Seward's Folly
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William Seward

America's Unsung Hero

Story written by Rick Archer
June 2013

William Seward was the man who made Alaska a part of the United States in 1867. 

Seward was able to bring this vast territory to the growing United States without firing a single bullet or making an enemy.  Even better, Seward got a good price - 2 cents an acre.

all Seward had to show for his brilliant move was scathing ridicule.  Calling it "Seward's Folly", the newspapers turned Seward into the nation's laughingstock. Sad to say, Seward was used to it.  For much of his life, William Seward was a hated man and much criticized.  That's pretty strange.  After you read his story, you might consider Seward to be a national hero. 

This ridicule was a shame because Seward deserved better.  Although the Alaska Purchase was the highlight of Seward's career, he had an illustrious career. Seward was the "Henry Kissinger" of his day.  He played a huge role in the Lincoln Administration.  Without Seward at his side, Abraham Lincoln would have been hard-pressed to succeed. 

Seward and Lincoln

Seward's name has resurfaced recently thanks to Spielberg's award-winning movie Lincoln.  The movie was based Doris Goodwin's brilliant novel Team of Rivals.  As one might gather, Dr. Goodwin's title referred directly to the powerful interaction between Seward and Lincoln, once enemies who became friends.

Let's summarize what the book was about.  During his early political career, William Seward received a lot of practice at dealing with hatred.  Like Lincoln, Seward was totally opposed to slavery and didn't mind letting anyone know about it.  Seward presented himself as the leading enemy of the Slave Power – that is, the perceived conspiracy of southern slave owners to seize the government and defeat the progress of liberty.  

Seward had other liberal views that were almost as unpopular.  He was an advocate of prison reform and better treatment for the insane.  Seward sought to prevent certain men from being executed by using the relatively new defense of "insanity".

In a landmark case involving mental illness as well as racial overtones, Seward argued:

"The color of the prisoner’s skin, and the form of his features, are not impressed upon the spiritual immortal mind which works beneath. In spite of human pride, he is still your brother, and mine, in form and color accepted and approved by his Father, and yours, and mine, and bears equally with us the proudest inheritance of our race—the image of our Maker.
Hold him then to be a Man."


Seward supported personal liberty laws and was a virulent opponent of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Seward and his wife Frances were deeply committed to the abolitionist movement. In the 1850s, the Seward family opened their Auburn home as a safehouse to fugitive slaves.

In addition, Seward often defended runaway slaves in court.  Seward believed that slavery was morally wrong. He said so many times, a position that never failed to outrage Southerners.  Seward acknowledged that slavery was legal under the Constitution, but at the same time he denied that the Constitution recognized or protected slavery.

In 1850, Seward exclaimed "there is a higher law than the Constitution".  That statement gave him his first taste of public ridicule.  Now known as "Higher Law Seward", he continued to argue this point of view over the next decade.  He was despised by the leaders of the South.  Fortunately, Seward didn't let the scorn and hatred stop him.  He was a principled man and not easily intimidated. 


As the title of Doris Goodwin's book suggests, Seward and Lincoln started out as political rivals. Despite their similar philosophies, they stayed apart because they were both fighting for the same job.  As Governor of New York, Seward assumed he had the inside track on the Presidency because he was the choice of the powerful New York delegation.  But Lincoln edged him out.

Like many in his party, Seward was shocked when he lost the Presidential nomination to Abraham Lincoln, whom he furiously described as “that little Illinois lawyer.”  That was probably the only time in his career the angular 6' 4" Lincoln was ever described as little!

Fortunately Seward had a trait that was rare in Washington: the ability to curb his rancor.  Despite his deep disappointment at losing the nomination, Seward was a patriot at heart. He threw himself into campaigning for Lincoln.  Perhaps more than anyone, Seward's influential support helped secure Lincoln's narrow victory in 1860.

Lincoln had been paying attention.  A formidable opponent might make a formidable ally.  Soon after his inauguration, he asked Seward to become his Secretary of State.  Seward didn't know Lincoln very well and was taken by surprise.  However, as he and Lincoln talked, Seward realized that both men wanted the same things for the country.  Seward knew the nation was in for tough times and wanted to help.  So he readily accepted the offer. 

   

That was the start of a remarkably successful collaboration between the President and his Secretary of State.  Lincoln told Seward early on, “I shall have to depend upon you for taking care of these matters of foreign affairs, of which I know so little, and with which I reckon you are familiar.”

