With the end of the Civil War, America’s territorial expansion ceased for a generation. The nation needed time to recover from the devastation of the war and had little appetite for military adventures save for pacifying the conflicts between the Indian tribes and the settlers in the West. The South, trying to regain its position in the Union while maintaining a racially dominant society, turned inward. National energies focused on rapid industrial development and dealing with the social dislocations it caused, and with the settlement of western America. Nor did developments in the Western Hemisphere leave any obvious openings to expand had the United States been interested. Canadians, given dominion status by Britain in 1867, were not about to trade their newfound autonomy to join the Union. Mexicans gained a greater sense of national identity when, without American assistance, they deposed and executed Emperor Maximilian I, who had been imposed on them by France.
The great exception was Alaska, purchased by treaty from Russia under the direction of Secretary of State William Seward (1801–1872). Before the war, Seward had argued that American territory would expand in concert with an expansion of American commerce). He now saw an opportunity to take a step forward. Russia had long had a keen interest in this region, beginning in the early eighteenth century, but the tsar lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along the Pacific Coast of North America. The number of Russian settlers in Alaska, including those who had Native wives, was miniscule. In 1859, after its defeat in the Crimean War, Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States because it did not believe it could defend the territory against Britain. In 1867 Seward quickly took up the renewed Russian offer and agreed to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty on April 9; President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) signed the treaty on May 28; and Alaska was formally transferred to the United States on October 18, 1867.
Some opponents labeled the purchase “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” contending that the United States had acquired useless land. Others objected that it set a dangerous precedent by expanding the nation into noncontiguous territory that could only be governed as a colony. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Charles Sumner (R-MA; 1811–1874), although an expansionist, was initially one of the skeptics. A scholar by nature, Sumner immersed himself in an intense study of the Russian-held territory, spending countless hours perusing maps, journals, pamphlets, periodicals, atlases, newspapers, manuscripts, and more than one hundred books in English, German, French, and Russian. What he learned transformed him completely. On April 8, 1867, Sumner addressed the Senate. With a single sheet of notes to guide him, he spoke for three hours in support of the treaty.
Source: Charles Sumner, Speech of the Honorable Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the Cession of Russian America to the United States (Washington: Printed at the Congressional Globe office, 1867), 11–16, available at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiuo.ark:/13960/t9086cf0p&view=1up&seq=15.
General Considerations on the Treaty
From this survey of the treaty, as seen in its origin and the questions under it, I might pass at once to a survey of the possessions which have been conveyed; but there are other matters of a more general character which present themselves at this stage and challenge the judgment. These concern nothing less than the unity, power, and grandeur of the Republic, with the extension of its dominion and its institutions. Such considerations, where not entirely inapplicable, are apt to be controlling. I do not doubt that they will in a great measure determine the fate of this treaty with the American people. They are patent, and do not depend on research or statistics. To state them is enough.
Advantages to the Pacific Coast. (1.) Foremost in order, if not in importance, I put the desires of our fellow citizens on the Pacific Coast, and the special advantages which they will derive from this enlargement of boundary. They were the first to ask for it, and will be the first to profit by it. While others knew the Russian possessions only on the map they knew them practically in their resources. While others were still indifferent they were planning how to appropriate Russian peltries and fisheries. This is attested by the resolutions of the legislature of Washington Territory; also by the exertions at different times of two senators from California, who, differing in political sentiments and in party relations, took the initial steps which ended in this treaty. These well-known desires were founded, of course, on supposed advantages; and here experience and neighborhood were prompters. Since 1854 the people of California have received their ice from the freshwater lakes on the island of Kodiak, not far westward from Mount St. Elias. Later still their fishermen have searched the waters about the Aleutians and the Shumagins, commencing a promising fishery. Others have proposed to substitute themselves to the Hudson Bay Company in their franchise on the coast. But all are looking to the Orient, as in the time of Columbus, although like him they sail to the west. To them China and Japan, those ancient realms of fabulous wealth, are the Indies. To draw this commerce to the Pacific Coast is no new idea. It haunted the early navigators. Meares, the Englishman, whose voyage in the intervening seas was in 1789, closes his volumes with an essay, entitled “The tr#footnotesade between the Northwest Coast of America and China,” in the course of which he dwells on the “great and very valuable source of commerce” afforded by China as “forming a chain of trade between Hudson bay, Canada, and the northwest coast,” and then he exhibits on the American side the costly furs of the sea otter, which are still so much prized in China; “mines which are known to lie between the latitudes 40° and 60° north”; and also an “inexhaustible supply” of ginseng, for which there is still such a demand in China that even Minnesota, at the headwaters of the Mississippi, supplies her contribution. . . .
