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There were several reasons why Russia sought to sell its territory of Alaska to the United States.  By early 1867, the Russian company administering Alaska teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and the imperial government in St. Petersburg desperately needed an influx of funds.  Russian officials also worried that the increasing American population in the region would one day lead to calls for annexation by the U.S. government (as occurred decades earlier in Texas).  Another strategic concern was how to defend it during a possible war with Great Britain, Russiaís enemy which controlled Canada.  Consequently, the Russian minister to the United States, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, contacted Secretary of State William Seward in March 1867 with an offer to sell Alaska.

When the opportunity presented itself, President Andrew Johnson was enmeshed in a bitter struggle with Congress over Reconstruction policy.  Seward had alienated most of his Republican colleagues by siding with Johnson.  Both men hoped that such a diplomatic coup would enhance their political prestige by diverting attention from domestic matters.  National interest, however, was their overriding motivation.  The great landmass, jutting well into the Pacific Ocean near Asia, offered numerous economic and strategic benefits.  Seward and Stoeckl quickly negotiated a treaty for the United States to buy Alaska for $7,000,000 in gold.  Seward hoped to gain Senate approval before the congressional session ended, and secured the presidentís approval, but the Russians raised additional issues and upped the ante by $200,000.  By this time, Congress had adjourned, so President Johnson called the Senate into special session on April 1, 1867.

To overcome personal animosity to the president and himself, Seward waged an intensive war of propaganda and lobbying.  The effort received a boost from the support of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a leading Radical Republican opponent of Johnson.  The decisive factor was winning the approval of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.  In addition to his standing as a prominent Radical, many Republican senators followed his lead (at the time) on foreign policy issues.  Like Seward, Sumner believed that the purchase of Alaska would expedite the withdrawal of Britain from Canada and the dominionís ultimate union with the United States.  (Britain, too, envisioned and feared that scenario.)  On April 9, the Senate voted in favor of the treaty, 37-2.

Sources Consulted

Campbell, Charles S.  The Transformation of American Foreign Relations, 1865-1900.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1976.

Castel, Albert.  The Presidency of Andrew Johnson.  Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 1979.

Ferrell, Robert H.  American Diplomacy:  A History.  Third Edition.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1975.

LaFeber, Walter.  The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations.  Vol. II:  The American Search for Opportunity, 1865-1913.  New York, NY:  Cambridge University Press, 1993.

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