Free Argumentative Essay On British View Of The Alaska Purchase
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The United States obtained "the isolated colony" Alaska from the Russians in the year 1867 for $7.2 million. Many critiques, legislators, and journalists objected the high price and unpredictable prospects of earning a reasonable return on the investment at the time. The Chicago Evening Journal, April 1, 1867 stated:
"The paltry sum of $7,000,000 for a country nearly eight times as large as this state [Illinois] and 400 miles of coast, shows Russia has some ulterior object to gain[It] more than doubles our Pacific Coast, yet adds but little to the productive territory of the nation. Russian America is a dreary waste of snow and ice. Its military importance is its chief value, although its commercial significance may become, eventually, very great. The commerce of the Pacific has not been developed to any considerable extent, but it is destined to pass and perhaps rival, and probably surpass, that of the Atlantic. This session of Russian America will probably help us materially in controlling that commerce."
Historians, however, now seem unanimous in their judgment favoring the purchase of Alaska from the USA financially and in many other ways. Modern commentators views on the purchase only appear to differ over whether to “attribute the favorable conclusion to luck rather than American foresight” (Kushner, 1975, p. 5). The purchase also favored Russia, but the biggest beneficiary was Britain. A shift in leadership from the talented merchant Alexander Baranov to captain-lieutenant Hagemeister lead to Russia selling off Alaska to the United States. Under Baranov, Alaska brought in enormous revenues but the actions of the lieutenant’s government ruined Alaska. The new officers set astronomical wages for themselves and overexploited the resources in Alaska. Over the next twenty years, the Aleuts and Eskimos killed all the sea otters, which were Alaska’s most profitable trade. The native people suffered and staged several uprisings that the Russian leaders quashed by firing shots at the coastal villages from their military ships.
When the Crimean war broke out, France, Turkey, and Britain stood against Russia. It was clear that Russia could neither defend nor supply for Alaska because their allies’ ships now controlled the sea routes. Even the possibility of mining gold dimmed. Russia strongly feared that Britain might block Alaska leaving them with nothing. The tension between London and Moscow grew while relations with the American leaders grew warmer every day. Both sides almost simultaneously brought up the idea to sell Alaska. Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, Russians high commissioner in Washington, on behalf of Tsar opened talks with Steward, the United States Secretary of State.
Without the devoted efforts of one individual by the name William H Stewart, it is certain that the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska would have concluded successfully. Steward worked tirelessly and devoted an amazing amount of energy towards the passage of the Alaska Purchase Treaty. In a way, the American purchase of Alaska was almost a single-handed achievement of the enterprising American Secretary of State, Steward. Because of his main role in the events surrounding the purchase, it is important to gain an understanding as to why Steward grasped Russia’s offer to cede Alaska to the USA so enthusiastically. In addition, it is of similar importance to determine the significance believed by Steward on what the purchase held. Steward’s interest in Alaska was gradual. As early as 1852, when he served in the Senate, he had introduced a bill, which provided for a naval survey in the Bering Strait and the North Pacific (Kushner, 1975, 8). As his career advanced, and his ideas concerning the American empire developed, his interest towards Alaska increased. He recognized the importance of the Russian territory and his basis of interest shifted from solely being commercial. Geopolitical factors were of equal importance in the plans to incorporate Alaska into the United States. In 1853, Steward stated:
“The boarders of the federal republic shall be extended so that it shall greet the sun when he sends his gleaming rays towards the polar circle and shall include even distant islands in either oceanall mankind shall come to recognize in us the successor of the few great states that have alternately borne commanding sway in the world.”
Despite the challenges, Steward carried out a spectacular campaign publicizing the treaty. He gained influence in the Senate and distributed information favoring the purchase to several ‘friendly newspapers’. Eventually, he managed to win the support of many newspapers countrywide and the majority of public opinion. Initially, the announcement of the purchase gathered varied reactions throughout the country. Alaska acquired several expressions such as “Steward’s ice-box” and Steward’s folly” (Kushner, 1975, 10). These and many similar phrases became widely popular and used in the American press. The immediate reaction resulting from the purchase illustrated divergent opinions in the United States geographic basis. Many newspapers on the Pacific coast, from the start, unanimously favored the purchase of Alaska. For example, The Portland Daily Oregonian reported:
“The purchase by our government of the Russia North American possessions is the most valuable acquisition of territory obtained by the United States since the cession of California Considering the high value of this acquisition the sum paid for it must be allowed to be small indeed.”
