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This Day in History: “Seward’s Folly”

On this day in 1867, Senators debate a treaty to purchase Alaska. Secretary of State William Seward had just brokered a deal to buy it from the Russians. Perhaps you’ve heard that the purchase was decried and labeled as “Seward’s Folly”?

It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? Except it’s not exactly true.

Signing the Alaska Treaty of Cessation, by Emanuel Leutze

“The one ‘fact’ that most Americans know about Seward,” his biographer writes, “is that the press immediately mocked the proposed purchase of Alaska as ‘Seward’s folly.’ This turns out to be incorrect. . . . [The phrase] was a much later invention—and the initial press reaction to the Russian treaty was almost entirely supportive.”

Alaska wasn’t “Seward’s folly” after all? What is the true story, then?

Russia had been ready to sell its land for years and had even made a few aborted attempts to sell Alaska before the Civil War. Those conversations came to a screeching halt once the war began. The issue was not taken up again until after Abraham Lincoln’s death.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, had remained on under Andrew Johnson. Seward was a big believer in territorial expansion and had mentioned acquiring Alaska as early as 1860. Could he make it happen now?

He got his chance when Russian minister Baron Eduard de Stoeckl returned to Washington, D.C. after a few months of leave in St. Petersburg.

If only Seward had known that the Russians wanted to sell Alaska just as badly as he wanted to buy it! But Stoeckl did not let on that he was already authorized to sell the land for as little as $5 million.

Actually, Stoeckl didn’t bring up the subject of selling Alaska at all. He waited for Seward to break the ice.

Seward more than complied. Not only did he introduce the subject, but his first offer was the full $5 million that Stoeckl was authorized to accept! Stoeckl surely realized that a little patience would go a long way. He reported back to his government that he hoped to get at least $6 million. Maybe he could even get $6.5 million.

Negotiations continued, with Stoeckl holding out for a higher price. Finally, the two men agreed on $7 million. And yet Stoeckl still held out for one final concession: Seward agreed to increase the purchase price by $200,000 if the United States could receive Alaska free and clear of all encumbrances. He also did not want to make payment in London, as Stoeckl had asked.

The American public had no idea that negotiations had been pending. When news of the deal became public, reactions were mixed. Several newspapers reported positively on the deal, but not everyone was pleased. “Russia has sold us a sucked orange,” one newspaper blasted.

Nevertheless, Seward moved the purchase treaty through the Senate in a matter of days, with final ratification coming on April 9, 1867. The official transfer would take place by the end of October.

There was just one problem. The House of Representatives hadn’t approved funds for the purchase yet. Could the House really refuse to fund the deal? House members grumbled, and Johnson’s impeachment delayed matters for a bit, but Congress did eventually approve the expenditure.

Once it was complete, the deal increased the scope of U.S. territory by almost 20 percent! It ended the presence of Russia in the Americas and solidified American access to the Pacific. Gold was discovered in Alaska in 1896, and Alaska proved its strategic value during World War II. Obviously, natural resources such as oil have also provided economic benefits.

Alaska finally became a state in 1959, more than 90 years after Seward first acquired the land.

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