As Secretary of State, William Seward purchased the Alaskan Territory from Russia in 1867 for about two cents per acre—totaling $7,200,000. At the time the American public found the idea agreeable, but opponents were critical because the land was too distant, settling it too difficult, and administration too costly. The acquisition of the secluded wilderness was termed “Seward’s Folly.” That changed soon after gold was discovered there in the 1870s; a folly became a legacy.
Today, William Seward is celebrated annually in upstate New York. This past Saturday former Republican Vice Presidential Nominee and Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin delivered the keynote in which she attacked bailouts, big government, and Obama. Her praise for Seward’s achievements was mired by her lack of understanding about the history of the Alaskan purchase and his legacy.
While the governor castigated big government bailouts for companies and people who were “imprudent” with their money, she failed to realize the man she praised bailed out a Russian empire in dire financial straits. After decades upon decades of war, the territory’s meager sale to the US injected cash into the Russian government. The Russians were glad to receive compensation for the land because they feared it might have been taken at some point by the British or US. While this may hardly equate to the modern day bailout of AIG or GM, it was in the best interest of the US to pay the money and take the territory. Because of this investment the nation benefitted from various resources, including gold and oil. If Palin was in Seward’s position, she would have refused the best interest of the nation, rebuked the Russians and tried to give them a lesson in fiscal responsibility.
Regarding “big government,” Palin denounced current efforts by the Obama administration to standardize educational outcomes, universalize healthcare, and regulate the Alaskan pipeline. After each denunciation she proclaimed, “I don’t think that’s what Seward had in mind.” Those exact ideas may not have been what Seward had in mind; nevertheless he was a big government guy. As New York governor he funded the construction of canals, bridges, libraries and schools. He was Secretary of State for President Lincoln in 1860 and was part of the administration that fought to hold this Union together. If Seward were not a proponent of big government he would have advocated that Lincoln let the South go. He helped write the Emancipation Proclamation; a document that freed the slaves in the Southern States and at the time interfered with the property rights of white Southerners. If Palin were in Seward’s position, she would have refused to advocate for the construction of public accommodations and infrastructure and possibly been one of the many voices urging Lincoln to let the South divest itself.
Palin celebrated the contributions Seward made to American race relations by discussing his involvement in the Underground Railroad. In fact, Seward became an abolitionist after he taught in Georgia and witnessed the cruelties of slavery. His house was a stop on the Underground Railroad where he broke the law and assisted fugitive slaves cross into Canada. Seward helped to author the Emancipation Proclamation and signed the document as Secretary of State. Palin’s own contribution to furthering race relations in the US is decidedly different than that of the subject of her remarks. In the previous Presidential campaign, she made inflammatory, racially pointed comments questioning Obama’s loyalty to the US. “This is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism … Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country.” During the final days of the campaign, at a Palin rally in Clearwater, Florida, the Alaskan Governor was silent when a man in the crowd shouted about Obama, “Kill him!” If Palin were in Seward’s position, her house would have been her own; she would have collected the reward for returning fugitives and opposed the big government idea of Emancipation.
“Seward’s Folly” is a fascinating tidbit of American history; even inconsequential until now. His supposed gaffe cemented his legacy as a knowledgeable statesman, racial progressive, and risk-taker. If Governor Palin were aware of his record and contribution to this nation, she would think him a wide-eyed, big government, bailout spending liberal—that is her folly. Without Seward’s acquisition of Alaska in 1867, Palin would not likely have a stage on which to grace us with her presence and likely Presidential bid in 2012—perhaps that is his folly.