The Alaska Purchase
This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.
By the 1850s, Russian interest in Alaska began to wane as a consequence of changing economic prospects and geopolitical concerns. The fur trade in sea otter pelts, which had been profitable in Russian America for more than a century, slumped for both ecological and commercial reasons. Russia's contemporaneous acquisition of new lands from China lessened further the importance of Alaska. Emperor Aleksandr II (1818-1881) added the northern portion of the Amur region to the Russian Empire under the Treaty of Aigun in 1858, and the Maritime region east of the Ussuri River under the Treaty of Peking in 1860. These acquisitions shifted the focus of Russia's eastern attentions from Alaska to the area around Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, which provided better access to the Pacific Ocean and the markets of East Asia.
After weighing all its options, the tsarist government concluded that it had little choice but to sell its American colony. Great Britain had shown sustained interest in obtaining Alaska as an addition to its territory in British North America (Canada), and had potentially threatened it during the Crimean War (1853-56) after attacking the Kamchatka Peninsula. Russia in particular recognized that the long-standing economic ambition of the Hudson's Bay Company to tap Alaskan resources made the region vulnerable to British designs. But, after losing the Crimean War to Britain, France, and Turkey in 1856, the tsar was in no mood to negotiate with Great Britain or to see Alaska absorbed by a recent enemy.
Russia thus turned to the only other potential buyer, the United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, Russia and the United States were drawn together by a common hostility toward Great Britain and a basic agreement on most foreign policy issues. Of the major European powers, Russia was the only one to support the Union in the American Civil War of 1861-65. The United States had already become aware of the possible Russian interest in selling Alaska in the mid-1850s, during the term of President Franklin Pierce. Faced with the breakup of the nation, however, the administrations of Presidents James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln were in no position to respond positively to Russian offers. Ardent expansionists such as William H. Seward, secretary of state under both Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, nonetheless retained an abiding interest in obtaining Alaska, which they saw as an integral component of Manifest Destiny and the American drive to the Pacific. In 1867, Seward reached an agreement with the Russian ambassador in Washington to purchase the territory for $7.2 million.
Key Players in the Alaska Purchase
The Alaska Purchase had a diplomatic history that stretched over nearly fifteen years and involved many key players. In Russia, the younger brother of Emperor Aleksandr II, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, provided a major impetus for the sale. As early as the 1850s, he expressed the view that the United States eventually would overrun the entire North American continent and that the tsarist government might as well be paid for its colony before it was seized outright by either the United States or Great Britain. The Russian Foreign Minister, Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov, was more conservative in temperament and initially resisted the loss of any Russian territory. But Edouard de Stoeckl, the Russian ambassador in Washington, constituted an increasingly influential voice that helped convince the powers in St. Petersburg that a sale of Alaska to the United States was the best course.
On the American side, the most important politician was Secretary of State William H. Seward, who campaigned indefatigably for the Alaska Purchase over a long period. He received key political support on Capitol Hill from Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose elegant speech in April 1867 swayed the vote in favor of the treaty. Sumner's support reflected the commercial interests of New England whalers and traders eager for access to North Pacific waters and the political wish of many Republican advocates to rid North America entirely of monarchical rule. Republican Congressman Nathaniel Banks of Massachusetts, formerly a Union general in the Civil War and chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, helped guide the bill appropriating payment for Alaska through the House of Representatives in a process made bumpy by the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
Aleksandr II (1818-1881)
Known as the "Tsar-Liberator" for his emancipation of the serfs in 1861, Aleksandr II (1818-1881) leaned toward advisers who--as early as the 1850s--suggested selling Alaska. Russia's expansion in the Far East and Turkestan occupied his attention, as did the comprehensive Great Reforms to revitalize his moribund empire.
Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-1892)
In stark contrast to his arch-conservative father, Emperor Nicholas I (1796-1855), Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-1892) was a reformist figure in the Romanov court. Among his responsibilities, he commanded the Imperial Russian Navy and thus had oversight on key aspects of Alaskan administration. Beginning as early as 1857, he became the strongest advocate in St. Petersburg for the sale of Alaska to the United States.
Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov (1798-1883)
Of the influential figures in the tsar's circle, the long-serving foreign minister, Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov (1798-1883), was the most resistant to the sale of Alaska. Although he recognized the factors arguing for the disposal of the colony, he was reluctant to relinquish any part of the Russian Empire.
Edouard de Stoeckl (1814-1869)
An urbane and witty diplomat, Edouard de Stoeckl (1814-1869) served as the Russian ambassador to the United States for fifteen years. His close relations with several American politicians, particularly William H. Seward, assured him a key role in advising both Gorchakov and Emperor Aleksandr II on the sale of Alaska.
Andrew Johnson (1808-1875)
A Tennessee Democrat who became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) clashed with the Radical Republicans over Reconstruction and became enmeshed in the bitter politics of post-Civil War America. His impeachment in 1868 delayed the final appropriation for the Alaska Purchase, much to the chagrin of the Russian government, which had to wait more than one year to be paid for its former colony.
William H. Seward (1801-1872)
A former governor and two-term senator from New York, William H. Seward (1801-1872) was among the most prominent American politicians of the Civil War era. In his capacity as secretary of state in the 1860s, he was a singular advocate for the purchase of Alaska, which he favored as part of a general policy of American expansionism.
Charles Sumner (1811-1874)
A Republican from Massachusetts who had been an ardent abolitionist in the 1850s, Charles Sumner (1811-1874) survived a violent physical assault on the floor of the Senate to become one of the most influential political figures of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Although he objected to the unusual secrecy that surrounded Seward's negotiations with the Russian government, Sumner provided key political support for acquiring Alaska.
Nathaniel Banks (1816-1894)
A Republican from Massachusetts who had been a general and served as Speaker of the House, Nathaniel Banks (1816-1894) played an important role in marshalling support for the Alaska Purchase on Capitol Hill. His hopes to be named U.S. ambassador to Russia in return for his help never materialized.
Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868)
Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) of Pennsylvania was one of the most controversial politicians of the Civil War era. A leader of the Radical Republicans, he advocated harsh policies toward the former Confederate states. As chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations, Stevens ultimately supported Seward on the Alaska Purchase.
Russia and the Sale of Alaska
In the process of forming a consensus to sell Alaska to the United States, the Russian government conducted a lengthy internal debate. Within the Romanov court, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the younger brother of Emperor Aleksandr II, was the strongest advocate for the sale. But several important officials contended that the tsar should hold on to the territory. They included Prince Aleksandr Gorchakov, the Russian Foreign Minister, as well as former managers and large shareholders of the Russian-American Company. Prominent among these persons was Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell, who had been chief manager of the Russian-American Company and subsequently on its board of directors. From his perspective as a prior governor of Alaska, von Wrangell cited the enormous potential of Russian America in his correspondence with Grand Duke Konstantin.
The pressures to sell proved insurmountable, however. Conceding this, von Wrangell argued that the price of Alaska should reflect its current and future worth in land and resources. On December 16, 1866, Emperor Aleksandr II met with his key ministers in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg and made the final decision to sell. The tsar wanted to negotiate a price with the Americans, and set $5 million as the lowest acceptable offer. Accordingly, he sent the Russian ambassador to the United States back to Washington with instructions to finalize terms for the deal with Secretary of State William H. Seward. Capitalizing on Seward's great eagerness to purchase Alaska, the Russian government bid up the ultimate price to $7.2 million.