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The myth of Alaskan exceptionalism

  • Author: Ross Coen
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published March 19, 2010

A few friends of mine who work as copy editors have told me about the compulsion they feel to edit every piece of written material they see. A misspelled word in the newspaper will bring out the red pen, while awkward phrasing on a billboard results in a mental edit as they drive past. And if the e-mail you send to your editor friend includes a comma splice—well, you know what happens next. It's like a switch they can't turn off.

Historians, I am obligated to report, have a similar affliction. We simply cannot resist the urge to correct factually imprecise statements about the past. Even when the facts themselves are correct—names, places, dates, etc.—an illogical or misinformed interpretation of the meaning or legacy of historical events is simply too much to bear.

Governor Sean Parnell delivered his State of the State address in January, six sentences of which left me with an itch that just has to be scratched. The governor's words appear below in italics, interspersed with my historical analysis.

The United States' purchase of Alaska in 1867 began a relationship with the federal government, one that has at times been contentious. From the beginning, Alaska has been treated with skepticism from Outside. Every student knows the controversy inherent in the phrase "Seward's Folly."

But what every student might not know is that the "Seward's Folly" business is mostly bunk. Historian Richard Welch examined forty-eight of the country's largest newspapers of the time to ascertain their stance on the purchase of Alaska. He found that forty-four of them endorsed it, many with editorials that exhibited a more thorough understanding of the territory than one might expect. The United States Senate, for its part, approved the treaty by a procedural vote of 27 to 12, and a final vote of 37 to 2, margins that contradict the notion the purchase was unpopular. Those who argued against the purchase—and promulgated the "Seward's Folly" slander—did so largely for political reasons. William Seward had many enemies.

So why does the tale persist? Why has it become such an integral part of Alaska's accepted historical narrative? Historian Stephen Haycox:

It contributes to a standard interpretation … that Alaska has been throughout its history a victim. It has been misunderstood and mismanaged by a federal government [that] did not know Alaska conditions and yet presumed to act for it rather than letting Alaskans run their own affairs. The unpopularity tale suggests that the misunderstanding of Alaska goes back to the very beginning of the region's modern history.

In other words, the oft-repeated "Seward's Folly" story implies that no one but Alaskans really understand how the state should be managed. The feds? They just don't get it. Never have.

Years later, Congress debated whether Alaska could support itself as a state.

Well, actually no. Congress debated whether Alaska should be a state. The distinction is important. Its ability to support itself economically was just one part of a very complex discussion. Alaska's strategic location at the height of the Cold War, for example, and what statehood would mean in that context, was but one issue that figured in every congressman's decision. Fish and game management was another. Corporate taxes and outside investment. Native land claims. A statehood land grant that would surely be larger than most states themselves, except Texas and maybe California. One of the more contentious issues was raised by Southern Democrats who feared Alaska's two new senators might vote for civil rights legislation. It was these types of arguments, some of which had nothing to do with Alaska itself and the people who lived there, that drove the debate.

So the governor's glib assertion that Alaska's ability to "support itself" lay at the center of congressional debate oversimplifies the issue in a revisionist manner that suggests Alaskans were right and the skeptics have been proven wrong. (They doubted us, we drilled for oil, and now we're rich—statehood is vindicated!) More important, the governor's phrasing supports the notion that because resource development is what secured our post-statehood destiny, even more resource development—managed of course by Alaskans who always know best—is the key to our future. I have no quarrel with this as a political position, but the governor's historical justification is incomplete.

With statehood, the strong assumption prevailed that, as a fledgling state, we would be allowed to develop our own resources without constant federal interference.

Parnell may be right about the assumption part, but he misunderstands that the statehood act is not the unbreakable compact he and so many others think it is. Statehood was not a free-for-all where Congress blithely handed over the keys to the store to whomever happened to be living in Alaska at the time. The national interest was (and remains) still in play. When the selection of state lands in the 1960s appeared to encroach on what Alaska Natives believed were their ancestral lands, for example, the Interior Department stepped in and halted the process until the Natives' claims could be resolved. By the same token, when the federal government determines that a national park or wildlife refuge is in the nation's interest it has the right to create it. When the US Fish and Wildlife Service finds that a species of animal is threatened with extinction, it has the authority to take steps to prevent it. These actions might infuriate some Alaskans, especially those boosters who want unrestricted access to drill, mine, and harvest, and may also reinforce the long-standing feelings of victimization—but they do not constitute a betrayal of the statehood act.

We best realize statehood's promise and grow our economy when we determine our destiny—not Washington.

Governor Parnell's speech, or at least the select quotations offered here, taps into a mythology that goes back 150 years. It is the myth of Alaskan exceptionalism. It is the story of self-reliant, hardscrabble pioneers who entered a wild frontier and, through hard work and force of will alone, built a new society better than the ones they left behind. They did so in spite of the federal government, which alternately ignored them and provided no assistance, or micromanaged their newfound paradise with silly laws and ill-conceived regulations that constrained their right to live as they chose.

The myth is useful in politics—officials from James Wickersham to Ernest Gruening to Wally Hickel to Sean Parnell have used the theme of victimization to great electoral success—but it ignores the fact that Washington has supported the promise of statehood, helped the growth of our economy, and even determined our destiny in ways almost too numerous to list. But here are a few: subsidized mail delivery, weather forecasting, telecommunications, firefighting, the Coast Guard, military spending, the Homestead Act, the Alaska Railroad, the University of Alaska, the formation of judicial districts and a territorial legislature, health and education funding for Native tribes, road construction and maintenance, fisheries protection, unemployment insurance, Social Security, New Deal construction programs, the Matanuska Colony, the 90/10 revenue split on federal lands, and finally, Uncle Ted money.

Professor Haycox writes of the myth's downside: "Its continuing legacy is a profound, disabling myopia which prevents present-day believers from seeing that they are victims only of a false egoism which once characterized American westward expansion." Alaskan exceptionalism teaches us that we are unique, that we are special, that conventional rules do not apply to us ("We don't give a damn how they do it Outside."). Yet a careful historical analysis shows that our political, economic, and social institutions are really no different from those that have developed in frontier areas throughout history—especially the American West in the late nineteenth century, again with inestimable assistance from the federal government.

Historical analysis can sometimes shatter myths. Facts have a way of interfering with our desired identities and beliefs. Although this sort of self-examination may be uncomfortable, it is really the only way to truly grasp our present situation in all its complexity. History is like a friend who is always honest, who tells you the good and the bad. The decision on whether to listen is up to you.

Ross Coen is a historian and adjunct faculty member at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This essay first appeared in The Ester Republic.