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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
America does not greatly love nor long remember her Secretaries of State. Upon this melancholy fact William Henry Seward of New York had more reason than most to rellect. In 1860 he stood at the pinnacle of a brilliant political career, and when the Republican party gathered in Chicago early that summer to choose a candidate for President, he was not alone in believing that the choice would fall upon him. it went instead to an obscure lawyer from Illinois, and Seward, pocketing his hopes, accepted Abraham Lincoln’s offer of the top post in his Cabinet.
There he served with distinction, staying on under Andrew Johnson following Lincoln’s tragic death. Rut he became the target of bitter abuse, particularly alter helping to persuade Johnson to adopt Lincoln’s moderate Reconstruction policy. One after another, friends of long standing within Scward’s own party deserted him until, toward the end of his second term, he found himself almost alone. Even Scward, eternal optimist that he was, knew he had come to the end of the road.
“Grey, bent, and weary,” in the words of his son, he stood in the parlor of his Washington home one evening in 1868, musing pensively before the portraits of the world’s rulers which covered the walls. To his guests he pointed out those who, during his brief eight years in the State Department, had passed from the scene. Death had taken Leopold of Belgium and Frederick of Denmark; Isabella of Spain, “fat and fair,” had been dethroned and exiled; Pope Pius IX, “gentle old man,” had been shorn of his temporal domains by Italian nationalists and now was a lonely prisoner in the Vatican; Medjid of Turkey had been assassinated and poor Maximilian of Mexico shot before the eyes of his army, his empress left to wander the earth.
“It is a sermon on the instability of human greatness,” said one of Seward’s listeners.
“Perhaps so,” he answered with a wintry smile. “I can only hope that they all enjoyed the prospect of getting out of office as much as I do.”
Yet his country has many reasons to remember William Seward with gratitude, and among them one seems likely to make the gratitude endure: in 1867, alone and in the face of public apathy and political opposition, he negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia, acquiring a fabulously wealthy area about one-fifth the size of the continental United States, and more than twice the size of Texas, for the equivalent of two cents an acre. The deal was borne to conclusion on a flood tide of Russian-American friendship: “Well, we have sold to you too cheaply,” a Russian said to Cassius (Hay, our minister at St. Petersburg, “but it’s all in the family.” The sentiment today has the ring of irony: one need only contemplate the present implications of Alaska as a strong Russian beachhead in North America—instead of as the union’s forty-ninth state—to realize how history has justified, in a way and to a degree even he could not have foreseen, the bold action of that “grey, bent, and weary” man.
The territory which Russia sold so cheaply she had won at the cost of much hardship, but for a lime it had brought her rich rewards. Her original impulse toward America had come during the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), who in 1725 dispatched Vitus Bering, a forty-four-year-old Danish veteran of the Russian Navy, to seek the answer to a question then puzzling the academic world: Were Asia and America joined?
Bering’s first voyage, in 1728, was inconclusive, but on a subsequent expedition in 1741, one of his ships sighted land on July 15 near Cape Addington off southeastern Alaska, and on the following day Bering himself glimpsed through suddenly clearing clouds the rugged coast line of Kayak Island and a soaring, snow-capped mountain which he named Mount St. Elias after the saint of the day. Bering had found America.∗
∗ But he was not the first Russian to do so. It seems probable that “Bering” Strait had been penetrated by Simon Dezneff in 1648; and between Bering’s first and second voyages an army officer named Michael Gvozdev sailed to within sight of Alaska. Probably other voyages were launched unofficially and never recorded, but Bering’s was the official one, and brought him enough hardship and grief to merit the credit.
He never returned to Russia to claim what fame and fortune his journeys may have won. On the way back, lashed by Arctic storms and ice that rotted his ship’s rigging and turned her sails to boards, he anchored off a bleak island in the Commander group; there, on December 8, 1741, Vitus Bering, huddled in a pit scooped out of the sandy shore and fighting off a swarm of vicious blue foxes, died of scurvy.
