Author & Speaker

The Five Finger Discount for Alaska

In my current project on the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, I am now in the phase of chopping out those parts of the story that — though entertaining to me — get in the way. It can be a painful process to decide that some nugget of information, purchased at the cost of considerable research energy, either slows down the narrative or distracts the readers, or would appeal to too few readers to impose it on them.
One of these is the missing $200,000 the United States paid for Alaska.
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The astronomical flag of Alaska
The purchase of Alaska was negotiated in 1867, and on June 20 of that year, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed the treaty with Russia that evidently did the deed. “Alaska Day” is celebrated on October 18 in our 49th state, as the day when Russia handed over the huge land mass to the United States. But that’s not, it turns out, when we paid for it.
The sale price was $7.2 million, and Congress did not come up with the cash until the next summer, after it was done impeaching but failing to remove President Johnson from office. And although the check for payment is for $7.2 million, dated August 1, 1868, the check is not made out to the Russian government, but to the Russian diplomat who negotiated the sale, Edouard de Stoeckl.
According to one biographer of then-Secretary of State William Sewerd, de Stoeckl transferred to the Russian government only $7 million, raising the question — what happened to the other $200,000?
The biographer (Glyndon Van Deusen), reports that the money was used to lubricate the political system in funding the purchase — some went to newspapers for publicity, and some to politicians themselves. The distribution, the story goes, was managed by de Stoeckl and his Washington lobbyist, former Treasury Secretary Robert J. Walker.
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William Henry Seward
Seward, for whom the territory was named “Seward’s Folly,” told President Johnson’s personal secretary that substantial bribes were paid to get the appropriation through Congress.
When I was in third grade, in 1959, it was a big deal that Alaska was becoming a state, and we were taught a lot about Alaska. I don’t remember this coming up.

1 Comment

  1. klkatz on April 30, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    the ‘lubrication’ theory seems plausible.
    good find.
    thanks for sharing.

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