Seward joined his rival's cabinet and became a real power in the Administration.  Seward was indeed very knowledgeable about foreign affairs and acquitted himself well.  He was particularly credited with the tricky maneuvering necessary to keep England and France from entering the war on the side of the Confederacy.

Seward proved to be the cagey political veteran. As Lincoln recognized his skill, the President began to depend on Seward more and more.  Lincoln consulted Seward regularly for advice and help on a wide variety of problems.  From that point on, William Seward became the President's most valuable friend and ally. 

Seward's contributions to the Lincoln Presidency were immense during the Civil War years.  There were times when he practically ran the White House himself when Lincoln traveled to the war zone for a first-hand look at what was happening.  Plus Seward ran Lincoln's re-election campaign.  Pulling all sorts of strings within his own important New York delegation, Seward was instrumental in helping Lincoln get re-elected in 1865. 

Most people today were unaware of the significant role that Seward played in helping Lincoln pass the critical Thirteenth Amendment which permanently outlawed slavery. Their collaboration was vital in getting this controversial law passed. 

As the movie Lincoln explained, though the slaves had been declared free by Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, their post-war status was uncertain. Lincoln feared the next President could turn around and make slavery legal again.  Unfortunately the passage of this bill was a huge uphill struggle.  In mid-January of 1865, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax estimated the amendment to be five votes short of passage. Sensing a sure defeat, Ashley postponed the vote.

At this point, Lincoln intensified his push for the amendment.  Lincoln began by making direct emotional appeals to particular members of Congress.  This won him several votes, but they were still short.  Lincoln decided the time had come to pull out all stops. 

He instructed Seward to procure the remaining necessary votes by any means necessary. That included promising government posts and campaign contributions to outgoing Democrats willing to switch sides as was utilizing a large fund for direct bribes. 

On January 31, 1865, the House called another vote on the amendment.  The tension was huge since neither side was certain of the outcome.  There were too many people sitting on the fence and just one unexpected change of heart could swing the vote either way.

In the end, every Republican supported the measure, as well as 16 Democrats, almost all of them lame ducks that had either voted their conscience or been bought off.

The amendment barely passed by a vote of 119 to 56.  The ratio narrowly reached the required two-thirds majority.  

The House exploded into celebration, with some members openly weeping. Black onlookers, who had only been allowed to attend Congressional sessions since the previous year, cheered exuberantly from the galleries.


The Attack on William Seward

Seward was already hated by many southern bigots for his fervent support of Lincoln's anti-slavery policies over the past four years of Lincoln's first term.  Now the South blamed Seward almost as much as they did Lincoln for the passage of what was called the "Slavery Amendment".  They were well aware it had been Seward's dirty tricks that had swung the vote.    When John Wilkes Booth decided to organize the conspiracy to murder Lincoln, the men targeted William Seward as well.

Very few of us know our American History well enough to know what happened to Seward on the same night that Lincoln was assassinated.  It is actually an incredible story.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Lewis Powell attempted to assassinate William Seward at his Washington D.C. home.  The attack took place on the same night that John Wilkes Booth successfully murdered Abraham Lincoln.

Lewis Powell, also known by his alias "Lewis Payne", was a co-conspirator of John Wilkes Booth.  The two men had planned to attack Lincoln and Seward on the same night.

There was a third man involved as well.  George Atzerodt was recruited by Booth into the conspiracy to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson.  However Atzerodt lost his nerve and stayed in a hotel bar that night.  He stuck to drinking instead.  Ironically Atzerodt was executed anyway.  After what happened to Lincoln, no one was in much of a forgiving mood. In July 1865, three months after Lincoln's assassination, Atzerodt was hanged .

The South had surrendered only five days earlier.  Regarding the conspiracy, it made sense to carry out the executions simultaneously.  Once the element of surprise was gone, no one would get a second chance at any of the targets.

The stated point of attacking the three men was to sever the continuity of the United States government. However, what the assassins expected would happen after that is anybody's guess.  The real purpose of the attack was probably no more complicated than a chance to get some much-desired revenge on the men who set the slaves free and conquered the South in the war.

By chance, William Seward had been badly wounded in a recent carriage accident.  Just nine short days before the attack, the door to the Seward's carriage flew open as he traveled not far from home.  When the driver dismounted to secure the carriage, the horses suddenly bolted.

Seward leapt out of the carriage in a desperate attempt to grab the reins.  Instead, he lost his balance, fell hard and blacked out.  He was carried back to his house unconscious.  The results were pretty grim.  Seward had suffered a concussion plus he had fractured his lower jaw as well as his right arm. 

