Seward’s Folly

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By Anne Crowell, ‘12

On March 30, 1867, the US, represented by Secretary of State William Henry Seward, signed a treaty with Russia for the purchase of Alaska.  Though the diplomatic move was dubbed “Seward’s Folly” by the media, it turns out that American commercial interests in Russian America had backed such a sale for some time.  The American-Russian Commercial Company of San Francisco, for one, was involved in the trades of ice, fur, whaling, and fishing since the early 1850s, according to Kushner’s article.[1]  Kushner provides a commercial perspective on the US purchase of Alaska and cites long-standing interests in Russian America.  During the same time period, the Library of Congress’s “Meeting of Frontiers” project shows that Russia was already inclined as early as the 1850s to sell Alaska to the US, but the US became distracted by the beginning of its Civil War in 1861.[2]  Thus, although the Alaska purchase was viewed by some as a sudden and rash move by Seward, the action had been considered for more than a decade by both Russia and the US.

Seward kept Alaska in mind as a goal for US territorial expansion and pursued the idea in earnest after the Civil War when, as Gibson tells us, President Johnson was much too busy with domestic affairs to have a strong opinion against Seward’s foreign policy even if he was not completely in favor of it.[3]  Gibson provides a detailed account of Seward’s
enthusiasm when the Russian diplomat Baron Edouard de Stoeckel told him that the czar had agreed to a treaty; Seward wanted to act instantly.[4]  As Sato points out, since both parties were in favor of the treaty and had been for many years, the American minister to
Russia, Cassius Clay, did not exactly have to convince the czar and the Russian government to sell Russian America.[5]  Rather, the process was quick and it would seem that neither the US nor Russian delegations were particularly difficult to satisfy.

Because the treaty was negotiated from midnight until the early hours of the morning, very
few people were informed right away, but Seward did inform the president and Charles Sumner, Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.  Seward’s choice to tell Sumner about the treaty right away proved smart, as, according to Oberholzer, Sumner was able to
convince the Senate to approve the treaty fairly easily in just over a week.[6]  The House, however, was much slower to respond, taking until the next year to approve funding to pay Russia for the Alaska purchase.  Haycox points out that in the summer of 1868, the House was involved in impeachment proceedings against President Johnson, yet they overwhelmingly approved funding the Alaska purchase even though it was associated with Johnson’s administration.[7]   However, 41 out of 43 opposition votes came from Representatives who had also voted to impeach Johnson.  Haycox dismisses the argument among historians that the Representatives must have been bribed to vote in favor of Alaska, citing investigations that show only that members of Congress were lobbied at
dinners held by Seward and others.

Despite the government and commercial support received for the Alaska purchase, some
newspapers still proclaimed “Seward’s Folly” whether or not they actually supported the Alaska purchase.  Cohen gives an example from the New York Herald, but cautions that editor James Gordon Bennett was only joking when he ran a fake ad for the European empires to “contact Seward” if they wanted to “unload worthless land.”[8]  Since many Americans were still unfamiliar with what the Alaska territory was like, and the government also wanted more specific details, a number of expeditions took place to report on Alaska’s geography and resources.  As Kushner tells us, one of these explorers was geographer George Davidson.[9]  Davidson, among other things, reported on the
American-Russian Commercial Company’s extremely successful ice business in Alaska.[10]  Through a series of favorable reports, Americans eventually grew to value Seward’s purchase and appreciate its wisdom.

Perhaps the only truly resentful parties to the ordeal were the European powers who did
not gain control of Alaska, specifically the British.  Oberholzer cites the British fear that the Americans would soon take over British Canada, highlighting the worry of the
British ambassador in Washington.[11]  Although US expansion did not continue unchecked in North America, the US continued to acquire more new territory in the coming decades through the annexation of Hawaii and the Spanish-American War.


[1] Kushner, Howard I.  “”Seward’s Folly”?: American Commerce in Russian America and the Alaska Purchase,” California Historical Quarterly 54 (1975): 5, accessed October 18, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157541.

[2] Library of Congress.  “Meeting of Frontiers:  Alaska- The Alaska Purchase.”  Last modified June 11, 2002.  http://frontiers.loc.gov/intldl/mtfhtml/mfak/mfaksale.html.

[3] Gibson, James R.  “Why the Russians Sold Alaska,” The Wilson Quarterly 3 (1979): 179-180, accessed October 18, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40255691.

[4] Id.

[6] Oberholzer, Ellis Paxon.  A History of the United States since the Civil War:  1865-68.
New York:  Macmillan, 1917.  Accessed October 18, 2011 http://books.google.com/books?id=rmUhAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA540&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false.

[9] Kushner, Howard I.  “”Seward’s Folly”?: American Commerce in Russian America and the Alaska Purchase,” California Historical Quarterly 54 (1975): 5, accessed October 18, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25157541.

[10] Id.

[11] Oberholzer, Ellis Paxon.  A History of the United States since the Civil War:  1865-68.
New York:  Macmillan, 1917.  Accessed October 18, 2011 http://books.google.com/books?id=rmUhAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA540&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false.

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