Southeast Sagas: Buying the 'icebox' got Seward little credit

Posted: Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Probably every eighth-grader in the state knows who William Henry Seward is and how this former presidential candidate is involved with Alaska's history. However, in his own time, the 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians for which he was responsible was often discounted as an achievement. Many, in fact, considered the new territory an embarrassment.

This fact can be seen in contemporaneous sources, including the substantial biographical article written by Henry Cabot Lodge and published in Harper's Weekly in May 1884. (The article is now part of the "Cornell Making of America" collection at the Cornell University Library.)

Lodge calls Seward a man of "great ability and vigorous character" expressed in "wisdom, moderation, [and] firmness."

Like Abraham Lincoln, Seward he got his start as a country lawyer with political ambitions. Seward wrote in 1833, "Enthusiasm for the right and ambition for personal distinction are passions of which I cannot divest myself; and while every day's experience is teaching me that the former is the very agent which must defeat the latter, I am far from believing that I should be more happy were I to withdraw altogether from political action."

During Seward's years in the U.S. Senate he faced a majority of "desperate and fierce" slaveholders for 10 years, Lodge notes, "but argued with unsurpassed clearness and courage the cause of freedom."

During the Civil War, Seward dissuaded Britain from recognizing the Confederacy. He also pressured France to withdraw from Mexico. He was considered as much an enemy of the South as President Lincoln; he was wounded by a would-be assassin on the same night that Lincoln was murdered.

Lodge notes that, after recovering, Seward remained as Secretary of State under Andrew Johnson. He retired from politics at the end of Johnson's term in March 1869. During his retirement he visited Alaska and Mexico, and took a trip around the world. This mention of Alaska would have been a natural spot for Lodge to say something about the Alaska Purchase - but there is not a word.

A second contemporaneous source about Seward which does not mention the Alaska Purchase is "The Seward Memorial," a limited edition hardcover publication commemorating the unveiling of a statue of Seward in New York on Sept. 17, 1876. The 28-page book includes a description of the statue and a list of subscribers. According to the text, New York City had very few statues at the time. But Seward's long career in New York State made him a suitable subject for a public monument.

William Seward was born in New York State in 1801, served as state senator, and, in 1838, won his first term as governor. He was reelected in 1840, returning to private law practice in 1842. He was elected to the United States Senate in 1849. A former Whig who became a member of the newly-organized Republican party, he became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.

"His was a career that stamped itself ineffaceably upon the history of his country and his time; his an influence that will mould the future of republican government; his a name that sheds unfading luster on his native State," the "Memorial" states.

Richard Schell first promoted a statue of Seward in 1873. An executive committee that included Chester A. Arthur and Frederick Law Olmsted was then formed to raise funds for the project. Sculptor Randolph Rogers was an early friend of Seward, and Seward had given him money to study his art in Italy. When the committee approached him, Rogers said he could produce a bronze for $25,000. The money was raised through 250 subscriptions. The subscribers included chiefly residents of New York City, with a few from Washington (President U.S. Grant among them), one from Milwaukee, and two from Buffalo. But no one from Alaska, although the Alaska Fur Company (headquartered in NYC) might be said to stand in for that locale.

The completed model, cast in Munich, was erected at a prominent location, on the southwestern corner of Madison Square. An anonymous critique of the statue in the "Memorial" notes that Seward's chin, "which retreated and was decidedly the weakest feature" in his face, has been made more prominent by Rogers. Furthermore, the critique goes on, "In the same spirit he has added a very little to the cerebellum, and the result is a head which will be instantly recognized by anyone who ever saw the original, because it exteriorly expresses the intellectual qualities of the man."

William Martin, president of the N.Y. Park Commission; John Bigelow, secretary of state of the State of New York; Mayor William Wickham and others supplied the afternoon's oratory. Much was said about Seward's illustrious career, the traits of his character, and his high principles. There was no mention, however, of Alaska. The inscription on the pedestal read, "William H. Seward, Governor, Senator, Secretary of State of U.S."

Eskimos, Athabascans and Tlingits knew about Alaska 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. But Caucasians did not reach its shores until 250 years ago. There had been rumors. For example, a map in the 1727 edition of "Gulliver's Travels" in the Alaska Historical Library shows the land of Brobdingnag on an immense peninsula jutting out from North America. The peninsula resembles Alaska in size and shape as well as location.

The real-life Brobdingnag eluded Caucasians until 1741, when Vitus Bering, a Danish explorer in the service of the Russian navy, sighted a peak from the Gulf of Alaska and named the peak Mount St. Elias. Bering's crew was shipwrecked, and Bering himself died of scurvy. The survivors of the Bering expedition did not reach Siberia until nine months later, bringing reports of sea otters and other fur bearers. These reports soon lead to an invasion of Siberian fur hunters.

Explorers from other countries followed, with James Cook and George Vancouver of Great Britain compiling some of the first reliable charts of the Alaskan coast. Slowly awareness of the Great Land filtered out, and expansionists like William Henry Seward took note. In the fall of 1860, Seward noted that the Russians were establishing forts, seaports and towns on that coast.

"Go on," he said, "and build up your outposts all along the coast, up even to the Arctic Ocean - they will yet become the outposts of my own country - monuments of the civilization of the United States in the northwest."

Although the Cold War has colored late 20th-century attitudes toward Russia, that country played an important part in achieving Lincoln's goal in the Civil War -the preservation of the Union. Russia contributed materially toward preventing British and French recognition of and aid to the Confederacy. Seward's involvement with the diplomatic corps and especially his relationship with Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, Russian Minister to the United States, were crucial to achieving this goal. (See Albert Woldman's Lincoln and the Russians for more on this subject.)

Not long after the end of the Civil War, word reached Seward that Russia wished to sell its colony. Seward and de Stoeckl labored until four in the morning of March 30, 1867, to draw up a treaty of cession before Congress adjourned. Seward gave a three-hour speech to Congress about the value of Alaska. Critics grumbled that "Seward's Icebox" or "Walrussia" contained only a few "wretched fish." But Congress eventually approved the purchase, and appropriated $7.2 million to clinch the deal. The ceremonial transfer took place in Sitka, the capital of Russian America, on October 18, 1867. The raising of the Stars and Stripes marked the end of 126 years of tsarist exploration and rule on the North American continent.

And thus we celebrate Seward's Day.

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