The doctor considered Seward's condition “perilous in the extreme” and confined him to bed rest at home. 

Due to the accident, the assassin Lewis Powell not only knew right where to find Seward, he figured the man was a sitting duck. 

Powell gained access to the Seward home by telling William Bell, the butler, that he was delivering medicine for Seward from Dr. Verdi, Seward's personal physician.  Seeing the polite, handsome, well-dressed man at the door, Bell, a longtime family servant, never suspected a thing.  He let Powell inside.

Upon entry into the home, Powell began to climb the stairs with his gun in his pocket. 

Powell's progress was stopped at the top of the stairs by Frederick Seward, one of Seward's sons.  Frederick, 35, explained to Powell that his father was asleep.  Why not just leave the medicine with him?  Frederick promised he would take the medicine to his father when he awoke.

Powell complained that only he was to administer the medicine.  That didn't work. Frederick Seward remained unmoved.  "I am sorry, but I will not allow you to disturb my father's sleep. Please hand me the medicine."

Now Powell was stuck.  He had not thought to bring any fake medicine along to bolster his story.  Unsure of what to do, Powell turned around and slowly began to descend the stairs. 

Powell gave it some quick thought. He reckoned they would wonder why he didn't hand over the medicine.  Surely they would suspect that he was a fake.  In that case, they would increase the guard around Seward.  Powell reached the conclusion that this moment would be his only real chance. 

Powell suddenly swung back around, drew out his pistol, and shot it at Frederick's head.  Nothing happened. The pistol misfired.

Realizing he needed to act quickly, Powell rushed to the top of the stairs.  Now a fight broke out.  Powell began beating Frederick over the head with the barrel of his gun. The force of Powell's blows crippled Frederick Seward and left him sprawled on the floor lying unconscious in a pool of blood.

Immediately after knocking Frederick senseless, Powell tried to get his gun to work.  To his dismay, Powell discovered the gun could not be fired.  He had damaged the gun when he used it to beat Frederick Seward.  The gun seemed hopelessly jammed. 

Now a door in the hallway opened.  It was Seward's daughter, a frail and slender woman named Fanny Seward, 21.  She had been in her father's room keeping him company along with her older brother Augustus, 39, and Sgt. George Robinson, a body guard and military nurse.

Hearing the loud noises coming from the second floor hallway, Fanny wanted to see what was going on.  Fanny gasped when she saw her brother Frederick slumped on the floor.  Then Fanny was horrified to see a wide-eyed Powell pull a knife from his pocket and charge directly towards her with the dagger in his hand.  She screamed in terror.

Powell didn't stab Fanny.  Instead he grabbed her and threw her down to the floor like a rag doll.  Then he burst through the door and immediately jumped onto Secretary Seward's bed.  Powell began to stab Seward in the face and neck area.  However, he didn't get very far.  Thanks to Fanny's screams, Augustus Seward and Sergeant Robinson had already been rising out of their chairs to meet the threat in the same moment Powell entered the room. 

Powell's slashing attack on Seward was interrupted when both men rushed to Seward's aid.  Forced to defend himself, Powell forgot about Secretary Seward and lashed out at the two men with his knife.  Powell was able to stab both men. 

However, the hallway was full of sounds indicating there were other people coming.   Hearing the people in the hall, Powell knew he had only moments to make his escape.  Seeing Secretary Seward bleeding profusely from his wounds, Powell concluded the man had to be dying.  Powell didn't have time to look twice; it was now or never.  Concluding it was time to go, Powell jumped over Fanny lying dazed in the doorway and raced to the stairs. 

As Powell fled down the stairs, he was confronted by yet another man racing to help Seward.  Emerick Hansell had just entered the house.  He had come to deliver a message to William Seward and heard the sounds of the fight upstairs.  Now he found himself on the stairway blocking Powell's desperate attempt to escape.  Yet another fight broke out.  Powell stabbed Hansell in the back, crippling him instantly.

Finally Powell was free to escape.  However he was in for a surprise. Powell was furious to see his accomplice had fled during the screams and commotion, taking both horses with him.  This meant Powell was forced to flee on foot, preventing him from leaving town as had been his plan.  On foot, he didn't get very far.  Powell was captured the next day at the DC boarding-house home of Mary Surratt.  He was executed along with Atzerodt three months later for his actions.

After Sergeant Robinson was able to recover, he rushed to Seward's side.  Judging from the amount of blood, Robinson assumed Seward was dead.  Amazingly, Secretary William Seward had survived.  Apparently the jaw splint worn by Seward to hold his broken jaw in place helped save his life by deflecting the knife away from his jugular vein.

