Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – Seward’s Icebox

Apr 2, 2016 by

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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History – Seward’s Icebox

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)   On March 30, 1867, the then Secretary of State William Seward purchased land that we now consider “Alaska”. How did this purchase come about?

As early as the 1640s, a Russian explorer named Semyon Dezhnov most likely became the first European to sight the coast of Alaska during a voyage of exploration. Russia did not take advantage of the opportunity Dezhnov had afforded it to found a colony, however, as word of his accomplishment did not reach the seat of government in St. Petersburg until years later. Russia’s actual colonization efforts came as the result of a voyage in the 1740s to Alaska led by Vitus Bering.

Although he died on the expedition, his crew brought back word of the opportunities that Alaska offered for gathering sea otter pelts. Over the next 60 years, a number of Russian traders established posts along the Alaskan coastline, thus making it a Russian colony. Although yielding high quality pelts, Alaska proved only marginally profitable to Russia.

This in and of itself could have eventually led Russia to consider divesting itself of Alaska, but strategic considerations undoubtedly also factor into its eventual decision to sell its colony. During the 1850s, Russia had fought a war against Britain, and during that conflict a British fleet had spent considerable time in the waters just south of Alaska. The Russian government recognized that at any time in the future British naval forces could capture every Russian outpost in Alaska with relative ease. As a result, members of the Russian government began to discuss the possibility of selling Alaska before such an eventuality could take place.

Recognizing the expansive tendencies exhibited by the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia believed that it had the best chance of striking a deal with the Americans. This led Russia to approach the United States during the presidency of James Buchanan to discuss the possibility of selling Alaska. The purchase of Alaska might well have taken place at that time, but the attention of the Buchanan Administration turned increasingly to the growing sectional conflict within the nation and away from negotiations with Russia. The start of the Civil War in 1861 ended these discussions.

During the war, Russia emancipated its serfs, agreeing to pay landowners for the loss of their laborers. This placed a financial burden on the Russian government, further fueling its desire to sell Alaska. Therefore, after the United States won the Civil War, Russia resumed its efforts to convince the Americans to purchase its colony. Discussions began in March of 1867, and on the 30th of that month the two nations reached agreement on the sale of Alaska.

2)   Most historians know about “manifest destiny” (the idea that the U.S. would expand from the East to West coast), but what prompted Seward to purchase Alaska, and how much did it cost at that time?

William Seward clearly had a number of motivating factors prompting him to agree to the purchase of Alaska.

First, during the Civil War Russia had proved supportive of the United States, the only European nation to take such a stance. As such, he wanted to remain on good terms with Russia. In addition, gold had been discovered in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and by extrapolation many people assumed that prospectors would eventually find that precious metal in Alaska.

Finally, newspapers in California and Oregon printed editorials strongly supporting the acquisition of Alaska. Motivated by both economic opportunity and the hope of continuing the process of Manifest Destiny, this groundswell of public opinion in the Pacific Northwest provided a political motivation for Seward to acquire Alaska.

Having decided to see this goal through to its fruition, Seward then had to determine how much money to offer. During the 1850s, US emissaries had suggested a price of $5,000,000 to the Russians, a figure that the Russians had found too low. Consequently, Seward decided to suggest a higher price when negotiations resumed in March of 1867. The two sides finally agreed on a sum of $7,200,000.

3)   Obviously we can only guess and infer, but according to the historical records what was his reasoning behind the purchase of what was then called “Seward’s Icebox” or “Seward’s Folly”?

As we have seen, Seward had a number of factors that influenced him in his decision to purchase Alaska. It should be noted, however, that no land acquisition in American history has ever taken place in a political vacuum. Presidents of the United States need to be “on board” with such actions, and as such Seward had to have had the backing of the president that he served. Originally chosen by Abraham Lincoln to serve as Secretary of State, by 1867 Seward held that same position under Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson.

After becoming president, Johnson initially had gotten along well with Congress, but within months of assuming office he had fallen out of favor with many in that body because of his unwillingness to force former Confederate states to grant basic rights to freed slaves. Increasingly unpopular with the American people because of his intransigence, Johnson hoped that the purchase of Alaska might help to change public opinion by him. This political consideration, coupled with the other factors previously noted, made the decision for Seward regarding Alaska an easy one.

4) Obviously, Seward was skewered in the press. A quick look at Yahoo reveals the political cartoons that took him to task for his purchase: https://images.search.yahoo.com/search/images;_ylt=AwrSbgPUTPBWKKsANi5XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEyN2RvcnM2BGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjE3OTNfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=Seward%27s+Folly&fr=yfp-t-201-s

But, his long range planning seems to have paid off for America. What benefits is America still reaping from Seward’s purchase? In retrospect, the purchase of Alaska benefited the United States both economically and strategically. As many had suspected, Alaska turned out to have rich deposits of gold, and the injection of the wealth gleaned from mining that precious metal helped boost the American economy. Later, prospectors discovered vast reserves of oil in Alaska.

To this day, Alaska provides an appreciable portion of the oil produced domestically. But as important as Alaska’s mineral wealth proved to the American economy, its strategic value may have been even greater. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution brought a communist regime to power in Russia, and for much of the twentieth century the Unite States regarded the new state as an enemy.

If the Russians had kept possession of Alaska, they might have been able to seriously threaten the security of the United States by building military bases in that region. Fortunately for the United States, it, rather than its enemy, controlled Alaska during the Cold War.

4)   At that time, how was Seward’s purchase received?

As previously noted, a number of Americans felt that Seward had erred in purchasing Alaska. Primarily, they felt that the remoteness of Alaska would preclude settlement, and they believed that Alaska had nothing of value to offset the price tag associated with it. But upon further review, it appears that most Americans supported Seward’s action at the time of the purchase.

The myth that Seward faced nothing but derision over purchasing Alaska largely comes from the twentieth century, when a number of writers tried to show that brave and intrepid pioneers in Alaska had made an area regarded as useless into something of value. Clearly, evidence demonstrates that Americans did not see the purchase as “Seward’s Folly.”

5)   What have I neglected to ask about Seward and this event in American history?

Many Americans believe that the purchase of Alaska represented a significant change in national policy in that we had added territory that did not border our country. Actually, the United States had already taken steps in that direction prior to the purchase of Alaska. Indeed, as far back as the 1850s the United States had started to claim islands in the Pacific. Thus, the purchase of Alaska seems less a turning point than a continuance of a developing trend.

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