The survivors—forty-six of a crew of seventy-seven—struggled back to Kamchatka the following September, having lost their ship and been forced to build another to bring them home. Hoping to salvage something from the voyage, they managed to bring back nearly one thousand peltries, among (hem many sea-otter skins, which at the great Russian-Chinese trading post at Kiachla brought the modern equivalent of seventy-five to eighty dollars apiece.
If it was scientific curiosity that had impelled the Russians eastward, the lure of riches now turned the impulse into an obsession. Like New Fiance, whose great era would soon close at one end of the continent, Russian America, whose star was about to rise at the other, was built upon the fur trade. And where New France had its coureurs de bois , bold adventurers who served as advance agents for the merchants, Russia had her promishleniki , fur hunters who had been following the sable and the fierce Siberian tiger eastward for over a century. It was these men who, when they heard about the cargo brought back by Bering’s men, were suddenly seized by ambition.
At once the wealthier and more enterprising among them began Ruing out expeditions which leapfrogged eastward along the Aleutian chain chasing the seal, the sea otter, and the fox. In the islands and on the Alaskan mainland beyond, the next sixty years was a period of rugged, pell inell competition in which many Russians went broke and many died, but in which a single ship, after a successful two-year voyage, might bring back furs worth, at today’s prices, $2,500,000.
The chief victims of this scramble for riches, in addition to the animals, were the cheerful, peace-loving Aleuts who inhabited the islands, a people whom the Russians turned into virtual slaves to do their hunting for them. Clarence L. Andrews, one of the historians of Alaska, says of the Aleuts: Hunting was with them n passion. … When one of them saw the head of a sea otter on the sea lie trembled with excitement as a setter dog trembles at the scent of a bird, and he could hardly be made to take his eyes off the coveted prize. In [their] wonderful little skin boats they searched the seas and when the head of an otter was sighted it was almost equivalent to a death warrant for the animal, for one seldom escaped.
In addition to enslaving the men, the bearded promishleniki took the Aleut women for their own, and lived like sultans with their harems. “Heaven is high,” the saying among them went, “and the Czar is far away.” Finally aroused to action, in 1762 the natives all along the Aleutian chain rose up against their masters, but their revolt was put down at once with such violence that, according to Andrews, “they never after made any resistance to wrongs.”
Few of the promishleniki stopped to realize that intensive hunting in one location year after year might eventually exterminate all the fur-bearing animals in the vicinity. That is exactly what happened: by the end of the eighteenth century the sea otter was virtually extinct all along the Aleutian chain, and the Russians found themselves forced to travel farther and farther eastward to make a profitable catch. About this time one among them, more enterprising and farseeing than the rest, began to realize that if the cutthroat competition continued unchecked, there would soon he no livelihood for any of them. Grigoii Ivanovich Shelekhov was foresighted enough to realize something else, too: (hat organized operations so far from home would require bases closer to the Alaskan mainland. Accordingly, he began to consolidate some of the smaller fur companies, and appealed to the Empress Catherine the Great (1762–96) for a monopoly. In 1794, to give his venture the color of permanence, he brought over to Kodiak island just off the mainland coast some thirty families of settlers, together with missionaries of the Orthodox Church.
The following year Shelekhov died, but in 1799 his son-in-law, Nikolai Petrovich Rexanov, who shared his vision, organized the Russian-American Company and finally succeeded in obtaining from Catherine’s successor, Czar Paul I (1796–1801), a twenty-year charter to “use and profit by everything which has been or shall be discovered” in the Russian domains in America. It was in effect a private monopoly especially favored by the state, and during the next sixty-eight years it was to represent the czars in America, carry the Imperial double eagle down the Pacific coast as far as Spanish California, and with England and the United States turn the drive for supremacy in the Northwest into a three cornered race whose outcome was for a long time uncertain.
Considering the stubborn nature of the country, the international rivalry for the area, and the company’s weaknesses, it seems a minor miracle that it was able to accomplish any of these things. Its first manager, Alexander Baranov, set up headquarters at Sitka on what is now Baranov island in Norfolk Sound, where there was an excellent harbor girdled with virgin forests and ringed round with snow-crowned peaks. But before the colony could put down roots, disaster struck. The promishleniki had been treating the Kolosh Indians of Kodiak Island and the mainland with the same lordly air they had assumed toward the Aleuts; the bolder Kolosh rose up at once and in June of 1802 wiped out Sitka, killing all but forty two of its two hundred people.