Although Seward would carry deep facial scars for the rest of his life, he eventually made a full recovery.  Seward's family had bravely saved his life.  First Frederick had halted the progress.  Then Fanny's screams had warned the men in the room. Then the bravery of Seward's son Augustus and Sgt. Robinson had prevented Powell from having enough time to strike a killing blow. 

Unfortunately Seward's family and circle of friends paid a heavy price.  Although neither Augustus Seward or George Robinson were badly hurt, it was a different story for Frederick.  He lay in a coma for several days.  Eventually he too recovered. 

It was Emerick Hansell who was hurt the worst.  Hansell was rendered permanently paralyzed from the stabbing.

There were other dire repercussions as well.  The events of that night upset Seward's wife Frances terribly. Her health declined rapidly after the attack.  She died just two months later. 

Seward's daughter Fanny was frail to begin with and the trauma weakened her further.  Fanny too fell ill soon after.  She died of tuberculosis a year later. 

Not surprisingly, the wounds, the tragedy of losing his friend Lincoln and the tragedy of seeing his entire family devastated took a huge toll on Seward.  It took tremendous courage to get through the pain and the depression of this dark time in his life.

 

After Lincoln's assassination, from his hospital bed, Seward agreed to stay on to help President Andrew Johnson. Although it took Seward several months to recover from his wounds, Seward was able to shake off that terrible night and carry on. 

After Seward reclaimed his position in the administration of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, ironically he became one of the few decent men in the inept Johnson Administration in regards to the South.  Seward frequently suggested more moderate reconciliation policies towards the South to the point of enraging the Radical Republicans who had once regarded Seward as their ally.  They could not understand why the man who had been so opposed to slavery now wanted to go soft on their Southern enemies.

The South didn't care what Seward thought or did.  They still associated Seward with Lincoln and continued to hate him. In fact, no one liked him.  His own political party wanted to disown him and the new President Johnson didn't particularly want Seward around either.  However, after the suffering Seward had been through, Johnson could not figure out a graceful way to get rid of him, so Seward lingered on.

With Lincoln gone and few remaining allies, Seward's political star power dwindled dramatically.  From that point on, Seward had little choice but to work behind the scenes and exert a steadying influence on the Johnson Administration. 

Now that the war was over, Seward turned his attention to the traditional role of Secretary of State: Foreign Relations.  He immediately renewed the negotiations on the purchase of Russia that had been on hold since the start of the Civil War. 

Unfortunately, Seward's waning political power and America's total lack of interest in the frozen wilderness would make this a very difficult deal to sell to Congress.  Seward was facing another huge uphill struggle.

 

The 1867 Alaska Purchase

The story of the Alaska Purchase is very interesting.  William Seward had long been an advocate of American Expansion.  His dreams didn't just stop at the Pacific shores of California. 

As far back as 1846, Seward had said, "Our population is destined to roll its resistless waves to the icy barriers of the north, and to encounter oriental civilization on the shores of the Pacific."

It was now twenty years later.  With the Civil War ended, Seward was finally able to pursue his dream. 

On a political tour in the summer of 1867, to vigorous applause Seward told an audience in Hartford that the people of the United States had before them the “most glorious prospect that ever dawned upon any nation on the globe.” 

Seward spoke of a free nation “extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and approaching the shores of Japan and China.”

That said, it isn't easy to lead when you are so far out ahead of the pack you can't even see if anyone is behind you.  Seward was pretty much on his own when it came to Alaska.  

 

Seward's Folly

As we all know today, the Alaska Purchase was without a question one of the greatest real estate steals in history.  For the princely sum of 2 cents an acre, the United States government effortlessly acquired this vast northern paradise.

Just on size alone, one would wonder why so many people objected to the deal. In a word, Alaska is gigantic.  After acquiring Alaska, the USA immediately grew in size by 20%.

Alaska is so big that is twice the size of Texas.   Alaska is also larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. For example, Alaska is bigger than France, the second largest country in Europe.  The fishing rights alone made this a terrific deal.  Alaska by itself has more "coastline" than all the other 49 states put together. 

One would think Seward would be praised so such a great acquisition.  Not so.  U.S. Secretary of State William Seward was severely criticized for his "colossal mistake".   Calling the deal "Seward's Folly", the press labeled Seward a fool.

For example, The New York Tribune's Horace Greely claimed

"Alaska contains nothing of value but furbearing animals, and these animals have been hunted until they are nearly extinct. Except for the Aleutian Islands and a narrow strip of land extending along the southern coast, the land would not even be worth taking as a gift."