The absence of harbors at present belonging to the United Stated on the Pacific limits the outlets of the country. On that whole extent, from Panama to Puget Sound, the only harbor of any considerable value is San Francisco. Farther north the harbors are abundant, and they are all nearer to the great marts of Japan and China. But San Francisco itself will be nearer by the way of the Aleutians than by Honolulu. The projection of maps is not always calculated to present an accurate idea of distances. From measurement on a globe it appears that a voyage from San Francisco to Hong Kong by the common way of the Sandwich Islands is 7,140 miles, but by way of the Aleutian Islands it is only 6,060 miles, being a saving of more than 1,000 miles, with the enormous additional advantage of being obliged to carry much less coal. Of course a voyage from Sitka, or from Puget Sound, the terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, would be shorter still. The advantages to the Pacific Coast have two aspects, one domestic and the other foreign. Not only does the treaty extend the coasting trade of California, Oregon, and Washington Territory northward, but it also extends the base of commerce with China and Japan.
To unite the east of Asia with the west of America is the aspiration of commerce now as when the English navigator recorded his voyage. Of course whatever helps this result is an advantage. The Pacific railroad is such an advantage, for, though running westward, it will be, when completed, a new highway to the East. This treaty is another advantage, for nothing can be clearer than that the western coast must exercise an attraction which will be felt in China and Japan just in proportion as it is occupied by a commercial people communicating readily with the Atlantic and with Europe. This cannot be done without consequences not less important politically than commercially. Owing so much to the Union, the people there will be bound to it anew, and the national unity will receive another confirmation. Thus the whole country will be a gainer. So are we knit together that the advantages to the Pacific Coast will contribute to the general welfare.
Extension of Dominion, (2.) The extension of dominion is another consideration, calculated to captivate the public mind. Few are so cold or philosophical as to regard with insensibility a widening of the bounds of country. . . .
The passion for acquisition, which is so strong in the individual, is not less strong in the community. A nation seeks an outlying territory as an individual seeks an outlying farm. The passion shows itself constantly. France, passing into Africa, has annexed Algeria. Spain set her face in the same direction, but without the same success. There are two great powers with which annexation has become a habit. One is Russia, which from the time of Peter the Great has been moving her flag forward in every direction, so that on every side her limits have been extended. Even now the report comes that she is lifting her southern landmarks in Asia, so as to carry her boundary to India. The other annexationist is Great Britain, which from time to time adds another province to her Indian dominion. If the United States have from time to time added to their dominion they have only yielded to the universal passion, although I do not forget that the late Theodore Parker was accustomed to say that among all people the Anglo-Saxons were remarkable for “a greed of land.” It was land, not gold, that aroused the Anglo-Saxon phlegm. I doubt, however, if this passion be stronger with us than with others, except, perhaps, that in a community where all participate in government the national sentiments are more active. It is common to the human family. There are few anywhere who could hear of a considerable accession of territory, obtained peacefully and honestly, without a pride of country, even if at certain moments the judgment hesitated. With an increased size on the map there is an increased consciousness of strength, and the citizen throbs anew as he traces the extending line.
Extension of Republican Institutions. (3.) More than the extension of dominion is the extension of republican institutions, which is a traditional aspiration. It was in this spirit that independence was achieved. In the name of human rights our fathers overthrew the kingly power, whose representative was George the Third. They set themselves openly against this form of government. They were against it for themselves, and offered their example to mankind. They were Roman in character, and turned to Roman lessons. With a cynical austerity the early Cato said that kings were “carnivorous animals,” and at his instance the Roman Senate decreed that no king should be allowed within the gates of the city. A kindred sentiment, with less austerity of form, has been received from our fathers; but our city can be nothing less than the North American continent with its gates on all the surrounding seas. John Adams, in the preface to his Defense of the American Constitution, written in London, where he resided at the time as minister, and dated January 1, 1787, at Grosvenor Square, the central seat of aristocratic fashion, after exposing the fabulous origin of the kingly power in contrast with the simple origin of our republican constitutions, thus for a moment lifts the curtain of the future: “Thirteen governments,” he says plainly, “thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, and without any pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, is a great point gained in favor of the' rights of mankind.” (John Adams' Works, vol. 4, p. 293.) Thus, according to this prophetic minister, even at that early day was the destiny of the Republic manifest. It was to spread over the northern part of the American quarter of the globe; and it was to be a support to the rights of mankind. By the text of our Constitution the United States are bound to guaranty a “republican form of government” to every state in this Union; but this obligation, which is only applicable at home, is an unquestionable indication of the national aspiration everywhere. The Republic is something more than a local policy; it is a general principle, not to be forgotten at any time, especially when the opportunity is presented of bringing an immense region within its influence. Elsewhere it has for the present failed: but on this account our example is more important. Who can forget the generous lament of Lord Byron, whose passion for freedom was not mitigated by his rank as an hereditary legislator of England, when he exclaims in memorable verse: “The name of commonwealth is past and gone O’er the three fractions of the groaning globe!” Who can forget the salutation which the poet sends to the “one great clime,” which, nursed in freedom, enjoys what he calls “the proud distinction” of not being confounded with other lands, “Whose sons must bow them at a monarch’s motion. As if his senseless sceptre were a wand!” The present treaty is a visible step in the occupation of the whole North American continent. As such it will be recognized by the world and accepted by the American people. But the treaty involves something more. By it we dismiss one more monarch from this continent. One by one they have retired; first France; then Spain; then France again; and now Russia; all giving way to that absorbing unity which is declared in the national motto, E pluribus Unum.
