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.

The treaty, however, was not yet a fact. The Senate must approve, and its approval could not be taken for granted. The temper of the majority of Americans toward expansion had changed. The experiences of the later fifties had caused many to look upon expansion as a Southern heresy. Carl Schurz a little later argued that we had already taken in all those regions the climate of which would allow healthy self-government and that we should annex no tropics. Hamilton Fish, then Secretary of State, wrote in 1873 that popular sentiment was, for the time being, against all expansion. In fact, among the people of the United States the idea was developing that expansion was contrary to their national policy, and their indisposition to expand became almost a passion. They rejected Santo Domingo and the Danish Islands and would not press any negotiations for Canada.

What saved the Alaska Treaty from a similar disapproval was not any conviction that Alaska was worth seven million dollars, although Sumner convinced those who took the trouble to read, that the financial bargain was not a bad one. The chief factor in the purchase of Alaska was almost pure sentiment. Throughout American history there has been a powerful tradition of friendliness between Russia and the United States, yet surely no two political systems have been in the past more diametrically opposed. The chief ground for friendship has doubtless been the great intervening distance which has reduced intercourse to a minimum. Some slight basis for congeniality existed in the fact that the interests of both countries favored a similar policy of freedom upon the high seas. What chiefly influenced the public mind, however, was the attitude which Russia had taken during the Civil War. When the Grand Duke Alexis visited the United States in 1871, Oliver Wendell Holmes greeted him with the lines:

Bleak are our coasts with the blasts of December, Thrilling and warm are the hearts that remember Who was our friend when the world was our foe.

This Russian friendship had presented itself dramatically to the public at a time when American relations with Great Britain were strained, for Russian fleets had in 1863 suddenly appeared in the harbors of New York and San Francisco. These visits were actually made with a sole regard for Russian interests and in anticipation of the outbreak of a general European war, which the Czar then feared. The appearance of the fleets, however, was for many years popularly supposed to signify sympathy with the Union and a willingness to defend it from attack by Great Britain and France. Many conceived the ingenuous idea that the purchase price of Alaska was really the American half of a secret bargain of which the fleets were the Russian part. Public opinion, therefore, regarded the purchase of Alaska in the light of a favor to Russia and demanded that the favor be granted.

Thus of all the schemes of expansion in the fifty years between the Mexican and the Spanish wars, for the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 was really only a rectification of boundary, this alone came to fruition. Seward could well congratulate himself on his alertness in seizing an opportunity and on his management of the delicate political aspects of the purchase. Without his promptness the golden opportunity might have passed and never recurred. Yet he could never have saved this fragment of his policy had not the American people cherished for Russia a sentimental friendship which was intensified at the moment by anger at the supposed sympathy of Great Britain for the South.

If Russia hoped by ceding Alaska to involve the United States in difficulties with her rival Great Britain, her desire was on one occasion nearly gratified. The only profit which the United States derived from this new possession was for many years drawn from the seal fishery. The same generation of Americans which allowed the extermination of the buffalo for lap robes found in the sealskin sack the hall mark of wealth and fashion. While, however, the killing of the buffalo was allowed to go on without official check, the Government in 1870 inaugurated a system to preserve the seal herds which was perhaps the earliest step in a national conservation policy. The sole right of killing was given to the Alaska Commercial Company with restrictions under which it was believed that the herds would remain undiminished. The catch was limited to one hundred thousand a year; it was to include only male seals; and it was to be limited to the breeding grounds on the Pribilof Islands.

The seals, however, did not confine themselves to American territory. During the breeding season they ranged far and wide within a hundred miles of their islands; and during a great part of the year they were to be found far out in the Pacific. The value of their skins attracted the adventurous of many lands, but particularly Canadians; and Vancouver became the greatest center for deep-sea sealing. The Americans saw the development of the industry with anger and alarm. Considering the seals as their own, they naturally resented this unlimited exploitation by outsiders when Americans themselves were so strictly limited by law. They also believed that the steady diminution of the herds was due to the reckless methods of their rivals, particularly the use of explosives which destroyed many animals to secure a few perfect skins.

Public opinion on the Pacific coast sought a remedy and soon found one in the terms of the treaty of purchase. That document, in dividing Alaska from Siberia, described a line of division running through Bering Sea, and in 1881 the Acting Secretary of the Treasury propounded the theory that this line divided not merely the islands but the water as well. There was a widespread feeling that all Bering Sea within this line was American territory and that all intruders from other nations were poachers. In accordance with this theory, the revenue cutter Corwin in 1886 seized three British vessels and hauled their skippers before the United States District Court of Sitka. Thomas F. Bayard, then Secretary of State under President Cleveland, did not recognize this theory of interpreting the treaty, but endeavored to right the grievance by a joint agreement with France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and Great Britain, the sealing nations, "for the better protection of the fur seal fisheries in Bering Sea."