The newspapers suggested Seward had paid way too much money.  Seward was lambasted for "his brains of mush to buy this worthless icebox".  

Amazingly, our own Senate pretty much agreed with the newspapers.  Seward had great difficulty making the case for the purchase of Alaska before the Senate.  In the end, the Senate would ratify the treaty on April 9, 1867 by a margin of just one single vote.

 

The Crimean War

Of course 150 years later it is effortless for us to see who got the better of the deal.  Consequently one might wonder why Seward took so much heat for his controversial move.  

Let's take a moment to look at the positions of both parties at the time of the deal.

It was actually the Russians who first proposed the deal.   Russia was having major economic troubles.  Russia had just finished fighting the costly Crimean War with England, Turkey, Italy and France in a losing effort.

Now Russia was desperate for an infusion of money for rebuilding.

Negotiations had begun after the end of the Crimean War, but understandably were put on the backburner when our own Civil War began. When the war ended, both parties began to talk again. 

Tsar Alexander II of Russia decided to sell the country's territory in Alaska for several reasons. 

Alaska was expendable because it was virtually worthless to the Russian government.  Plain and simple, Russia wanted to make a deal because it owned more land than it could handle. 

Another reason they were willing to sell is due to the fact that they barely even knew what they had!!  The Russian tsar had almost no sense of the true value of the Alaskan frontier.

In 1725, a few weeks before his death, Russia's Peter the Great wanted to determine if far eastern Siberia was attached to the North American continent.  So Peter dispatched Vitus Bering, a Danish-born sailor, to find out.  In his first expedition, Bering determined that Asia and North America were indeed separated by the narrow strait that now bears his name. 

However, he did not sight Alaska on his first trip. It was not until 1741 on Bering’s second expedition that he made landfall there.  Due to a storm, Bering's ship was forced to take refuge on what is now called Bering Island.  It was there that the explorer died of scurvy at the age of 60, along with many of his crewmen.  The survivors, however, made it back to Siberia with sea otter pelts, among the most valuable of furs. 

It would be the fur trade that would draw the Russians to Alaska.

Basically when the 1860s rolled around, the only people who had any real interest in Alaska were its inhabitants.  Besides the few hundred Russian fur traders, there were 8,000 indigenous people - Inupiaq, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian.  Sadly, the governments of Russia and the United States were in no mood to care what they wanted.

Why Europe even recognized Russia's claim to Alaska is still a bit of a mystery to me.  The truth is that Russia really didn't have much a claim.  You can't just stick a flag in the ground and say the land is yours.  Besides visiting the place, you have to populate and colonize the place.  Basically Russia owned the land because it was much closer to it than any of the other European powers.  Plus it had all those important fur traders to legitimize their claim.

Alaska was the Land Beyond Beyond.  Due to its remote location, Alaska was about as important as Mars back in those days.  For example, just recently we have begun to show interest in Mars, right??   Well, back in those days, Alaska seemed almost as remote to the American people as Mars does today.  

After all, the Alaska Territory was 500 miles north of Washington, the nearest American state.  Unless for a few dozen fur traders and perhaps a couple explorers sent there by the government, no American had ever visited the place.  All the American people knew was that it was supposed to be a big worthless chunk of ice.

In those days, the US population was a lot more interested in the Wild West than the Frozen North. Our population had just barely begun to expanded into areas like America's west and the Canadian people had certainly not expanded to the Canadian west other than Vancouver.  Nor did any Russian people other than the fur traders care about the place.  Alaska was located across the Bering Strait from the Siberian territory of Kamchatka which was part of the immense Siberian forest.  Kamchatka was virtually deserted.  Anyone who lived in Kamchatka could have cared less about the vast icy expanse across the water... they already had a vast icy expanse of their own.

Tsar Alexander II already had a vast frozen wilderness known as Siberia.  What did he need Alaska for? 

The problem was finding a buyer.  Back in those days, nobody wanted Alaska because nobody needed Alaska.  Not only did the Russians care less about Alaska, nobody else cared either.

Russia understood that someday someone would want that land.  And when that time came, Russia would not be able to sufficiently defend the territory from invaders.  This was a very important factor. 

Back in those days, Russia had not even begun to populate Siberia.  Siberia was a vast Asian forest east of the Ural Mountains, a huge mountain range similar to the Rockies that divides Asian Russia from European Russia. 

