Friday, October 19, 2007

Alaskan History 101: Why The United States Got Alaska For Only $7.2 Million

In 1867, for a price of a mere $7.2 million, America got 365 million acres of land and another 13 million of water, at slightly less than two cents an acre. 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 1.1 people 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.

It also gave the United States the most diverse national territory in the world. Today the United States is the only country whose territory encompasses arctic, temperate, and tropical areas.

But do you know why we got Alaska for such a pittance? Part of the reason was that the Imperial Russian government concluded that is simply was just too far away to effectively exploit and defend.

But the main reason was that they didn't want the British to get it. Russia and Britain fought each other in the Crimean War from 1854-1856. As a result, in 1857, Tsar Alexander II instructed his minister in Washington, Eduard de Stoeckl, to sound out the American government about a sale. De Stoeckl was the Russians' leading expert of the United States, having been posted to Washington since 1841, and even marrying an American woman, Elisa Howard.

Negotiations began in 1859, but America dawdled, primarily because of the Civil War. Once that was concluded, Washington resumed negotiations in February 1867. By this time William Seward (pictured above left) was Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson. After an all-night session, agreement was reached on the morning of March 30th, 1867.

However, Seward needed help to seal the deal. And it was forthcoming - from an unlikely source. Senator Charles Sumner, a Radical Republican from Massachusetts who helped impose a brutal Reconstruction upon the defeated Confederacy, just happened to be head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which would have to approve the treaty and send it to the full Senate. And he supported the acquisition - not in the least because Russia had backed the North in the Civil War, while Britain had been at best an unfriendly neutral. Sumner argued that we should help those who had helped us. Furthermore, by purchasing Alaska, he argued, we would “dismiss one more monarch from this continent.” He noted that the French and Spanish kings had already departed from North America and now the tsar was going. The implication was clear that Queen Victoria would be next.

On April 9th, 1867, the treaty was ratified by the Senate, 27 to 12, barely above the necessary two-thirds majority (a subsequent ceremonial vote to make the approval unanimous was carried by a vote of 37 to 2). The House had no constitutional say in whether to approve the treaty, but it had to approve the appropriation of money. Some thought the price was too high. However, in fiscal year 1867 the government had revenues of $491 million and expenses of $347 million. With a huge surplus that year, $7.2 million was not a problem. The House finally approved the money in July 1868, by a vote of 113 to 48. By that time, of course, Alaska was already in American hands.

But what was characterized as "Seward's Folly" during the 19th century may have turned out to be America's salvation in the 20th century. How much would we be paying at the pump without Alaska oil? How would the Cold War have been fought and won with a Russian foorhold on the North American continent? Where would Ted Stevens be sending pork?

Do you think we would have bought Alaska had we lost the Civil War?

Read this interesting and informative article in full on the American Heritage website.

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