Seward’s Folly

Alaska Purchase Cartoon by Granger

As President Lincoln’s and then President Johnson’s Secretary of State, William Seward thought in terms of “manifest destiny.” By his day, westward expansion already had reached the Pacific — California had become a state in 1850.

Seward’s vision was far more comprehensive, and like the Russian view of Northwest North America, basically economic. He imagined an increasing American economic global empire.

He also understood that the industrialization of naval power made the U.S. more susceptible than previously and that forward bases would be necessary to protect American safety and its financial reach.

He proposed four forward outposts at four points of the compass to protect American interests. He wanted bases in Greenland, St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Alaska. So, when the Russian government sent diplomatic signals that Russian America might be for sale, Seward flew at the prospect.

So why is it called Seward’s Folly? Because of a political cartoon!

The Seward’s Folly Cartoon: Thomas Nast

The Seward’s Folly Cartoon illustrates a satirical view of the purchase of Alaska. The Seward’s Folly cartoon is by the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast who worked for Harpers Weekly, the most famous illustrated newspaper of the 1800s. (Thomas Nast is best remembered for his imaginative illustrations of Santa Claus). The Seward’s Folly Cartoon provides an insight into the public opinion of the purchase of Alaska and why it was referred to as Seward’s Folly.

In ‘Seward’s Folly’ Cartoon, the dominant cartoon figure depicts William Seward (cabinet member and Secretary of State) as a mother patting the head of her child. The ‘child’ is a cartoon representation of a small President Andrew Johnson (“Andy”), dressed as Uncle Sam. William Seward is depicted soothing President Andrew Jackson with “Russian Salve” to calm him from all the problems he was experiencing with Congress. The map is entitled “Map of the Russian Fairyland – Only $7,000,000 in Gold”. Images on the Map of Alaska represent the hostile, snow-covered landscape with seals and polar bears looking on. The picture on the wall depicts an Aleut family with the sub-heading “One of the Advantage,” a sarcastic reference to the hostile reception the natives of Alaska had given to the Russians.

Seward’s Folly:  Seward’s Icebox Cartoon

Seward’s Folly was also referred to as ‘Seward’s Icebox, and the cartoon on your right depicts a ‘different take’ on Seward’s Folly. It features a giant iceberg (called Russian American) being pushed and pulled along by William Seward and President Johnson being supported and moved by the wheelbarrow entitled ‘Treaty,’ which refers to the Treaty of Russia and the booty of 7,000,000 fading away with the Russian Tsar.

Seward’s Folly Fact Sheet

Seward’s Folly Fact 1: William Seward firmly believed in the expansion of US territories, and the purchase of Alaska increased the size of the United States by 20%.

Seward’s Folly Fact 2: He also believed in the Manifest Destiny of the United States, which was based on the conviction that the North American continent’s occupation was a divine right of the American people.

Seward’s Folly Fact 3: He was regarded as a firm supporter of President Andrew Johnson and enraged the radical Republicans in Congress.

Seward’s Folly Fact 4: The Alaskan territory covered 586,412 square miles and, at the purchase price of $7,200,000, worked out at about two cents per acre.

Seward’s Folly Fact 5: So many Americans opposed the purchase of Alaska because although only a few people were likely to move to the inhospitable territory, all citizens were taxed to obtain the purchase price.

Seward’s Folly Fact 6: Another criticism for Alaska’s purchase was that the government had to borrow the money to finance the transaction even though the nation was heavily in debt due to the expenses incurred during the Civil War.

Seward’s Folly Fact 7: Many were surprised that the Secretary of State obtained approval from Congress for the Treaty of Russia and the purchase of Alaska, which led to speculation that bribery was involved in gaining agreement.

Seward’s Folly Fact 8: Seward and Johnson believed that if the United States had not purchased Alaska, Great Britain would probably have taken it and made it a part of Canada.

Seward’s Folly Fact 9: William Seward was finally vindicated for purchasing Alaska when a substantial gold deposit was discovered in the Yukon, leading to the 1896 Klondike gold rush.

Seward’s Folly Fact 10: In addition to gold, Alaska was also rich in oil, fish, timber, and many other goods, which far exceeded the purchase price of Alaska. In hindsight, Seward’s Folly should have been called Seward’s Fortune!

Alaska became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, and is now recognized for its vast natural resources. Today, 25 percent of America’s oil and over 50 percent of its seafood come from Alaska. It is also the largest state in area, about one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states combined, though it remains sparsely populated. The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word Alyeska, which means “great land.”

Alaska has two official state holidays to commemorate its origins: Seward’s Day, observed the last Monday in March, celebrates March 30, 1867, signing of the land treaty between the U.S. and Russia, and Alaska Day, observed every October 18, marks the anniversary of the formal land transfer.

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