27.
For Seward the purchase was, of course, a great personal triumph. There is a story to the effect that after he had retired to the quiet of his home in Auburn, New York, one of his fellow townsmen asked him what he considered his greatest achievement as Secretary of State. “The purchase of Alaska,” the old man is alleged to have replied, “but it will take the country a generation to appreciate it.” He had set afoot during Johnson’s administration several other expansionist deals—a Caribbean naval base from the Dominican Republic, for example, and assorted parcels of territory from France—and when he left office in 1869 he was still trying to buy the Danish West Indies. But he succeeded in obtaining only Alaska—and tiny Midway Island.
For with the purchase of Alaska the appetite of the American people for more territory seemed satisfied for the time. The next three decades would bring plenty of difficulties to occupy them at home: the urgencies of Reconstruction, the settlement of the West, and the fantastic growth of industrialism, with its attendant problems even yet unsolved. But for a moment, between the bloodshed and violence of the Civil War and the necessity for dealing with these hard realities, there was an interval of peace. Into it stepped a prophet ahead of his time, an expansionist linked in spirit to the apostles of Manifest Destiny and to those of a later imperialism. By imagination and bold initiative he brought under the American flag an area invested by time with crucial importance and brimming with riches beyond any man’s dreams.