Reconstruction, 1865-1890

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Author: Frederic Bancroft  | Date: 1867

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The Purchase of Alaska

THE purchase of Alaska has often been called Seward’s greatest service to his country. A vast territory which Russia acquired by right of discovery and held for considerably more than a century was sold to the United States before hardly a dozen Americans knew that such a proposition was even under consideration. There is a tradition that during Polk’s administration something was said to Russia about parting with her possessions in North America. It is certain that as early as 1859 Senator Gwin and the Assistant Secretary of State discussed the question with Stoeckl, the Russian Minister at Washington, and that as much as five million dollars was offered. The official answer was that this sum was not regarded as adequate, but that Russia would be ready to carry on negotiations as soon as the Minister of Finance could look into the question. There was no occasion for haste; Buchanan soon went out of office; and the subject, which was never known to many persons, seems to have been entirely forgotten for several years.

The interests of a few citizens on the Pacific slope were the mainspring of the little that had been done. For more than a decade San Francisco had annually received a large amount of ice from Russian America, and United States fishermen had been profitably engaged in different parts of the far northern Pacific. Those interests had rapidly increased from year to year. At the beginning of 1866 the legislature of Washington Territory sent a petition to President Johnson, saying that an abundance of codfish, halibut and salmon had been found along the shores of Russian America, and requesting him to obtain from the Russian government such concessions as would enable American fishing vessels to visit the ports and harbors of that region for the purpose of obtaining fuel, water and provisions. Sumner says that this was referred to the Secretary of State, who suggested to Stoeckl that some comprehensive arrangement should be made to prevent any difficulties arising between the United States and Russia on account of the fisheries. About this time several Californians wished to obtain a franchise to carry on the fur-trade in Russian America. Senator Cole, of California, urged both Seward and Stoeckl to support the request. Seward instructed Cassius M. Clay, the United States Minister at St. Petersburg, to consult the Russian government on the subject. Clay reported on February, 1867, that there was a prospect of success. In fact, the time happened to be peculiarly opportune for negotiation.

Russian America had never been brought under the regular rule of the imperial government. Since the beginning of the century its few thousand civilized inhabitants had been governed by a great monopoly called the Russian-American Company. Its charter had expired with the year 1861, and had not been renewed; yet a renewal was expected. This monopoly was so unprofitable that it had sought and obtained special privileges, such as the free importation of tea into Russia. It had even sublet some of its privileges to the Hudson Bay Company. This sublease to Englishmen was to expire in June, 1867. By the usual means of communication Russian America was from Russia one of the most distant regions on earth. To organize it as a colony would involve great expense and continuous financial loss. To defend it in time of war with Great Britain or the United States would be an impossibility. When the Crimean war broke out common interest led the Russian-American and the Hudson Bay companies to induce their respective governments to neutralize the Russian and the British possessions on the northwest coast of America. Otherwise Great Britain might easily have seized the Russian Territory. To the imperial government at the beginning of 1867 the problem resolved itself into these three questions: Shall the charter of the monopoly, with its privileges and unsatisfactory treatment of the inhabitants, be renewed? Shall an expensive colonial system be organized? Shall we sell at a fair price territory that will surely be lost, if it ever becomes populated and valuable? It was foreseen that unless sold to the most constant and grateful of Russia’s friends, it was likely to be taken by her strongest and most inveterate enemy. Stoeckl was spending part of the winter of 1866-67 in St. Petersburg, and the different questions were talked over with him, for he had long been Minister to the United States. In February, 1867, as he was about to return to Washington, "the Archduke Constantine, the brother and chief adviser of the Emperor, handed him a map with the lines in our treaty marked upon it, and told him he might treat for this cession.

The following month Stoeckl and Seward began negotiations. One named ten million dollars as a reasonable price; the other offered five millions. Then they took the middle ground—namely, seven million five hundred thousand—as a basis. Seward urged and Stoeckl agreed that the half million should be dropped. The Russian-American Company still claimed privileges and held interests that could not be ignored. Seward saw the objections to assuming any responsibility for matters of this kind; so he offered to add two hundred thousand dollars to the seven millions if Russia would give a title free from all liabilities. On the evening of March 29, 1867, the Russian Minister called at Seward’s house and informed him of the receipt of a cablegram reporting the Emperor’s consent to the proposition, and then he added that he would be ready to take up the final work the next day, for haste was desirable. With a smile of satisfaction at the news, Seward pushed aside the table where he had been enjoying his usual evening game of whist, and said: "Why wait until tomorrow, Mr. Stoeckl? Let us make the treaty to-night." The needed clerks were summoned; the Assistant Secretary went after Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs; the Russian Minister sent for his assistants; and at midnight all met at the Department of State. By four O’clock in the morning the task was completed. In a few hours the President sent the treaty to the Senate.

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Chicago: Frederic Bancroft, "The Purchase of Alaska (Bancroft)," Reconstruction, 1865-1890 in America, Vol.9, Pp.38-42 Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2020, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L8FJGVNPRCRJ4K.

MLA: Bancroft, Frederic. "The Purchase of Alaska (Bancroft)." Reconstruction, 1865-1890, in America, Vol.9, Pp.38-42, Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2020. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L8FJGVNPRCRJ4K.

Harvard: Bancroft, F, 'The Purchase of Alaska (Bancroft)' in Reconstruction, 1865-1890. cited in , America, Vol.9, Pp.38-42. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2020, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4L8FJGVNPRCRJ4K.