Reconstruction, 1865-1890

Author: James G. Blaine  | Date: 1868

The Purchase of Alaska

The purchase of Alaska was completed by the Act of July 27, 1868, which appropriated the amount agreed upon in the treaty of March 30, 1867—negotiated by Mr. Seward on behalf of the United States, and by Baron Stoeckl representing the Emperor of all the Russias. The Russian Government had initiated the matter, and desired to sell much more earnestly than the United States desired to buy. There is little doubt that a like offer from any other European government would have been rejected. The pressure of our financial troubles, the fact that gold was still at a high premium, suggested the absolute necessity of economy in every from in which it could be exercised; and in the general judgment of the people the last thing we needed was additional territory. There was, however, a feeling of marked kindliness toward Russia; and this, no doubt, had great weight with Mr. Seward when he assented to the obvious wishes of that Government.

But while there was no special difficulty in securing the ratification of the treaty by the Senate, a more serious question arose when the House was asked to appropriate the necessary amount to fulfil the obligation. Seven million two hundred thousand dollars in gold represented at that time more than ten million dollars in the currency of the Government; and many Republicans felt, on the eve, or rather in the midst, of a Presidential canvass, that it was a hazardous political step (deeply in debt as the Government was, and with its paper still at heavy discount) to embark in the speculation of acquiring a vast area of "rocks and ice," as Alaska was termed in the popular and derisive description of Mr. Seward’s purchase.

When the bill came before the House, General Banks, as Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, urged the appropriation with great earnestness, not merely because of the obligation imposed upon the Government by the treaty, which he ably presented; not merely by reason of the intrinsic value of the teritory, which he abundantly demonstrated; but especialy on account of the fact that Russia was the other party to the treaty, and had for nearly a century shown a most cordial disposition toward the United States. General Banks maintained that at every step of our history, from 1780 to the moment when he was speaking, Russia had been our friend. "In the darkest hour of our peril," said he, "during the Rebellion, when we were enacting a history which no man yet thoroughly comprehends, when France and England were contemplating the recognition of the Confederacy, the whole world was thrilled by the appearance in San Francisco of a fleet of Russian war-vessels, and nearly at the same time, whetherby accident or design, a second Russian fleet appeared in the harbor of New York. Who knew how many more there were on their voyage here? From that hour France, on the one hand, and England on the other, receded, and the American Government regained its position and its power.

Mr. Cadwalader C. Washburn answered the speech of General Banks on the succeeding day (July 1, 1868). He assumed the leadership of the opposition to the treaty. He proposed to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the House five distinct propositions: "First, that at the time the treaty for Alaska was negotiated, and in a manner to prevent the representatives of the people from being heard; third, that by existing treaties we possess every right that is of any value to us, without the responsibility and never-ending expense of governing a nation of savages; fourth, that the country ceded is absolutely without value; fifth, that it is the right and duty of the House to inquire into the treaty, and to vote or not vote the money, according to its best judgment." Mr. Washburn made an able speech in support of his radical propositions.

General Butler sustained Mr. Washburn’s position in a characteristic speech, especially answering General Bank’s argument that we should pay this amount from a spirit of friendship for Russia. "If," said General Butler, "we are to pay this price as usury on the friendship of Russia, we are paying for it very dear indeed. If we are to pay for her friendship, I desire to give her the seven million two hundred thousand dollars in cash, andlet her keep Alaska, because I think it may be a small sum to give for the friendship if we could only get rid of the land, or rather the ice, which we are to get by paying for it." He maintained that it was in evidence before the House officially, "that for ten years the entire product of the whole country of Alaska did not exceed three million dollars."

Mr. Peters, of Maine, pronounced the territory "intrinsically valueless; the conclusive proof of which is found in the fact that Russia is willing to sell it." He criticized the action of the Senate in negotiating the treaty. "If the treaty-making power can buy, they can sell. If they can buy land with money, they can buy money with land. If they can buy a part of a country, they can buy the whole of a country. If they can sell a part of our country, they can sell the whole of it!"

Mr. Spalding, of Ohio, on the other hand, maintained that "notwithstanding all the sneers that have been cast on Alaska, if it could be sold again, individuals would take it off our hands and pay us two or three millions for the bargain."

General Schenck thought the purchase in itself highly objectionable, but was "willing to vote the money because the treaty has been made with a friendly power; one of those that stood by us—almost the only one that stood by us when all the rest of the powers of the world seemed to be turning away from us in our recent troubles."

Mr. Stevens supported the measure on the ground that it was a valuable acquisition to the wealth and power of the country. He argued also in favor of the right of the Senate to make the treaty.

Mr. Leonard Myers was sure that if we did not acquire Alaska it would be transferred to Great Britain. "The nation," said he, "which struggled so hard for Vancouver and her present Pacific boundary, and which still insists on having the little island of San Juan, will never let such an opportunity slip. Canada, as matters now stand, would become ours some day could her people learn to be Americans; but never, if England secures Alaska."

