Author: Charles Sumner  | Date: 1875

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Purchase of Alaska (1867)


1. ADVANTAGES to the Pacific Coast. — Foremost in order, if not in importance, I put the desires of our fellow-citizens on the Pacific coast, and the special advantages they will derive from this enlargement of boundary. They were the first to ask for it, and will be the first to profit by it. . . .

These well-known desires were founded, of course, on supposed advantages; and here experience and neighborhood were prompters. Since 1854 the people of California have received their ice from the freshwater lakes in the island of Kadiak, not far westward from Mount St. Elias. Later still, their fishermen have searched the waters about the Aleutians and the Shumagins, commencing a promising fishery. Others have proposed to substitute themselves for the Hudson’s Bay Company in their franchise on the coast. But all are looking to the Orient, as in the time of Columbus, although like him they sail to the west. To them China and Japan, those ancient realms of fabulous wealth, are the Indies. . . .

The absence of harbors belonging to the United States on the Pacific limits the outlets of the country. On that whole extent, from Panama to Puget Sound, the only harbor of any considerable value is San Francisco. Further north the harbors are abundant, and they are all nearer to the great marts of Japan and China. But San Francisco itself will be nearer by the way of the Aleutians than by Honolulu. . . .

The advantages to the Pacific coast have two aspects, — one domestic, and the other foreign. Not only does the treaty extend the coasting trade of California, Oregon, and Washington Territory northward, but it also extends the base of commerce with China and Japan.

To unite the East of Asia with the West of America is the aspiration of commerce now as when the English navigator recorded his voyage. Of course, whatever helps this result is an advantage. The Pacific Railroad is such an advantage; for, though running westward, it will be, when completed, a new highway to the East. This treaty is another advantage; for nothing can be clearer than that the western coast must exercise an attraction which will be felt in China and Japan just in proportion as it is occupied by a commercial people communicating readily with the Atlantic and with Europe. This cannot be without consequences not less important politically than commercially. Owing so much to the Union, the people there will be bound to it anew, and the national unity will receive another confirmation. Thus the whole country will be a gainer. So are we knit together that the advantages to the Pacific coast will contribute to the general welfare.

2. Extension of Dominion. — The extension of dominion is another consideration calculated to captivate the public mind. . . .

The passion for acquisition, so strong in the individual, is not less strong in the community. A nation seeks an outlying territory, as an individual seeks an outlying farm. . . . It is common to the human family. There are few anywhere who could hear of a considerable accession of territory, obtained peacefully and honestly, without a pride of country, even if at certain moments the judgment hesitated. With increased size on the map there is increased consciousness of strength, and the heart of the citizen throbs anew as he traces the extending line.

3. Extension of Republican Institutions. — More than the extension of dominion is the extension of republican institutions, which is a traditional aspiration. . . .

John Adams, in the preface to his Defence of the American Constitutions . . . thus for a moment lifts the curtain: "Thirteen governments," he says plainly, "thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, without a pretence of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, are a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind." . . .

By the text of our Constitution, the United States are bound to guaranty "a republican form of government" to every State in the Union; but this obligation, which is applicable only at home, is an unquestionable indication of the national aspiration everywhere. The Republic is something more than a local policy; it is a general principle, not to be forgotten at any time, especially when the opportunity is presented of bringing an immense region within its influence. . . .

The present treaty is a visible step in the occupation of the whole North American continent. As such it will be recognized by the world and accepted by the American people. But the treaty involves something more. We dismiss one other monarch from the continent. One by one they have retired, — first France, then Spain, then France again, and now Russia, — all giving way to the absorbing Unity declared in the national motto, E pluribus unum.

4. Anticipation of Great Britain. — Another motive to this acquisition may be found in the desire to anticipate imagined schemes or necessities of Great Britain. With regard to all these I confess doubt; and yet, if we credit report, it would seem as if there were already a British movement in this direction. . . .

5. Amity of Russia. — There is still another consideration concerning this treaty not to be disregarded. It attests and assures the amity of Russia. Even if you doubt the value of these possessions, the treaty is a sign of friendship. It is a new expression of that entente cordiale between the two powers which is a phenomenon of history. Though unlike in institutions, they are not unlike in recent experience. Sharers of common glory in a great act of Emancipation, they also share together the opposition or antipathy of other nations. Perhaps this experience has not been without effect in bringing them together. At all events, no coldness or unkindness has interfered at any time with their good relations.

. . . The Rebellion, which tempted so many other powers into its embrace, could not draw Russia from her habitual good-will. Her solicitude for the Union was early declared. She made no unjustifiable concession of ocean belligerence, with all its immunities and powers, to Rebels in arms against the Union. She furnished no hospitality to Rebel cruisers, nor was any Rebel agent ever received, entertained, or encouraged at St. Petersburg, — while, on the other hand, there was an understanding that the United States should be at liberty to carry prizes into Russian ports. So natural and easy were the relations between the two Governments, that such complaints as incidentally arose on either side were amicably adjusted by verbal explanations without written controversy. . . .

In relations such as I have described, the cession of territory seems a natural transaction, entirely in harmony with the past. It remains to hope that it may be a new link in an amity which, without effort, has overcome differences of institutions and intervening space on the globe. . . .

At all events, now that the treaty has been signed by plenipotentiaries on each side duly empowered, it is difficult to see how we can refuse to complete the purchase without putting to hazard the friendly relations which happily subsist between the United States and Russia. The overtures originally proceeded from us. After a delay of years, and other intervening propositions, the bargain was at length concluded. It is with nations as with individuals. A bargain once made must be kept. Even if still open to consideration, it must not be lightly abandoned. I am satisfied that the dishonoring of this treaty, after what has passed, would be a serious responsibility for our country. As an international question, it would be tried by the public opinion of the world; and there are many who, not appreciating the requirement of our Constitution by which a treaty must have "the advice and consent of the Senate," would regard its rejection as bad faith. There would be jeers at us, and jeers at Russia also: at us for levity in making overtures, and at Russia for levity in yielding to them. . . .

Charles Sumner, (Boston, 1875), XI, 216–23 2 passim.

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Chicago: Charles Sumner, Works in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed July 24, 2024,

MLA: Sumner, Charles. Works, Vol. XI, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 24 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Sumner, C, Works. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 24 July 2024, from