With virtually no people living on the Pacific coast of Siberia and certainly no navy, how exactly was the Czar supposed to hang on to the Alaskan wilderness?   Unless those fur traders were tougher than 10 Davy Crocketts, even the smallest well-armed military force would take the area with little effort.

And how would Russia send reinforcements??   For example, there was no such thing as a train that crossed the vast Siberian tundra.  Traveling in wagons by land, it would be months before the Czar could get an army over there.  Nor was there any sort of Panama Canal that could be used to send warships to the area.  Hanging onto Alaska was hopeless. 

The Czar reasoned that they would be better off selling the territory now than waiting for it to be annexed by another country. It was just a matter of time... better to unload it now or get nothing in return.  Russia already had one potential buyer - England.  However Czar Alexander didn’t want strengthen the British by selling it to them.  Russia and Britain, after all, had been at war in the Crimea from 1853 to 1856.  Russia had been badly trounced after discovering the British navy was far superior to the Russian navy and its military superior as well.  That damn Britain was the reason Alexander needed money in the first place.  Alexander had a better idea.  Why not offer the territory to a country that was no threat to Russia?  

So Czar Alexander II offered to sell the land to the United States.  He sent a Russian diplomat to enter negotiations with the Buchanan Administration.  When the Lincoln Administration took over, William Seward picked up the thread.
 

Let's Buy Antarctica!!

So what exactly was the American point of view?   Look at it this way in modern terms.  Assuming it was even possible, do you think the U.S. should purchase the Antarctic? 

Now there may come a day when scientists discover incalculable riches underneath the frozen ice, but at this particular moment in time, owning the Antarctic doesn't seem particularly tempting.  What would you get, a bunch of penguins and tons of ice that is melting rapidly??  

Using this example, you get in touch with the same point of view most people held for Alaska in the 1860s.  Why bother??

This analogy helps to explain why the Americans of the 1860s could have cared less about spending a lot of money for what seemed like little in return. 

Furthermore, let us not forget that America had just begun its westward expansion.  There was the Utah territory to develop, there was the Texas territory plus Colorado, California and Oregon... and so on and so on.  With all this empty frontier before them, why should anyone care about Alaska??

In addition, there were a lot of people who whispered we could get Alaska for free any time we wanted to. Why spend all that money?    After all, the United States had virtually stolen Texas from Mexico in 1846.  Why couldn't we do the same thing with Alaska when the time was right?  Might makes right!

Taking Alaska by force wasn't a very practical idea.  The thing to keep in mind was that America was hardly the military power in 1865 that it is today.  It was one thing to invade Mexico with whom we shared a border.  How were we supposed to invade a distant land like Alaska?

America was in the same position in 1865 that Russia was in.  We had no railroad across the American continent.  We had virtually no people on the West Coast.  We had no navy to speak of and we had no Panama Canal.  With no army and no navy, how exactly was the United States supposed to annex a distant land like Alaska by force? 

Furthermore, if America did suddenly show a military interest in Alaska, England was in a far better position to get to Alaska first.  England actually had ships in the area.  Thanks to a series of amazing English naval explorers such as Francis Drake and James Cook, the English knew more about the Pacific than the United States did.  For example, the English sea captain George Vancouver had explored the area now named after him as far back as 1792.  Thanks to that early foothold, the British had been colonizing the Vancouver area on the Pacific coast of British Columbia for the past 60 years.

So look at it this way. In the 1860s the port of Vancouver was already a thriving, albeit distant, outpost.  If the U.S. ever attempted to take Alaska by force, England could very well view the hostile action as an opportunity to use its head start in the area to take the territory for themselves.  After all, the British might enjoy having one united land extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  Once in, the English would be very difficult to dislodge.

Besides, the U.S. was hardly in a fighting mood.  In 1867, America was weary from its own Civil War.  So making a deal made a lot more sense than picking a new fight.

Russia was offering to let America have the first crack at this vast region.  Okay, so the United States had no immediate need of the area, but it might have use of it someday.  And we sure didn't want the British to have more control of the area than they already did.  The British Empire was at its peak;  God forbid they would get stronger because we passed on an opportunity.  Why not do the sensible thing and take the frozen Alaska wilderness off Russia's hands for a price that amounted to beans? 

That may make complete sense to us today, but back then Americans weren't used to thinking globally.  Unfortunately, since no one in America had any use for the place, Seward had a difficult time selling his idea.  Very few Americans saw the "Big Picture" as clearly as Seward did. 

Another problem was that Seward's political clout was at low ebb.  Seward was extremely unpopular with the South due to his well-known staunch opposition to slavery.  As Lincoln's right hand man, Seward had been hated almost as much as the President. 