Anticipation of Great Britain. (4.) Another motive to this acquisition may be found in a desire to anticipate the imagined schemes or necessities of Great Britain. With regard to all these I confess my doubts, and yet, if we may credit report, it would seem as if there was already a British movement in this direction. Sometimes it is said that Great Britain desires to buy if Russia will sell. . . .
The Amity of Russia. (5.) There is still another consideration concerning this treaty which must not be disregarded. It attests and assures the amity of Russia. Even if you doubt the value of these possessions, the treaty is a sign of friendship. It is a new expression of that entente cordiale between the two powers which is a phenomenon of history. Though unlike in institutions, they are not unlike in recent experience. Sharers of a common glory in a great act of emancipation, they also share together the opposition or antipathy of other nations. Perhaps this experience has not been without its effect in bringing them together. At all events, no coldness or unkindness has interfered at any time with their good relations. The archives of the State Department show an uninterrupted cordiality between the two governments dating far back in our history. . . .
Shall the Treaty Be Ratified?
Such are some of the obvious considerations of a general character bearing on the treaty. The interests of the Pacific states, the extension of the national domain, the extension of republican institutions, the foreclosure of adverse British possessions, and the amity of Russia; these are the points which we have passed in review. Most of these, if not all, are calculated to impress the public mind; but I can readily understand a difference of opinion with regard to the urgency of negotiation at this hour. Some may think that the purchase money and the annual outlay which must follow might have been postponed for another decade, while Russia continued in possession as a trustee for our benefit. And yet some of the reasons for the treaty do not seem to allow delay. At all events, now that the treaty has been signed by plenipotentiaries on each side duly empowered, it is difficult to see how we can refuse to complete the purchase without putting to hazard the friendly relations which happily subsist between the United States and Russia. . . .
But there is one other point on which I file my caveat. This treaty must not be a precedent for a system of indiscriminate and costly annexation. Sincerely believing that republican institutions under the primacy of the United States must embrace this whole continent, I cannot adopt the sentiment of Jefferson, who while confessing satisfaction in settlements on the Pacific Coast saw there in the future nothing but “free and independent Americans,” bound to the United States only by “ties of blood and interest” without political unity. Nor am I willing to restrain myself to the principle so tersely expressed by Andrew Jackson in his letter to President Monroe, “Concentrate our population, confine our frontier to proper limits, until our country, to those limits, is filled with a dense population.” But I cannot disguise my anxiety that every stage in our predestined future shall be by natural processes without war, and I would add even without purchase. There is no territorial aggrandizement which is worth the price of blood. Only under peculiar circumstances can it become the subject of pecuniary contract. Our triumph should be by growth and organic expansion in obedience to “preestablished harmony,” recognizing always the will of those who are to become our fellow citizens. All this must be easy if we are only true to ourselves. Our motto may be that of Goethe, “Without haste, without rest.” Let the Republic be assured in tranquil liberty with all equal before the law and it will conquer by its sublime example. More happy than Austria, who acquired possessions by marriage, we shall acquire them by the attraction of republican institutions; . . . our first care should be to improve and elevate the Republic, whose sway will be so comprehensive. Plant it with schools; cover it with churches; fill it with libraries; make it abundant with comfort so that poverty shall disappear; keep it constant in the assertion of human rights. And here we may fitly recall those words of antiquity, which Cicero quoted from the Greek, and which Webster in our day quoted from Cicero, “You have a Sparta; adorn it.” . . .
- 1. John Meares (1756–1809) was an English explorer and fur trader.
- 2. Sitka is a city in southern Alaska. Puget Sound is a body of water near Seattle that is an outlet to the Pacific.
- 3. Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was an American Unitarian minister and abolitionist.
- 4. Both quotations are from George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron (1788–1824), “Venice: Ode on Venice.”
- 5. Russia emancipated its serfs in 1861.
- 6. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a German poet. Sumner quotes from Poems of Sentiment, VI. Labor and Rest.
- 7. A version of this phrase is found in fragments attributed to Euripides. The version that Sumner uses is attributed also to Erasmus.