Mr. Higby, of California, answered the objections relating to climate. "I do not know," said he, "whether the people of the East yet believe what has been so often declared, that our winters on the Pacific are nearly as mild as our summers, and yet such is the fact. In my own little village, situated over fourteen hundred feet above the level of the ocean, I have seen a plant growing in the earth green through all the months from October to April."

Mr. Shellabarger opposed the purchase. He said those nations which had been compact and solid had been the most enduring, while those which had the most extended territory lasted the least space of time….

General Butler moved a proviso, that "the payment of $500,000 of said appropriation be withheld until the Imperial Government of Russia shall signify its willingness to refer to an impartial tribunal all such claims by American citizens against the Imperial Government as have been investigated by the State Department of the United States and declared to be just, and the amounts so awarded to be paid from said $500,000 so withheld."

General Garfield, presiding at the time over the Committee of the Whole, ruled it out of order, and on an appeal being taken the decision was sustained by ayes 93, noes 27. After dilatory motions and the offer of various amendments, which were rejected, the bill was passed by ayes 113, noes 43.

The House prefaced the bill by a preamble, asserting in effect that "the subjects embraced in the treaty are among those which by the Constitution are submitted to the power of Congress, and over which Congress has jurisdiction; and for these reasons, it is necessary that the consent of Congress should be given to the said stipulations before the same can have full force and effect." There was no mention of the Senate’s ratification, merely a reference to the fact that "the President has entered into a treaty with the Emperor of Russia, and has agreed to pay him the sum of seven million two hundred thousand dollars in coin." The House by this preamble evidently claimed that its consent to the treaty was just as essential as the consent of the Senate—that it was, in short, a subject for the consideration of Congress.

The Senate was unwilling to admit such a pretension, especially when put forth by the House in this bald form, and therefore rejected it unanimously. The matter was sent to a conference, and by changing the preamble a compromise was promptly effected, which preserved the rank and dignity of both branches. It declared that "whereas the President had entered into a treaty with the Emperor of Russia, and the Senate thereafter gives its advice and consent to said treaty . . . andwhereas said stipulations can not be carried into full force and effect, except by legislation to which the consent of both Houses of Congress is necessary; therefore be it enacted that there be appropriated the sum of $7,200,000" for the purpose named. With this compromise the bill was readily passed, and became a law by the President’s approval July 27, 1868….

The important transaction was not closed without a feeling of resentment in Congress against Mr. Seward, because of his going so far in the negotiation without reserving any judgment for other departments of the Government. The treaty with Russia was absolute in its terms. There was no qualifying clause making its fulfilment dependent upon the appropriation of the money by Congress. By the time Congress had the subject under consideration, Russia had removed her military guard and surrendered the territory to President Johnson, who had taken formal possession of it in the name of the United States. Our flag was hoisted where that of Russia had lately floated. It was no doubt r. Seward’s intention by this course to render a withholding of the purchase money by Congress impossible, and it must be confest that the moral coercion was skilfully applied and was found to be irresistible. Mr. Seward did not consider the treaty from a financial point of view. He knew intuitively that the territory was worth more to the United States than to any other power; and he knew that at the most critical point in our Civil War the outspoken friendship of Russia had been worth to the cause of the American Union many times over the amount we were about to pay for Alaska.

From the time of the acquisition of Louisiana until the purchase of Alaska, the additions of territory to the United States had all been in the interest of slavery. Louisiana, stretching across the entire country from South to North, was of equal value to each section; but the acquisition of Florida, the annexation of Texas, the territory acquired form Mexico by the treaty of Gaudalupe Hidalgo, with the addition of Arizona under the Gadsden treaty, were all made under the lead of Southern statesmen to strengthen the political power and the material resources of the South. Meanwhile, by the inexcusable errors of the Democratic party, and especially of Democratic diplomacy, we lost that vast tract on the north known as British Columbia, the possession of which, after the acquisition of Alaska, would have given to the United States the continuous frontage on the Pacific Ocean from the south line of California to Bering’s Straits. Looking northward for territory, instead of southward, was a radical change of policy in the conduct of the Government—a policy which, happily and appropriately, it was the good fortune of Mr. Seward to initiate under impressive and significant circumstances.


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Chicago: James G. Blaine, "The Purchase of Alaska (Blaine)," Reconstruction, 1865-1890 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.98-105 Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2024,

MLA: Blaine, James G. "The Purchase of Alaska (Blaine)." Reconstruction, 1865-1890, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.98-105, Original Sources. 29 May. 2024.

Harvard: Blaine, JG, 'The Purchase of Alaska (Blaine)' in Reconstruction, 1865-1890. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.9, Pp.98-105. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2024, from