Furthermore, now that President Andrew Johnson was in power, Seward had perhaps the weakest President in U.S. history behind him.  Thanks to Johnson, the atmosphere in Washington at the time was poisonous.  President Johnson was in the midst of being impeached by the House of Representatives.   Therefore when it came time to persuade Congress to buy Alaska, Seward couldn't count on any help from the South and he couldn't count on any help from his own President.

How was Seward going to sell Alaska to the United States Congress? 

 

American Destiny

The phrase "Manifest Destiny" is most often associated with the territorial expansion of the United States from 1812 to 1860. This era which runs from the end of the War of 1812 to the beginning of the American Civil War, has been called the "Age of Manifest Destiny".

During this time, the United States expanded to the Pacific Ocean and created the borders of the contiguous United States as they are today.

Things happened very fast in 1846.  First President Polk signed a treaty with Britain that established a permanent Canada-US border in the Oregon Territory. 

Then the Mexican-American War of 1846 gave the United States exactly what it wanted - the entire land West of the Mississippi including Texas and California.   

These far-reaching lands would become ten new states: Texas (1845), California (1850), Kansas (1861),Nevada (1864), Utah (1896), Colorado (1876), Wyoming (1890), Arizona (1912), Oklahoma (1907), and New Mexico (1912).

The United States paid Mexico $15 million in return, a ridiculously low sum considering the value in return.

This deal was basically highway robbery, but there can be no doubt it was a defining moment in our history.  For the first time, the United States truly stretched from sea to shining sea.

Oddly enough, the concept of Manifest Destiny worked against the purchase of Alaska.  Most Americans were perfectly content now that our borders finally reached the Pacific. 

With American feeling fat and happy thanks to adding Texas, Oregon and California, the sentiment towards acquiring Alaska was total apathy.  We had more land than we knew what to do with and couldn't care less about acquiring a new territory such as Alaska.  Why even bother?  Keep the money. 

Nor was the press helping much.  The press had a field day with this suggested Alaskan purchase.  Not a day passed without Seward being ridiculed in the press for "Seward's folly", "Seward's icebox", and President Johnson's "polar bear zoo". 

Things were looking pretty grim.  This deal was looking colder than Alaska.  So how exactly was Seward ever going to light a fire under this deal??  


Those Damn British

In the end, Seward knew exactly which button to push.  It was anti-British sentiment that carried the day. 

Resentment towards the British was very much a part of American politics at the time thanks to constant British intimidation throughout the Nineteenth Century.  England may have lost the Revolution, but it had continued to be a bully ever since.  The British had spent this entire century dominating the new-born USA in practically every  sphere possible - on the seas, on the land, and in diplomatic circles.

The best example was the War of 1812, a war that no modern American has a clue about (including me).  I was surprised to learn the United States actually started the war.  Big mistake.  England was still pretty angry over losing the Revolution.  Therefore they made the War of 1812 a sort of "revenge war".  So England decided to give America a thorough spanking in the War of 1812.  About the only good thing to come out of that war was our national anthem which Francis Scott Key wrote while the British devastated the harbor of Baltimore.

It is hard to believe the United States was stupid enough to go toe to toe with the mightiest power in the world. 

According to Wikipedia,

"The United States declared war in 1812 for several reasons.  America resented trade restrictions brought about by Britain's continuing war with France, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of American Indian tribes against American expansion, outrage over insults to national honor after years of humiliations on the high seas, and possible American interest in annexing Canada."

In other words, the United States was tired of being pushed around by the British plus they were interested in gaining control of Canada. 

Meanwhile the British relished the opportunity to get some payback.  They had even had the nerve to invade Washington DC.  While they were there, they burned down the White House.  Did they need to burn down the White House?   No, it served no military purpose.  The British did it out of spite. 

Well, the USA may have lost its White House, but Seward flipped that loss to help gain Alaska 50 years later.  To fan the anti-British sentiment, William Seward recruited a valuable ally, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. 

Sumner was a clever man.  He gave a passionate speech to the Senate that closed the deal.  First, Sumner reminded everyone about the War of 1812.  Good move.  The serious butt kicking of 1812 was still within the living memory of many people in Congress, so that got their attention. 

Then Sumner appealed to everyone's patriotism.  He pointed out that America was destined to see the whole of the North American continent under the American flag.  Conveniently ignoring the fact that Britain firmly controlled Canada, Sumner declared that “our American Destiny can be nothing less than owning the entire North American continent.”