Today, historians argue that currently, the gross state product of Alaska is approximately over $40 billion, this easily justifies its original price. Promotional materials, textbooks and academic studies for the state of Alaska further point out that, the original purchase price was repaid to the U.S treasury in a span of twenty years through the sale of seal skins. The United States benefited from the purchase but it is likely that the purchase of Alaska, with all its timber, oil and other natural resources for 1.7 cents an acre was not a good deal financially and otherwise for the country. First, the income from Alaska has exceeded the original price is sufficient to prove that the purchase was indeed a risky investment. Second, the purchase of Alaska was a risky investment. The panorama for the Alaskan economy at the time of purchase was uncertain. Investment of the trading price in other projects with equal or less risk might have ensured greater returns over the years. Lastly, the returns to the citizens of the United States from the purchase have been lesser than the total gross product of the Alaskan economy. The only relevant return includes only net income to Americans which, would not have been gained if Alaska had not been purchased. The Tribune claimed that:
“With the purchase of Alaska, steward sought to improve his wretched political position by getting an acquisition of territory utterly valueless”
The profitability of the Alaska purchase is intriguing for many reasons. For example, the financial evaluation of the transaction clarifies the motivation behind the purchase. Since the purchase of Alaska was not a good deal financially, then the non-financial motives were more important than the financial incentives. Alaska was therefore probably purchased for geopolitical reasons rather than for its economic potential or its resources. The New York Herald commented that:
“Politically consideredthis cessation of Russia Alaska becomes a matter of great importanceit takes British possessions on the Pacific coast in the uncomfortable position of a hostile cockney with a watchful Yankee on each side of himIt is a flank movement for this grater object (Canada).”
Another interesting factor about the purchase is an issue raised by advocates of the ‘New Western History.’ The new western history differs in several ways from the traditional history of the American West concerning the emphasis on the role of the federal government in developing the West. The American West, more than any other section of the United States is not a creation not so much of individual or local efforts, but of federal efforts. More than any other region, the West has been historically a dependency of the federal government. If the United States federal government made a substantial profit from Alaska, as believed, then Alaska would prove a counter-example to this claim. The financial loss for the US government would support the notion that Alaska has been mostly dependent on the federal government. The success or failure of the Alaska purchase might raise several historical questions. Therefore, if the purchase were more costly than assumed to be, then maybe the rest of the territorial acquisitions require examination.
Many editorial comments and aggressively expansionist statements by American leaders eventually filtered down through the press in British Colombia to the disapproval of colonists who still cherished and valued the British connection. An example is the Victoria British colonist after reproducing a New York Herald in full, which commented on the ‘political consequences’ of the purchase of Alaska and concluded that the immediate goal of the US appeared to be:
“Nothing less than to hem in and enclose British possessions on the Pacific; render them of little or no importance to Great Britain, and ensure their easy conquest.” (Victoria)
The London Times, April 2, 1867 further stated:
"Our policy is clear. Since we have no right whatever to protest against an act entirely within the discretion of the Russian and United States Governments, let us not place ourselves in a false position by vain remonstrance. It is said that British Columbia is almost cut off from the Pacific by the occupation by what ought to be a portion of its seaboard. The sufficient answer is that it was effectually cut off before, for America has only bought what belonged to Russia, and no Englishman ever dreamt that Russia would part with it to us. We are materially no worse off than before while our moral right to our own possessions remains absolutely untouched."
The purchase of Alaska by the United States from Russia produced varied reactions from Great Britain. The main reason was that the imperial idea was going through some major reevaluation. To many English men, it appeared that the colonial system was slowly falling apart, and few doubted that Britain’s place as an imperial power was transforming. However, Britain was not about to abandon her colonies. The British reaction to the American purchase demonstrated that the Great Britain was prepared to act and fight to preserve her colonial interests. Upon completion of the purchase, The Gentleman’s Magazine of London reported that:
“A treaty has been concluded between the United States and Russia, the effect of which will, it is said, be the purchase by the former of Russian possessions in America.”
Throughout the nineteenth century, Britain’s North American possessions stood for a collective hostage through which the U.S. could win succession from Great Britain. All policies directed towards Europe had to be created with the strategic realization of the fact that ‘Britain’s back door’ remained wide open to attack in North America. The fear of an American war, Great Britain could not focus all her efforts in Europe. In addition, the prospect of a European war established the uncomfortable situation whereby Great Britain could no longer afford to garrison its North American colonies. With Britain’s hands tied, and anti-imperialism at its peak, it is no wonder that Britain came to consider the independence of British North America. In view of this, when the United States purchased Alaska, it took away an opportunity for Britain to acquire it saving the country extra costs and imperial scrutiny that would have been spent on the new colony.
On a larger scale, the value of colonial possessions was undergoing major reassessment. A majority of the Victorian statesmen and spokespersons of the Manchester School showed a strong distaste for “Empire”. Benjamin Disraeli, Great Britain's Prime Minister, represented a wide section of public opinion when he referred to Britain’s colonies as “a millstone around our necks” in 1852. In British North America, governmental structures were strong and continued to evolve. The development of constitutional governments allowed the formation of new relationships within the Empire. The North American colonies were those whose weaknesses faced the most danger. It was only natural that Britain should wish to see them independent and standing on their own political two feet sooner than later. When a plan for their union arose within the colonies, Great Britain did very little to prevent the realization. Similarly, when the United States purchased Alaska, Britain did not oppose the move.
