The Purchase of Alaska


The Purchase of Alaska

A.D. 1867

Charles Sumner

One need not be old at this date to remember that in his school-days the geographies labelled as "Russian Possessions" a great country in the northwest corner of North America. It was one of those unexplored and mysterious regions to which the poets and romancers were at liberty to attribute almost any imaginable wild beast, natural feature, or action of the elements; and Campbell utilized it in his famous lines

"Waft across the waves' tumultuous roar
The wolf's long howl from Oonalaska's shore,"

which became so familiar to almost every class of readers that few thought of Alaska as anything but a desolate land of ice and wolves, with the pitiful cry of the famishing animals almost heard across the wide Pacific. When the United States bought the country, in 1867, it was a favorite expression with those who opposed the purchase to allude to it as "Seward's icebergs," and to say that seven million dollars was a large ice-bill for a single summer. It is now known that Alaska is a land of gold, a land of furs, a land of fish, a land with a mighty river, a land that has the highest mountain on the continent and the greatest glacier in the world, a land that attracts the same class of tourists that have heretofore gone to Norway for its wild fiords and the midnight sun. Moreover, it was not altogether a land of desolation; for it had native inhabitants, and they had their own literature - prose and poetry - rude, but picturesque and interesting. When it was purchased it added almost half as much territory as the United States already possessed; the chain of Aleutian Islands stretches far toward the Orient; and with the subsequent acquisition of Guam and the Philippines, we may almost paraphrase a famous saying and declare that the stroke of the American hammer and scream of the American whistle are heard round the globe.

The chapter that follows is the main part of a speech delivered in the United States Senate by Charles Sumner when the treaty was under consideration. It is especially interesting in view of the recent controversy over the boundary between Alaska and British America, which was amicably settled by arbitration.

YOU have just listened to the reading of the treaty by which Russia cedes to the United States all her possessions on the North American continent in consideration of seven million two hundred thousand dollars, to be paid by the United States. On the one side is the cession of a vast country, with its jurisdiction and its resources of all kinds; on the other side is the purchase-money. Such is this transaction on its face.

In endeavoring to estimate its character I am glad to begin with what is clear and beyond question. I refer to the boundaries fixed by the treaty. Beginning at the parallel Of 54 40' north latitude, so famous in our history, the line ascends Portland Channel to the mountains, which it follows on their summits to the point of intersection with 141 west longitude, which line it ascends to the frozen ocean, or, if you please, to the North Pole. This is the eastern boundary, separating this region from the British possessions, and it is borrowed from the treaty between Russia and Great Britain in 1825, establishing the relations between those two Powers on this continent.

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“Whatever we find lovely in a friend, or in a saint, ought to elevate our affections: we should conclude that if there is so much sweetness in a drop; there must be infinitely more in the fountain. If there is so much splendour in a ray, what must the sun be in its glory!”
–Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man