A solution had been almost reached, when Canada interposed. Lord Morley has remarked, in his "Recollections," how the voice of Canada fetters Great Britain in her negotiations with the United States. While Bayard was negotiating an agreement concerning Bering Sea which was on the whole to the advantage of the United States, he completed a similar convention on the more complicated question of the northeastern or Atlantic fisheries which was more important to Canada. This latter convention was unfavorably reported by the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, which foreshadowed rejection. Thereupon, in May, 1888, Lord Salisbury, the British Foreign Minister, withdrew from the Bering Sea negotiation.

At this critical moment Cleveland gave place to Harrison, and Bayard was succeeded by James G. Blaine, the most interesting figure in our diplomatic activities of the eighties. These years marked the lowest point in the whole history of our relations with other countries, both in the character of our agents and in the nature of the public opinion to which they appealed. Blaine was undoubtedly the most ill-informed of our great diplomats; yet a trace of greatness lingers about him. The exact reverse of John Quincy Adams, he knew neither law nor history, and he did not always inspire others with confidence in his integrity. On the other hand, the magnetic charm of his personality won many to a devotion such as none of our great men except Clay has received. Blaine saw, moreover, though through a glass darkly, farther along the path which the United States was to take than did any of his contemporaries. It was his fate to deal chiefly in controversy with those accomplished diplomats, Lord Salisbury and Lord Granville, and it must have been among the relaxations of their office to point out tactfully the defects and errors in his dispatches. Nevertheless when he did not misread history or misquote precedents but wielded the broadsword of equity, he often caught the public conscience, and then he was not an opponent to be despised.

Blaine at once undertook the defense of the contention that Bering Sea was "closed" and the exclusive property of the United States, in spite of the fact that this position was opposed to the whole trend of American opinion, which from the days of the Revolution had always stood for freedom of the high seas and the limitation of the water rights of particular nations to the narrowest limits. The United States and Great Britain had jointly protested against the Czar's ukase of 1821, which had asserted Russia's claim to Bering Sea as territorial waters; and if Russia had not possessed it in 1821, we certainly could not have bought it in 1867. In the face of Canadian opinion, Great Britain could never consent, even for the sake of peace, to a position as unsound as it was disadvantageous to Canadian industry. Nor did Blaine's contention that the seals were domestic animals belonging to us, and therefore subject to our protection while wandering through the ocean, carry conviction to lawyers familiar with the fascinating intricacies of the law, domestic and international, relating to migratory birds and beasts. To the present generation it seems amusing that Blaine defended his basic contention quite as much on the ground of the inhumanity of destroying the seals as of its economic wastefulness. Yet Blaine rallied Congress to his support, as well as a great part of American sentiment.

The situation, which had now become acute, was aggravated by the fact that most American public men of this period did not separate their foreign and domestic politics. Too many sought to secure the important Irish vote by twisting the tail of the British lion. The Republicans, in particular, sought to identify protection with patriotism and were making much of the fact that the recall of Lord Sackville-West, the British Minister, had been forced because he had advised a correspondent to vote for Cleveland. It spoke volumes for the fundamental good sense of the two nations that, when relations were so strained, they could agree to submit their differences to arbitration. For this happy outcome credit must be given to the cooler heads on both sides, but equal credit must be given to their legacy from the cool heads which had preceded them. The United States and Great Britain had acquired the habit of submitting to judicial decision their disputes, even those closely touching honor, and this habit kept them steady.

In accepting arbitration in 1892, the United States practically gave up her case, although Blaine undoubtedly believed it could be defended, and in spite of the fact that it was ably presented by John W. Foster from a brief prepared by the American counsel, Edward J. Phelps, Frederic R. Coudert, and James C. Carter. The tribunal assembled at Paris decided that Bering Sea was open and determined certain facts upon which a subsequent commission assessed damages of nearly half a million against the United States for the seizure of British vessels during the period in which the American claim was being asserted. Blaine, however, did not lose everything. The treaty contained the extraordinary provision that the arbitration tribunal, in case it decided against the United States, was to draw up regulations for the protection of the seal herds. These regulations when drafted did not prove entirely satisfactory, and bound only the United States and Great Britain. It required many years and much tinkering to bring about the reasonably satisfactory arrangement that is now in force. Yet to leave to an international tribunal not merely the decision of a disputed case but the legislation necessary to regulate an international property was in itself a great step in the development of world polity. The charlatan who almost brought on war by maintaining an indefensible case was also the statesman who made perhaps the greatest single advance in the conservation of the world's resources by international regulation.