Next Sumner drew a parallel with the Roman Empire.  He said the ancient Roman senate held sacred a rule that barred foreign kings from entering the gates of Rome.  By purchasing Alaska, Sumner argued we would “dismiss one more monarch from this continent.”  Sumner noted that French kings and Spanish kings had already departed from North America and now the Tsar of Russia wanted to leave as well.  Sumner's implication was clear that with the Alaska Purchase, Britain's Queen Victoria would be next to go.

Heads nodded.  Okay, so our ill-advised 1812 Canadian land grab failed, but swiping Alaska out from under Britain's nose would be a real payback.  Just the thought of how irritated the British would be warmed the hearts of every vengeful senator.

You would assume Sumner's passionate speech would guarantee an easy passage of the bill.  Wrong.  Even after Sumner's speech, the motion still barely passed by one vote. 

And even then the result was mired in controversy.  There is strong evidence that several bribes were necessary to change votes on the issue.  Seward had learned from his dirty work getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed that when it comes to senators, money works faster than appeals to patriotism.  Some things never change.     

Does the end justify the means?   Good question.  I would say in the case of the Thirteenth Amendment and the Alaska Purchase, yes.

Fortunately for the country, Seward got his way.  But that didn't mean the press eased up on him.  "Seward's Folly" became the Jay Leno laugh monologue of the day.  It didn't help Seward's cause that Alaska got off to a slow start after the purchase.  You might even say the pace was glacial.  Like a farmer who purchases a giant plot of land he doesn't need, this giant land mass just sat there doing little more than collect more snow and ice.  With each new snowdrift, the newspapers continued to ride Seward unmercifully.

It wasn't until gold was discovered in 1898 that people changed their tune.  After that, Seward didn't seem quite so stupid any more.  Only one problem - Seward had been dead for 26 years.  No last laugh or "I told you so" for him.

As we all now know, for the bargain price of $7.2 million, in one simple stroke of a pen, America was instantly 20% larger.  This country had just obtained 365 million acres of land at slightly less than two cents an acre.  Once Alaska proved to be unbelievably rich in natural resources, it became obvious that Seward had known what he was doing all along.

Over the last 140 years, we have taken untold riches in gold, oil, and other minerals out of the ground and billions of dollars worth of fish out of the surrounding waters. And yet with a population of only one person per square mile, Alaska is still in a very real sense the last American frontier, a land rich in wildlife, open spaces, and incomparable natural beauty. 

Gaining Alaska gave the United States the most diverse national territory in the world. The USA is the only country whose territory encompasses arctic, temperate, and tropical areas.  Today all Americans are justly proud of that this beautiful icy paradise in the north is an important part of our country.  Alaska is just as much a part of the USA as Texas is.

I think of Seward as an "American Prometheus". 

Prometheus, of course, was the Greek God who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to the humans.  He did it because it was the right thing to do.  However, he paid a stiff price. For his courage, the Gods chained Prometheus to a rock and allowed him to be eaten alive by the eagles.

Thinking of how Seward must have been torn to pieces by all the criticism and hatred, I can easily see a parallel between Seward and Prometheus, two men who were tortured for doing the right thing. 

Like Lincoln, like Jefferson, like FDR, like Benjamin Franklin - the men we refer to most often as America's "visionaries" - Seward seemed to understand that his ideas were way ahead of America's thinking at the time.  When asked what he considered to be his greatest achievement as Secretary of State, Seward replied "The purchase of Alaska—but it will take the people a generation to find it out".

Seward's contemporary Carl Schurz described William Seward as "one of those spirits who sometimes will go ahead of public opinion instead of tamely following its footprints."

After World War II, Seward’s wisdom in buying Alaska would be even clearer.  In the second half of the Twentieth Century, the great geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated the international politics.

In 1867 Alaska had been a remote and expensive tidbit of empire that the Russian government was only too glad to get rid of.  A hundred years later, the Soviet government must have bitterly regretted its sale for a pittance.

The Cold War would have been fought very differently — and would have been much harder to win — had the Soviet Union possessed a major foothold on the North American continent.

Seward wasn't around to see American opinion turn around because he died in 1872, just five years after his greatest triumph.  I think it sad to know he died without being vindicated for his vision.  Fortunately, I believe Seward was so confident that he didn't need the adulation of the American Public to know that he had been right all along.

Somehow I get the feeling that gaining popular approval was not important to Seward.  He was one of those men who always did the right thing for America no matter what the consequences.  Too bad our government doesn't have more men like him.

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