I really don’t try to disparage the woman, and I don’t even consider myself that partisan, but as a historian this shit has got to stop.
Sarah Palin, already known for her tendency to skew history and turn it into some convoluted GOP mantra, has done it again. This time it went mostly unnoticed when she was on Greta Van Susteren’s show to talk about the GOP primary in Alaska.
You can watch the full interview here but the relevant part starts around the 8 minute mark.
Talking about the primary in Alaska, Palin referenced the importance of energy in Alaskan politics, then going on to say:
“Since we are an energy rich state, and we know that William Seward back in Lincoln’s cabinet all those years ago secured the territory of Alaska, purchased it from Russia, so that we could someday ultimately secure our union with our resources.”
Whoa whoa whoa, stop the clock. First, Alaska was purchased under Andrew Johnson, not Abraham Lincoln, who was dead at the time. Yes, it’s true that Seward was in Lincoln’s cabinet, but it stopped being Lincoln’s cabinet when he died. But ok, that’s a minor mistake for anyone not from Alaska.
How about the claim that Seward purchased Alaska in order to “secure our union with our resources.” I’m not entirely sure what that even means as I don’t speak grizzly, but here’s what I think she’s getting at. By naming Seward directly she’s either showing off her learnings or playing off the “Seward’s folly” criticism and attributing considerable foresight to the man. Palin’s version maintains that Seward purchased Alaska so the US would have a nice supply of oil.
Was this the reason for the purchase? Of course not, the only discussion about energy in Alaska at the time was speculation of coal resources in the Aleutian Islands and that was pretty far down the line in terms of resources in Alaska. Most of the early interest came from whaling and seal furs from Alaska with New England companies eager to get in on the action. So, if by securing resources Palin means whale blubber and murdering seals, then ok she was right.
People did also see Alaska as a resource-rich territory, but more in terms of fisheries and timber. The public was also infatuated with the idea of territorial expansion and the conquest of new lands which had decades earlier been considered terra incognita. But this is simply the public reaction and doesn’t explain why Seward actually bought Alaska. For that we have to go back to the Crimean War.
Russia lost the war to Great Britain, and weakened and financially unstable, they considered selling their territory of Russian America. They figured it was best to sell it before Britain seize it in a future conflict. They approached the US with an offer in 1859 but negotiations were interrupted during the Civil War. At the outbreak of war in the US, the Russian government gave enthusiastic support to the Union, almost as if they wanted a favor later. So when in 1867 the Russians again approached with an offer, Seward took the opportunity. He had his own reasons too, he was an expansionist fulfilling Manifest Destiny. He also had his sights on taking British Columbia from the British which had recently experienced a gold rush. And most importantly, it was dirt cheap even for the time, selling for $7 million, or 2 cents an acre.
To put it simply, we bought Alaska to invade Canada and as a personal obligation to the Tsar. I’m pretty sure Palin is only down with one of those.
If there’s another lesson to take away from this it’s also how we re-interpret Seward’s decision/obligation through history. Despite the public enthusiasm for the purchase of Alaska, the territory ended up being a burden until gold was discovered in 1896 at which point people started praising Steward’s foresight. An article from Richard Welch in 1958 talks about people praising Steward for giving us Alaska as a strategic Cold War region. Only recently have people started talking about Alaska’s energy-rich resources, with massive drilling projects beginning in the 1960’s and ’70’s.
It’s not wrong to thank Seward for his purchase of Alaska and it’s nearly impossible to argue that it has not been highly profitable, but to re-interpret Seward’s decision as some clairvoyant concern for energy resources is remarkably dishonest or naive.