Interestingly, the American purchase of Alaska caused was a source of ‘considerable excitement’ in Britain and became a subject of ‘great public interest’. The British press recognized the significance of the purchase both strategically and politically. For instance, The London Morning Post, April 2, 1867, declared that:
“The American investment was not because of its intrinsic value but Americans’ hope of acquiring the southern territory it bordered.”
The London Times April 1, 1867, with little knowledge of the geography of North America’s Pacific Coast, stated that the cession would “Exclude British Columbia almost entirely from the Pacific.”
The Times also admitted that the British colony on the west coast of North America would desire to join the United States. The British press appeared to take offense at the United States acquisition of Alaska and the Times went as far as asking Her Majesty to “remonstrate upon the subject." In the British House of Commons, the excitement proved to be the reaction to the purchase. However, it was immediately recognized by British members of parliament that the acquisition endangered their colony on the Pacific. Some rallied the construction of a railroad across the North American continent for the preservation its Pacific possession including ensuring future Canadian expansion westwards. However, some urged that the American purchase should not be exaggerated in importance for example, the Duke of Buckingham stated:
“I myself cannot think that the cession or purchase of the territory in question by the United States is likely to have any such overwhelming influence upon the progress of the colonies sprung from English blood which have been established on that side of the world. As at first sight it appears to be imagined.”
Because of the shifting balance of power and control in the Pacific, an outlet on that ocean was of great importance to Great Britain. The interests of the British were expanding in the Pacific and her rivalry in that quarter with the Russians and other European powers was intensifying. For its strategic position, if, for no other reason, British Columbia was worth keeping as a British colony. Undoubtedly, the union of Alaska with the rest of the British North America west of Canada would have helped in the preservation of British interests. The American purchase of the isolated colony, Alaska served as a powerful reminder to Britain that the United States was a serious threat to British North America and Canada’s future. In fact, the fear of the power the United States represented became the major factor in the formulation of Britain’s foreign policy. By surrounding the British territory on the Pacific to the north and south, the purchase helped to establish the motivating force that eventually pushed Canadian sovereignty, and as a result, Britain's interest in the Pacific Coast of America. The motivating force was fear.
The purchase of Alaska had a share of benefits and losses to the countries involved in the process. To the Russians, the purchase was beneficial to them in that the agreement was designed to keep their assets from seizure by their enemies, Great Britain, however, the close relationship between them and the United States eventually backfired and a threat began to loom on the horizon (Kushner, 1975, 22 . In addition, according to analysts, Russia’s move to sell Alaska proved to have been a loss for Russia.
The United States as well enjoyed the benefits of power projection from expanding their territory and increased trade because they had more resources to buy. In addition, Great Britain was one of their enemies therefore taking over one of the territories they eyed was a sort of win for the United States (Kushner, 1975, 12). The united states however were on a losing streak when it came to the financial benefits of the purchase. The resources in Alaska diminished, and an increase in territory meant an increase in revenue allocation in order to maintain the new territory. The losses therefore exceeded its profitability in the end.
The Great Britain, however, seem to have received the best deal in the purchase of Alaska. One of the major threats resulting from the purchase was an attempt by the United States to conquer British Columbia, which did not take place. The British therefore did not suffer any setbacks. Instead, the fear of the treat motivated then to develop their colony and establish a firmer rule upon it. In addition, the purchase of Alaska meant that the Russians no longer had, any influence on that coast therefore did not pose a threat to British Columbia. The meant that the British no longer had to stretch its army thin towards protecting its colonies boarders. Finally, the purchase of Alaska prevented the invasion of the British to Alaska in order to seize it in case war ever broke out between Britain and Russia because Alaska was now under the United States. For Britain, the purchase was undoubtfully in its favor.
Barro, R. 2009.Rare Disasters, Asset Prices, and Welfare Costs. American Economic Review, 2 43–64.
Kushner, H. 1975. Seward’s Folly? American Commerce in Russian America and the Alaska Purchase. California Historical Quarterly, 54: 5–26.
London Morning Post, April 2, 1867.
London Times 1867- 1870.
New York Herald, 1867.
New York Tribune, April 8, 1867.
“Speech of Steward, the American Secretary of State concerning his wish to expand the United State’s territory.” 1853.
“Speech of The Duke of Buckingham in response to the purchase of Alaska by the United States”, Britain, April 2, 1867.
The Chicago Evening Journal, April 1, 1867
The Gentleman’s Magazine, April 1867.
The Portland Daily Oregonian 1867
Victoria British Colonist 1866-1871.
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