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Summary Article: Alaska Purchase (1867)
from Encyclopedia of Politics of the American West

The Alaska Purchase refers to the acquisition of Russian America on March 30, 1867, which added nearly 600,000 square miles to the United States. By purchasing Alaska, the United States thanked Russia for its support during the Civil War, obtained valuable mineral resources, and gained important strategic outposts for trade in Asia. The treaty exemplified Secretary of State William H. Seward's vision of America as a commercial power in the Pacific.

In the late eighteenth century, Russian traders organized the Russian-American Company. American traders sought access to Alaska to engage in the fur trade, whaling, and fishing. To protect the company from foreign competitors, in 1821, the Russian government claimed ownership of the Pacific coast of North America to 51° north latitude and barred foreigners from commercial activity within 100 miles of the coast. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams contested Russia's right to occupy North American territory, which shaped the noncolonization principle of the Monroe Doctrine. This challenge resulted in the Russian-American Convention of 1824, which allowed American commercial pursuits in the region for ten years and limited Russian America's southern boundary to 54°40′.

Over the next three decades, Americans continued their commercial activities in the region in violation of the 1824 agreement. With the abandonment of Russia's settlement at Fort Ross in California and the steady economic decline of the company, the American-owned American-Russian Trade Company in San Francisco became the colony's lifeline, furnishing it with supplies and providing markets. American interest in Alaska grew with the acquisition of California and Oregon, which, in turn, generated greater interest in trade with China.

During the Crimean War (1853–56), company officials tried to forestall British seizure of the colony with a fictitious sale to the American-Russian Trade Company. The plan was dropped after the company signed an agreement with the Hudson Bay Company to guarantee the neutrality of the territory, but rumors that Russia was willing to sell Alaska to the United States led Secretary of State William Marcy and California senator William Gwin to approach Eduard de Stoeckl, the Russian minister in Washington, D.C., who denied such plans. After the war, Russian officials realized the futility of possessing a defenseless and unprofitable colony. They favored the development of the Amur River basin for trade with China and expected that Americans, driven by Manifest Destiny, would seize Russian America. In late 1859, Gwin and Undersecretary of State John Appleton offered to purchase Alaska for $5 million, but the Russians wanted more money. When congressional opposition to the Buchanan administration threatened to block the sale, Appleton advised postponement of the negotiations until after the 1860 presidential election and the convening of a new Congress in December 1861. The American Civil War delayed further discussions until 1867.

Wartime diplomacy largely paved the way for the Alaska Purchase. Russia showed its support for the Union by refusing to receive Confederate agents, rejecting Napoleon III's mediation effort, and sending the Russian fleet to visit San Francisco and New York in 1863. In addition, supporters of acquiring Alaska reminded Seward of his interest in developing American commercial supremacy in the Pacific and argued that the purchase would help Seward and President Andrew Johnson politically. Meanwhile, investigations of company affairs reinforced concerns about its shortcomings, convincing the Russian government that its eastern empire should focus on the Amur River and sell Alaska to ensure American cooperation against British preponderance in the Pacific. In December 1866, the Russian government instructed Stoeckl to negotiate the sale of Alaska for a minimum of $5 million. In secret negotiations, Seward agreed to pay $7.2 million for the territory.

Despite the initially negative response to the treaty, Seward's personal diplomacy and his campaign to educate Congress, the press, and the public about Alaska's economic and strategic value; Russia's goodwill during the Civil War; and Seward's appeals to Manifest Destiny and Anglophobia won over much of the press and Charles Sumner, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senate approved the treaty on April 9, 1867, by a 37–2 vote. Due to the impeachment trial of President Johnson, the House delayed voting on the appropriations bill for over a year. Following debates over expansion, private claims, and the House's authority in the treaty-making process, two committee chairs, Nathaniel Banks (foreign affairs) and Thaddeus

Stevens (appropriations), secured House approval of the bill on July 14, 1868, by a 113–43 vote.

To ensure passage of the bill, Stoeckl hired Robert J. Walker as counsel, paying him $20,000, and may have distributed about $200,000 to members of Congress and newspaper editors to complete the deal. This fueled charges of corruption, leading to a congressional investigation. The hearings failed to uncover any proof of the alleged scandal, but it nonetheless tarnished the purchase and frustrated attempts to obtain the Dominican Republic, Samoa, and Hawai'i in the late nineteenth century.

See also Alaska; Seward, William H.

Further Readings
  • Bolkhovitnov, Nikolai N. Russian-American Relations and the Sale of Alaska, 1834-1867. Translated and edited by Pierce, Richard A. . Limestone Press Kingston, Ontario, 1996.
  • Holbo, Paul S. Tarnished Expansion: The Alaska Scandal, the Press, and Congress, 1867-1871. University of Tennessee Press Knoxville, 1983.
  • Jensen, Ronald J. The Alaska Purchase and Russian-American Relations. University of Washington Press Seattle, 1975.
  • Dean Fafoutis
    Copyright © 2013 CQ Press

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