Seward, signer of Alaska purchase, honored Monday

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2007

"Know Ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the Patriotism, Integrity and Abilities of William H. Seward, of New York, I have nominated and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, do appoint him to be Secretary of State of the United States."

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Scripted in elegant calligraphy, signed by Abraham Lincoln and dated March 5, 1861, the certificate of appointment naming William Henry Seward as U.S. Secretary of State hangs in an upstairs gallery of Seward House, the historic home of William H. Seward. Located in Auburn, N.Y., the house is now a 15-room museum and home to Seward's collection of art, historical documents, photographs, books, period furniture and household items.

For a $6 admission fee, visitors to Seward's House are treated to a professional docent-led tour that provides historical context, fascinating details and interesting anecdotes about one of Alaska's (not just New York's) most important historical figures.

William Henry Seward had served as governor of New York for eight years then U.S. senator from New York for 12 years. After losing the 1860 Republican presidential primary election to Abraham Lincoln, Seward faithfully campaigned for Lincoln. Believing that he owed it to the country to make use of Seward's talents, Abraham Lincoln appointed him secretary of state and before long Seward emerged as Lincoln's closest adviser in the cabinet.

Seward's two greatest accomplishments in public office were his participation in the writing of the Emancipation Proclamation and negotiating the Alaska Purchase Treaty. He was an ardent expansionist and fervent proponent of Manifest Destiny.

In the early hours of March 30, 1867, Seward and the Russian minister to the United States, Edouard de Stoeckl, signed a treaty under which the United States would purchase Alaska for $7.2 million in gold. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on April 9, 1867, by a vote of 37-2.

Seward's nemesis for most of his political career was Horace Greeley. From the 1840s to the 1870s Greeley was the editor of the New York Tribune, America's most influential newspaper. Seward's loss in the Republican presidential primary was due in part to Greeley's attacks, and the hammering continued as Seward campaigned vigorously for the purchase of Alaska.

The "Alaska Room" of Seward's House contains oversized reproductions of newspaper cartoons lampooning the Purchase Treaty and quotations from negative newspaper editorials detailing the "Dark Deed Done in the Night that shocked an unsuspecting American public." Because of the bad press, many Americans were swayed by Greeley's opposition, calling the purchase "Seward's folly," "Seward's icebox," Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden" or "Walrussia."

Also in the Alaska Room is the original oil painting by Emanuel Leutze, "Signing of the Alaskan Treaty." Two copies of this historic painting were made in 1934. One hangs in the Department of the Interior Treaty Room in Washington, D.C., and the other in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

The purchase of Alaska marked the virtual close of Seward's public career. In 1868, Ulysses S. Grant was elected President to succeed Andrew Johnson who had narrowly escaped impeachment. After packing up his Washington, D.C., house, Seward returned to Auburn in March 1869.

In June, Seward traveled via the newly-built transcontinental railroad from Rochester to Sacramento, Calif., to visit Alaska and then Mexico. A highlight of the six-month trip was a stop in Sitka. In his speech there on Aug. 12, 1869, Seward praised Alaska's scenery and its resources and predicted that it would become one of the states in the Union.

"Within the period of my own recollection, I have seen 20 new states added to the 18 which before that time constituted the American union, and I now see, besides Alaska, 10 territories in a forward condition of preparation for entering into the same great political family. ... These, citizens of Sitka, are the guaranties, not only that Alaska has a future, but that that future has already begun."

Ninety years ago, the third Alaska Territorial Legislature designated the last Monday of March as Seward's Day to commemorate the signing of the Alaska Purchase Treaty on March 30, 1867. This year, we celebrate the 140th anniversary of Seward's Day on March 26.

• Paulette Simpson has been a docent at the Alaska State Museum since 1977 and is president of the Alaska Federation of Republican Women.

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