Baranov’s troubles with the Indians were aggravated by the presence in Alaskan waters of free-lance Yankee traders who ignored the Russian American Company and bought furs from the natives on their own, which they then took to market in Canton, China. Among the goods they gave in exchange were guns and powder—with which the Kolosh armed themselves against the Russians. In vain did Baranov remonstrate with the American skippers. “I said to them again and again,” he wrote, “that these goods were not suitable things to sell to an uncivilized people. … But they paid little attention, saying, ‘We are a commercial people; we look for profits and there is nothing to stop us doing so.’”
British ships were in the vicinity, too, and “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson Bay,” having established forts and trading posts from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Ocean to the Columbia River, were eyeing Alaska from the south and east.
Baranov could do little to prevent these incursions. He had all he could do to keep alive his Russians and the Aleut hunters they had brought with them from the islands. Time and again Sitka and the other little company outposts that sprang up along the coast were in danger of starvation, for no crops were raised in Alaska, and the Russians there had to depend upon the uncertain arrival of supply ships from home. One of the fruits of an inspection visit made by Rezanov in 1805 was the establishment of Fort Ross, in the fertile soil of California hundreds of miles to the south, as a military post and agricultural colony to supply Sitka with food.∗
∗ Life at Sitka in Baranov’s time is described in George Howe’s “The Voyage of Nor’west John,” in the April, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE . The history of Fort Ross is contained in “Russians in California,” by Allan Temko, in the April, 1960, issue.
For most of the first charter’s duration Russia was caught up in European wars, but when the charter came up for renewal in 1819 Czar Alexander I began to take a more active hand in the company’s affairs.
The renewed interest of the Czar meant a different kind of administration for the colony. Imperial Navy officers on detached service with the company now became its officials, and the rough-and-ready ways of the promishleniki gave way to a quasi-military discipline and government bureaucracy.
For the bulk of the population, life in Sitka must have been dull monotony in a gray company town. An American newspaperman who visited it at the time of its transfer to the United States found it a one-street settlement of plank sidewalks and hewn-log houses. The laboring classes and the soldiers, he wrote, have been a slow, simple-hearted, well-disposed people. On account of the numerous [church] holidays, they have worked for the company not over two hundred days annually. Their pay has been about sixty dollars per year. To a citizen of the States, this would seem nothing short of “starvation” wages. True, their fare has been coarse, and they have, to use a homely phrase, lived “from hand to mouth.” Yet in Sitka no family has really ever been destitute of food and clothing. The company has a bakery, and furnishes coarse wheat bread and flour at four and a half cents a pound, and dispenses either fish or venison soup gratis. The soup is prepared daily, and after inspection … is distributed from the soup-house to each family, according to its wants. Added to this, the company furnishes a physician, priest, and school-teacher free from tax. Food, drink, and clothing is supplied at a stipulated price. In a word, it leaves nothing for the individual to do—but to work. … Yet, having no conception of any other [life], they have been, for the most part, a contented people. Their world was the little town in which they lived, with its surrounding waste of water and woodland. The busy outside world, its revolutions, its bustling trades and startling improvements, have been to them of as little moment as to the inhabitants of the moon. Of all the inventions of the past century only two have been practically known to this people—the friction match and one or two sewing machines.
The company, which could look after soup-kitchens, schools, and commissaries with such thoroughness, was totally incapable of acting with any imagination on a larger scale. As the years passed and the fur-bearing animals were exterminated along the mainland coast as they had been in the Aleutians, its directors did not seem to know what to do. Like the Company of One Hundred Associates, which for so long impeded the progress of New France, the Russian-American Company made no effort to explore the interior or develop its resources. The charter was renewed for a third twenty-year period, but by mid-century it was evident that the company was in deep trouble.
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.”
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.
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. …
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.
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.