March 30: Seward's Two Cents

This Day in History

On this day in 1867, Secretary of State William Seward bought the Alaska territory from Russia in what became known later as “Seward’s Folly.” Although Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959 (as the second to last state to be admitted to the union), the purchase of the territory was significant to the history of the United States and to the world for not only adding thousands of square miles to the United States map, but also potentially evading a second war between Russia and England.

Following the end of the Crimean War in 1856, the Russians were eager to sell “Russian America” (present-day Alaska) to the highest bidder. The North American territory lay dangerously close to the British colony city of Vancouver, which was increasing in population and military strength.

Fearing the British would capture his vulnerable territory, which was largely unoccupied and difficult to protect from across the Bering Sea, Russian Emperor Alexander II was impatient to sell the land. Great Britain showed little interest, however, further solidifying Russia’s fear that a war was near. At the time of the first offer, the United States was more troubled with the Civil War- and could not be bothered with a seemingly trivial purchase.

Secretary of State William Seward

Russian diplomats proposed the offer once more after the Civil War.  At the time, however, President Johnson was entangled in the aftermath of the Civil War, in addition to the looming threat of impeachment. Needless to say, purchasing a vast land mass largely in the arctic circle was the least of his concerns. So he delegated the possible acquisition to his Secretary of State, William Seward.

A staunch advocate for American expansion, Seward whole-heartedly championed the idea of purchasing the Russian territory, which would add 586,412 square miles to the United States holdings. More tempting than the augmentation of land was the extremely affordable asking price: $7.2 million (or two cents an acre). 

Although the deal was an incredible bargain for the United States, many political opponents of Johnson ridiculed Seward for buying “an arctic wasteland.” Alaska’s natural resources were virtually unknown at the time. To the general public, Seward’s purchase seemed foolish and unnecessary.  With the discovery of gold in 1898, however, Alaska experienced a rapid influx of settlers eager to prosper on the abundant treasures and opportunities on the newly christened American soil. In a great serendipitous reversal, Seward’s had enriched and contributed greatly to the financial development of the United States of America. 

And that was Seward’s two-cents worth!

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