Seward's Folly and the Acquisition of Alaska

Many people have heard the phrase, ‘Seward’s Folly’ and know that it’s somehow connected with the purchase of the state of Alaska. What they may not know are all of the interesting details surrounding this purchase. Secretary of State William H. Seward, President Andrew Johnson, and Russian Tsar Alexander II all played major roles in this historical purchase made back in 1867. The following looks at the some of the people and events involved in the purchase of Alaska.

Alaska was originally owned by the country of Russia. Russia had made efforts to sell Alaska to the United States even when President Buchanan was in office in the late 1850s. But, the United States was focused on the Civil War and didn’t have the time to discuss the idea of purchasing Alaska. The secretary of state at the time, a man named William H. Seward, recognized the benefits of expanding the United States. He thought that acquiring Alaska would greatly benefit the United States and pressed hesitant members of the Senate to agree. Eventually, with a deciding factor of just one vote, the treaty received ratification from the house. President Johnson signed the Treaty of Purchase in May of 1867. The document was signed by Tsar Alexander II of Russia and a few months later Alaska belonged to the United States for the price of $7.2 million.

The reaction of the Russian people was one of surprise. Many individuals questioned the decision of the Tsar to sell Alaska for a relatively small amount of money. Others agreed with Tsar Alexander’s actions by pointing out that the sale would serve to enhance a positive relationship with the U.S. In the United States, the public doubted the wisdom of the purchase. Some citizens couldn’t see the value in owning Alaska and others simply thought of the purchase as foolish. Many people living in the United States envisioned Alaska as just a sheet of ice with little practical value. Still an energetic advocate for the purchase, William H. Seward gave a speech in 1868 insisting that the acquisition of Alaska would prove beneficial to the United States.

The doubts of the American public concerning the purchase of Alaska renewed the misgivings of many members of Congress. Both citizens and members of Congress who were against any of the policies of President Andrew Johnson took the opportunity to condemn him for the purchase. In fact, this was an issue brought up when Congress later tried to impeach President Johnson. The purchase of Alaska became a part of the harsh criticism that President Johnson faced. Due to Seward’s involvement in the deal, he was also drawn into the flood of criticism.

As time went on, some publications, along with a vocal portion of the American public, expressed their anger with the purchase of Alaska. They claimed that there was a certain amount of secrecy attached to the purchase. Furthermore, some believed that the purchase of Alaska was simply a transaction to improve relations with the Russian Tsar. Unflattering political cartoons appeared that linked Seward and President Johnson together as partners in an ill-conceived purchase. There were many phrases created by detractors to sum up the purchase of Alaska. ‘Seward’s Folly,’ is the most well-known of those phrases.

Today, some historians believe that the criticism surrounding the purchase of Alaska had very little to do with Alaska itself. The opponents of President Johnson were going to use any weapon against him in order to remove him from the presidency and the Alaska purchase was just one of those political weapons.

Unfortunately, the phrase, ‘Seward’s Folly’ is still connected with Alaska’s history, however Seward’s prediction that Alaska would be beneficial to the United States turned out to be an accurate one. For instance, Alaska has many natural resources that add value to the United States. Forestry and fishing are both important industries in Alaska. Oil is also a major resource in Alaska. In short, the American citizens, publications, and elected officials who condemned the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867 had no concept of the resources hidden there. Like many Americans throughout history, William H. Seward was criticized (by some) during his lifetime for a decision that would later prove to be a wise one. 

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