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Insightful new look at ‘Seward’s Folly’

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: July 15, 2017
  • Published July 15, 2017

William H. Seward in 1851, while a U.S. Senator from New York. (Library of Congress)

Seward's Folly: A New Look at the Alaska Purchase

By Lee A. Farrow; Snowy Owl Books/University of Alaska Press; 2016; 225 pages; $25.95

There's a popular conception about the purchase of Alaska, which occurred 150 years ago this year. Russia had a toehold on its American colony but the company in charge of the possession wasn't turning a profit. So it was offered for sale to then-Secretary of State William Seward at a bargain price. Seward bought it and hilarity ensued. Americans mocked the purchase as little more than a frozen wasteland and derided Seward. Little more came of it until the Gold Rush three decades later.

The truth, as always, is considerably more complex. This is what we learn from "Seward's Folly," a recent book by Lee Farrow, a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama. Farrow places the purchase in its full context relative to both international geopolitics and the domestic situation in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. It makes for an enlightening read.

Farrow's previous research and writing have focused on Russian-American relations in the 19th century, making her an ideal candidate to explore this story. The early pages of the book are an examination of the bond that developed between the two rising powers over the decades leading up to the Civil War.

Solidly with Russia

Diplomatic relations had been established early in the century and the two countries grew close due to a mutual concern about Great Britain. Initially, the relationship was somewhat rocky owing to American whaling vessels plying Alaska's waters. But by the time of the Crimean War, American sympathies were solidly with Russia, a feeling that was reciprocated during the Civil War when Russia sided with the Union.

Farrow explores the international situation that emerged as various European powers jockeyed positions elsewhere on the globe, both before and after the sale. Political upheavals had rocked the continent in 1848, and new nations were emerging. The Ottoman Empire was in slow-motion collapse and England, Russia and France were all nibbling at its outer reaches. Markets in Japan and China were opening up and who controlled access to them was a key question. Britain's remaining colonies in North America were in the process of consolidating into what would become Canada. Amid all this, the United States was a rapidly industrializing upstart looking to control North America.

Russia started looking at unloading Alaska during the 1850s. The colony was failing to turn a profit, but there were other concerns, too. Chief among them was Alaska's vulnerability to seizure by England, a move that would have given that country considerable control over the northern Pacific. Selling to America was viewed as a means of blocking the expansion of Canada while strengthening the alliance with the U.S.

For America, buying Alaska would mean that the coveted colony of British Columbia would be placed in a pinch hold and it was believed this would help drive England off the continent. It would also enhance access to the Pacific and East Asia.

Informal discussions about the sale were suspended during the Civil War, but in the aftermath, Seward, a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, started quietly putting out feelers, even as Eduard Stoeckl, Russia's minister to the U.S., did likewise. Farrow provides an account of the all-night meeting that ended at 4 a.m. March 30, 1867, with an agreement hammered out. Negotiations transpired in secret, and therein lay the problems that would hamper the sale.

At this point, Farrow sets to work dispelling myths. Although it's true that some American newspapers reacted to the sale with scorn, the popular belief that Americans laughed at the purchase is mostly untrue. There was general support for it among the citizenry, but the real battle was in the political arena. The Senate, which ultimately ratified the treaty by a solid majority, questioned how the negotiations had taken place. The House was even more hostile. Engaged in a power struggle with President Andrew Johnson and marching toward impeachment, representatives viewed the purchase as one more example of arrogance and overreach by the administration.

More importantly, a legitimate constitutional question was raised. The Senate had ratified a treaty to buy the territory for $7.2 million, but no one consulted the House, which held the nation's purse strings. A long debate over whether the treaty was legal ensued, and payment was delayed long enough to strain America's relationship with Russia. In the end, the money was approved, but rumors of bribery among public officials involved with the sale and ratification led to a subsequent investigation. The findings were inconclusive, but Farrow suspects it happened.

Reaction overseas was mixed and Farrow explores how the sale reverberated throughout Europe. Most nations were alarmed since the sale signaled a new alliance that threatened their standings with Russia and indicated that America was rapidly rebounding from its internal strife. But for the two countries involved, Farrow writes, it was a win.

‘Stepping stone to Asia’

"Seward had fulfilled his dream of expanding the American empire, and the United States gained a valuable piece of territory with a wealth of natural resources that might also serve as a stepping-stone to Asia. For its part, Russia had divested itself of a possession that had become too expensive and too complicated to maintain. Both parties walked away from the treaty signed in the wee hours of March 30, 1867, with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction."

In the final chapter of the book, Farrow summarizes the chaotic governance of Alaska during America's early years of ownership. It's a story told better and in more depth elsewhere, and could have been omitted.

What renders this book essential is her placing of the sale in its international setting. Americans are inclined to ignore the rest of the world, especially where our own history is concerned. "Seward's Folly" reminds us that America doesn't exist in a bubble and that even what we have done on our own continent has global ramifications. It's an outstanding history lesson for this alone.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic

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