“Essentially,” he said, “it’s a large real estate deal.”
The idea was derided on Twitter, though he isn’t the first president to covet the ice-encrusted island.
Denmark’s reluctance to sell wasn’t the story 150 years ago, when Russia couldn’t get rid of the Alaska territory fast enough. It finally sold millions of acres of land to the United States in 1867 for pennies on the dollar.
When Russian czar Peter the Great first dispatched Vitus Bering to explore the Alaskan coast in 1725, Inuit and Alaska Natives had already been living there for about 15,000 years, according to the state government. By the 1790s, hundreds of Russian trappers had settled there to collect otter pelts, a lucrative business. Though some Alaska Natives joined the settlements, the Russians also fought with and slaughtered native people to establish a stronghold, according to historian James R. Gibson in the Wilson Quarterly.
A few decades later, the otter population was decimated, and the settlers made attempts to diversify the economy. But Russia had little use for the land, and it was seen as hard to defend from encroachment. Plus, Gibson wrote, after being humiliated by France and Britain in the Crimean War, czar Alexander II was more interested in protecting his empire than expanding it.
Russia began secretly offering Alaska for purchase as early as 1857. The president at the time, James Buchanan, seemed interested, but a deal never panned out. Russia tried again in 1861, but by that time the U.S. government was a little bit busy with the Civil War.
Finally, in 1867, with the war over and President Andrew Johnson in office, Russia sent an envoy, Edouard de Stoeckl, to Washington to make the deal. The czar told Stoeckl to keep a low profile and make it look as if the United States had initiated the sale — which worked out great for Secretary of State William Seward, who was only too happy to take full credit.
Seward first offered $5 million. Over three weeks, Stoeckl negotiated him up to $7.2 million, for a region twice the size of Texas, that came out to two cents an acre. The czar accepted the terms via telegram late on March 29, 1867. In a rush to get the secret deal to Congress before they adjourned, Seward summoned Stoeckl to finish the deal immediately, according to Gibson. The treaty was signed the next morning at 4 a.m.
The Alaska Purchase sailed through Congress to the president’s desk.
But the Republican media, then engaged in a bitter battle over Reconstruction with the Democratic president, were merciless. They slammed the millions spent on what they saw as useless land, dubbing it “Seward’s Folly” and “Johnson’s Polar Bear Farm.”
“We may make a treaty with Russia, but we cannot make a treaty with the North Wind or the Snow King,” the New York Tribune teased.
Even a columnist for the Democratic newspaper the New York World was not impressed, writing: “I’ll go for it with an extra condition that the Secretary of State be compelled to live there. Russia has sold us a sucked orange.”
A handover ceremony in Sitka, Alaska, took place on Oct. 18, 1867, and Russia’s emptied buildings became barracks for U.S. troops led by Jefferson C. Davis, who was not the former Confederate president but an unpopular Union general largely known for murdering a superior officer and engineering a massacre of freed slaves at Ebenezer Creek.
Alaska was largely ignored until 1896, when gold was found and more than 100,000 settlers rushed in to claim it. It became the 49th state in 1959.
Seward remained steadfast that his deal had been a good one. In 1870, when asked by a friend to name his greatest accomplishment, he was quick to claim the purchase of Alaska. “But it will take the people a generation to find that out,” he reportedly said. Seward was even interested in making more purchases — of Puerto Rico, Iceland and you guessed it, Greenland — but those plans never went anywhere.
Trump’s interest in Greenland is motivated at least in part by a desire to have an “Alaska-type acquisition for his legacy,” according to Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender, who first broke the story Thursday.
As far as presidential legacies go, it is true that many historians regard the Alaska purchase as the Johnson administration’s best move.
But that isn’t saying much. In a February 2019 poll of 157 presidential scholars, Johnson was rated the worst president in our nation’s history.
Trump came in at third-worst, right above Buchanan.
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