This Week in History: ‘Seward’s Folly’ Ends Russian-American Empire Ambitions

On March 30, 1867 American Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russian Minister Edouard de Stoeckl for $7.2 million, or roughly two cents per acre. After receiving news that the Czar would approve a transaction regarding Alaska, Seward immediately pushed the Russian Minister into making a midnight deal that was completed at 4:00 a.m. Initially, this deal was not warmly received.

Some members of the press viciously attacked Seward because they thought it was a waste of money on a useless territory, a “dark deed done in the night.” The New York Herald printed a fake ad mocking the midnight deal:

CASH! CASH! CASH!--Cash paid for cast off territory. Best price given for old colonies, North or South. Any impoverished monarchs retiring from the colonization business may find a good purchaser by addressing W.H.S. [Seward], Post Office, Washington, D.C.”

Though widely criticized by the press and political opponents at the time, “Seward’s Folly” turned out to be a fantastic achievement in U.S. foreign policy. It brought an end to Russian ambitions to colonize America and eventually reaped tremendous material and strategic benefits for the fast-growing United States. Just years after the deal was made, massive quantities of gold were discovered in the territory and Alaska continues to be a major source of natural resources today.

This purchase brought an end to Russian colonization in the New World and put the U.S. in a much better strategic position during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Alaska, the last frontier, has proved to be invaluable.

Though often forgotten by Americans today, there was a time when Russia had been aggressively pushing to colonize the New World, taking chunks of land from Alaska to the California coastline. In the new book, Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, journalist Owen Matthews describes how the Czars believed they could turn the Pacific Ocean into a Russian lake.

In the 1790s, aristocratic adventurer Nikolai Rezanov saw an opportunity to turn a fledgling fur trading company “into a commercial empire that would change the world.”

Matthews wrote:

In Rezanov’s vision, the company would be renamed the Russian American Company, and its brief would be to bring all of Pacific America, from Alaska to California, under the Russian crown… Rezanov’s model was the eighteenth century’s greatest powerhouse of wealth and imperial expansion, the British East India Company.

Other great powers--Spain, France, England, and now the United States--were vying for dominance in the New World and Matthews wrote, “Clearly, a race for America’s west coast was afoot, and Russia could lose no time in staking her claims to the land.” The western coast of North America was a “jewel” to be taken, and if not for the strength of American leadership, Russia just might have succeeded.

The Russian enterprise in America turned out to be less profitable and successful than Rezanov and the Czars had hoped, and political turmoil made the North American holding more of a liability than a true asset. American leaders saw the encroachments by Russia in the New World as a threat to American interests, prompting President James Monroe, largely with the help of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, to craft the “Monroe Doctrine” in 1823.

Though often misunderstood, the Monroe Doctrine was a declaration that the United States would defend its interests in the Western Hemisphere. It was a warning to European powers that further colonization would be seen as a threat and could precipitate an American intervention. It was particularly aimed at the European “Holy Alliance” of Prussia, Austria, and Russia, but was meant to be a general statement of American foreign policy principles. One diplomatic historian called it the “Long-Range Self-Defense Doctrine.”

While European powers often dismissed or failed to even recognize the upstart Republic’s bold new doctrine, it clearly shaped the development of the New World and set the United States on the way to being a pre-eminent world power. Just a few years before, the United States had fought England to a standstill in the War of 1812. This not only proved that the U.S. would forever be independent from its mother country, but that it would defend the rights of its citizens against other countries, no matter how powerful. Other countries would have to take American threats seriously. In raw geopolitical power, the U.S. was comparatively weak, but the American people were strong and assertive.

Just over four months after the Monroe Doctrine was declared, Secretary Adams made a treaty with Russia in which they abandoned their territory up to the southernmost tip of Alaska. The powerful Russian Bear had been in decline and they saw the writing on the wall.

Sadly, current Secretary of State John Kerry mangled and renounced the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” and saying that it was “a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states.”

Under the Monroe Doctrine, the United States defended its interests and allies and exacted concessions from potential rivals when threatened. The doctrine led to American strength on the world stage and opened up the possibility of purchasing the declining Russian colonies in Alaska without military action. European countries turned away from colonization in the Western hemisphere, lest they stir up an angry American hornet’s nest.

Post-Monroe, America’s rivals such as Russia dismiss American finger-waving moralizations, laugh at trivial economic sanctions, and have acted aggressively toward U.S. allies. Russia has already decided to annex large parts of Ukraine with potential plans to swallow up the whole nation, looks to other Eastern European countries to rebuild the old Soviet Union, and has even planted deep ties into South America.

The purchase of Alaska was a product of American strength and bold leadership, a policy that paid tremendous dividends for many generations thereafter. As U.S. leaders flail in attempts to stop Russia and other powers from acting aggressively on the world stage, it might be a good time to look back at the Monroe Doctrine and the principles that led to American ascendance. 


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