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Why the William Henry Seward statues should be removed

  • Author: Steve Langdon
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 27
  • Published July 27

The statue of William Henry Seward wears a cloth mask in front of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (James Brooks / ADN)

William Henry Seward promoted and succeeded in getting the United States to purchase Russian claims to and interests in Alaska. To recognize his efforts, statues have been funded by private parties and erected on public land in Juneau and Anchorage. Seward promoted the purchase of Alaska as a part of his vision of an American “empire” for “Anglo-Saxons.” He was the anointed heir to the vision articulated by President John Quincy Adams as “Manifest Destiny.” For Adams, this phrase encapsulated his belief that God’s will was for the continent to “be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, possessing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs.” American “exceptionalist” history as taught in schools frames “Manifest Destiny” as a heroic vision of geographic expansion brought about by intrepid white pioneers. It does not identify the inherent racist characteristic of this position by noting that “one people” meant “Anglo-Saxons.” Nor was it made clear that the further implication of this message was a justification for and rationalization of genocide against Native Americans.

William Henry Seward was an avid supporter of “Manifest Destiny” and early in his career began developing his more expansive view of American destiny as one of empire. In a speech in 1844 entitled “Elements of Empire in America,” Seward outlined his position that national greatness as a matter of natural law is expressed by expansion. Seward considered the innate superiority of especially Anglo-Saxons but also Germanic and Norman Americans incontestable. He operated on the premise that over time, Anglo-Saxon Americans would so overwhelm Native ones that the latter would disappear because of some combination of disease, inability to adapt to American-style civilization, or war.

In Oregon, emboldened by this doctrine, white American militias engaged in systematic campaigns of Native American extermination in the mid-1850s allowed by U.S. Army forces in the area. To fulfill the racial mandate of “Manifest Destiny” the original state constitution of Oregon barred blacks from residing there. In 1860, in recognition of his support for Oregon statehood, Seward was nominated for president at the Republican convention by Horace Greeley, head of the Oregon delegation.

In keeping with his vision of American empire, Seward was a strong supporter of California statehood as well. In his Senate address in March 1859, one can see both his view on Native Americans in that territory and the language he uses presages how he would later characterize Alaska’s Indigenous peoples in 1869. He strongly advocated California receiving statehood sooner than later, to ensure that it was an inviting environment for Anglo-Saxon Americans to migrate to and republicanism to flourish. He stated in his speech in the Senate that “the aborigines, savage and civilized, being incapable of … assimilation and absorption, remain distinct; and owing to their peculiar condition, they constitute inferior masses, and may be regarded as accidental if not disturbing political forces. The ruling homogenous family ... is seen continually and rapidly spreading itself westward year by year ... and thus extending this great political community, ... having a common origin, a common language, a common religion, common sentiments, interests, sympathies, and hopes...” The language of “Manifest Destiny” almost exactly as framed decades earlier by John Quincy Adams cannot be clearer. Extermination campaigns on California Indians continued from 1846-1873. Evidence in Army reports, militia correspondence, legislative proceedings and budgetary records reveal a relentless, comprehensive, organized and well-funded killing machine bent upon exterminating a population of human beings simply for being Native American. Over 15,000 Indians were killed in organized militia massacres funded by the California legislature. Indeed, the land, filled with about 100 different tribes speaking 70 different languages, was cleared for the coming of the Anglo-Saxons

In 1869, Seward made a triumphant visit to Alaska to celebrate his purchase achievement during which he made several significant appearances. For purposes of this discussion, the most significant aspect of Seward’s visit was the speech he gave to Sitka residents on his return from visiting the Chilkat Tlingit in northern southeast Alaska. He referred to the Indigenous Alaskans who greeted him warmly and feted him grandly in Klukwan as “savages” who were “divided into so many insignificant nations” and “jealous, ambitious and violent.” Further, “it is manifest that they must steadily decline in numbers.” Finally, he asserted that Indigenous Alaskans, “can neither be preserved as a distinct social community, nor incorporated into our society. The Indian tribes will do here as they seem to have done in Washington Territory and British Columbia; they will merely serve the turn until civilized white men come.” This is clear acceptance of the disappearance of Indigenous Alaskans with the development of Alaska’s resources in furtherance of “manifest destiny” and realization of empire. Campaigns of extermination did not occur in Alaska, but Indigenous Alaskans were bombed, resources on which they depended for survival appropriated and endangered and communities forcibly relocated. Seward would have had no problem if exterminations had occurred based on what happened in Oregon and California.

As the “white” citizenry and institutions of the United States of America begin to directly face and engage in the reckoning that requires withdrawal from the propagandistic premises of formation and identity in white supremacy, the horror of “Manifest Destiny” must be faced and repudiated just as slavery and the Confederacy are. After several years of activism initiated by black students, Yale University has removed representations of John C. Calhoun, renowned South Carolinian defender of slavery and promoter of the Confederacy. Princeton University has decided to change the name of the Woodrow Wilson Center in recognition of the anti-black bigotry and support for segregation displayed by Wilson. The statue of Andrew Jackson, who promoted and implemented the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands in the southeast region, will be taken down in Jackson, Mississippi. Statutes of Theodore Roosevelt are being removed due to his racism toward Native Americans and support of American imperialism.

The call for the removal of Seward statues from presence on public lands is not a call for the removal of history but an invocation for a full and honest account about the nature of that history, and an examination of chest-beating propaganda characteristic of its telling. It is a call for removal of the statues to the State Museum in Juneau and the Anchorage Museum where textual materials clearly detail Seward’s views on “Manifest Destiny”, his interest in Alaska for its resources, and his dismissal of the claims and humanity of Indigenous Alaskans. It is the Alaskan reckoning with its American founding and at the same time is a call to the State of Alaska to take necessary actions to address the continuing denial of meaningful relations with Alaska Native tribes and forthrightly address other issues of concern to Indigenous Alaskans.

If there are to be public statues, they should be monuments to individuals in a place who have stood for and acted upon policies that bring justice, promote well-being and nurture existence. Several Alaskan political figures might warrant such consideration. Here is a short list. Commander Lester Beardslee dealt with Tlingit leaders evenhandedly recognizing their authority and working cooperatively with them to maintain peace. William Paul fought for indigenous rights and recognition of land claims under the established legal doctrines of the time and was instrumental in keeping language in the Statehood Act recognizing Indigenous claims. Sen. Bob Bartlett made sure that the language recognizing Indigenous claims was kept in the Alaska statehood bill. Marvin “Muktuk” Marston, alone among the delegates to the 1956 Constitutional Convention, spoke in favor of Native rights to lands and put forward specific proposals for Alaska Native lands. And of course, Elizabeth Peratrovitch.

In closing, the legislature of Mississippi voted to remove the Confederate “Stars and Bars” from the state flag. This action came after decades of efforts seeking change to the flag; fascinatingly, data show that public sentiment in Mississippi shifted from only about 40% support of changing the flag in a referendum in 2001 to more than 60% support in a recent poll. This shift is an indication of a remarkable sea change in Mississippian views on a flag in place for more than a century, no doubt prompted by recent events. It is my hope that Alaskans would recognize and support the removal of Seward statues from public lands in a timely fashion.

Long-time Alaskan Steve Langdon is an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and has authored numerous professional papers on various aspects of Native life in Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

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