Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Alaska Appropriations Affair

Photo shows Walter W. Johnson, a mining engineer and designer of gold and tin dredges, who traveled around the Seward Peninsula on the family "pupmobile" and on horseback. Johnson wrote on the back of his copy of the photo, "When it was time to coast, the dogs would jump aboard without command." (Source: Granddaughter Lynn Johnson, 2013)


Most people--including me--don't realize how big Alaska is, nor how controversial it was. Even after the Treaty for its purchase had been signed, and the land surrendered to us, the appropriation of money to pay Russia was delayed by more than a year due to opposition in the House of Representatives (sound familiar?).

"Russian America" was officially surrendered to the United States on October 18, 1867. Dubbed "Seward's folly" after its chief advocate Secretary of State William Seward, the $7.25 million price tag was thought by some to be a colossal waste of money.

Those opposed to the Alaska acquisition argued we couldn't afford it. Burdened with debt from the Civil War and with plenty of uninhabited land, the New York Tribune wrote in May 1867 that this country is "already possessed of more territory than it can decently govern."

Using its powers to control the nation's purse strings, the popular branch of the government sought to shield American taxpayers from the burden of paying for a "perfectly barren" piece of land.

In the end, their actions threatened the nation's reputation as well as its security. "The Alaska affair had assumed such a position that it would have been highly discreditable to longer withhold from Russia the purchase-money. The nation was committed not only by the ratification of the treaty but by the actual transfer of the new territory, and there was no honorable alternative but to make the best of the bargain," concluded the Telegraph.

The House finally approved the appropriation on July 14, 1868, by a vote of 113 to 48.

As to whether the $7.25 million purchase was a good investment, there continues to be some debate.

An 1871 article written by W.H. Dall and published in Harpers New Monthly Magazine, however, was already dismissing detractors. With a rich source of seal skins, furs, salt-cod fish, whale oil, and Alaskan cedar, Dall estimated the Alaska investment was returning 14% annually, versus: Texas 23%, Florida 5%, New Mexico and Arizona 1%.

Fifty years later, and after gold had been discovered there, Secretary of the Interior Frank Lane said: 

Alaska's period of trial is over. She has been weighed in the balance and found magnificently worthy. Actual financial statements show and prove conclusively that to have neglected that opportunity would have been a colossal blunder, a blunder future generations could never forgive.

Today, Alaska is taking an innovative approach to political leadership. Read about Mayor Stubbs, the cat mayor, at WSJ.com
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.