CHAPTER III. Alaska And Its Problems
The impulse for expansion upon which Buchanan floated his political raft into the presidency was not a party affair. It was felt by men of all party creeds, and it seemed for a moment to be the dominant national ideal. Slaveholders and other men who had special interests sought to make use of it, but the fundamental feeling did not rest on their support. American democracy, now confident of its growing strength, believed that the happiness of the people and the success of the institutions of the United States would prove a loadstone which would bring under the flag all peoples of the New World, while those of the Old World would strike off their shackles and remold their governments on the American pattern. Attraction, not compulsion, was the method to be used, and none of the paeans of American prophets in the editorials or the fervid orations of the fifties proposed an additional battleship or regiment.
No one saw this bright vision more clearly than did William H. Seward, who became Secretary of State under Lincoln. Slight of build, pleasant, and talkative, he gave an impression of intellectual distinction, based upon fertility rather than consistency of mind. He was a disciple of John Quincy Adams, but his tireless energy had in it too much of nervous unrest to allow him to stick to his books as did his master, and there was too wide a gap between his beliefs and his practice. He held as idealistic views as any man of his generation, but he believed so firmly that the right would win that he disliked hastening its victory at the expense of bad feeling. He was shrewd, practical - maliciously practical, many thought. When, in the heat of one of his perorations, a flash of his hidden fires would arouse the distrust of the conservative, he would appear to retract and try to smother the flames in a cloud of conciliatory smoke. Only the restraining hand of Lincoln prevented him from committing fatal blunders at the outset of the Civil War, yet his handling of the threatening episode of the French in Mexico showed a wisdom, a patient tact, and a subtle ingenuity which make his conduct of the affair a classic illustration of diplomacy at almost its best.*
* See "Abraham Lincoln and the Union" and "The Hispanic Nations of the New World" (in "The Chronicles of America").
In 1861 Seward said that he saw Russia and Great Britain building on the Arctic Ocean outposts on territory which should belong to his own country, and that he expected the capital of the great federal republic of the future would be in the valley of Mexico. Yet he nevertheless retained the sentiment he had expressed in 1846: "I would not give one human life for all the continent that remains to be annexed." The Civil War prevented for four years any action regarding expansion, and the same conspiracy which resulted in the assassination of Lincoln brought Seward to the verge of the grave. He recovered rapidly, however, and while on a recuperating trip through the West Indies he worked for the peaceable annexation of the Danish Islands and Santo Domingo. His friend, Charles Sumner, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, was framing his remarkable project for the annexation of Canada. President Johnson and, later, President Grant endorsed parts of these plans. Denmark and Santo Domingo were willing to acquiesce for money, and Sumner believed, although he was preposterously wrong, that the incorporation of Canada in our Union would be welcomed by the best sentiment of England and of Canada.
To willing ears, therefore, came in 1867 the offer of the Russian Minister, Baron Stoeckl, to sell Alaska. The proposal did not raise a question which had been entirely unthought of. Even before the Civil War, numbers of people on the Pacific coast, far from being overawed by the responsibility of developing the immense territories which they already possessed, had petitioned the Government to obtain Alaska, and even the proper purchase price had been discussed. The reasons for Russia's decision to sell, however, have not been sufficiently investigated. It is apparent from the conduct of the negotiation that it was not a casual proposal but one in which Baron Stoeckl, at least, was deeply interested. It is to be remembered that at this time Russia's ambitions were in Asia, and that her chief rival was Great Britain. Russia's power was on land; the seas she could not hope to control. The first moment of war would put Russian rule in, Alaska at the mercy of the British fleet. In those days when a Siberian railroad was an idle dream, this icebound region in America was so remote from the center of Russian power that it could be neither enjoyed nor protected. As Napoleon in 1803 preferred to see Louisiana in the hands of the United States rather than in those of his rival England, so Russia preferred Alaska to fall to the United States rather than to Canada, especially as she could by peaceful cession obtain money into the bargain.
Seward was delighted with the opportunity, but diplomatically concealed his satisfaction and bargained closely. Stoeckl asked ten million dollars; Seward offered five. Stoeckl proposed to split the difference; Seward agreed, if Stoeckl would knock off the odd half million. Stoeckl accepted, on condition that Seward add two hundred thousand as special compensation to the Russian American Company. It was midnight of the 29th of March when $7,200,000 was made the price. Seward roused Sumner from bed, and the three worked upon the form of a treaty until four o'clock in the morning. No captains of industry could show greater decision.