Today’s installment concludes The Alaska Purchase,
our selection from Charles Sumner’s Speech to the Senate During the Alaskan Treaty Ratification Debate in 1867. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
If you have journeyed through all of the installments of this series, just one more to go and you will have completed a selection from the great works of seven thousand words. Congratulations!
Previously in The Alaska Purchase.
Place: Washington, D.C.
Thus we have three different stipulations on the part of Russia: one opening seas, gulfs, and havens on the Russian coast to British subjects for ﬁshing and trading with the natives; the second making Sitka a free port to British subjects; and the third making British rivers that ﬂow through the Russian possessions forever free to British navigation. Does the United States succeed to these stipulations?
Among these I make a distinction in favor of the last, which by its language is declared to be “forever,” and may have been in the nature of an equivalent at the settlement of the boundaries between the two Powers. While pleading with Great Britain in 1826 for the free navigation of the St. Lawrence, Mr. Clay, who was at that time Secretary of State, said that “the American Government did not mean to contend for any principle the beneﬁt of which, in analogous circumstances, it would deny to Great Britain.” In the same year Mr. Gallatin, our Minister in Lon don, when negotiating with Great Britain for the adjustment of our boundaries on the Paciﬁc, proposed that “if the line should cross any of the branches of the Columbia at points from which they are navigable by boats to the main stream, the navigation of both branches and of the main stream should be perpetually free and common to the people of both nations.”
The two other stipulations are different in character. They are not declared to be “forever” and do not stand on any principle of public law.
From this survey of the treaty, as seen in its origin and the questions under it, I might pass at once to a survey of the possessions that have been conveyed, but there are other matters of a more general character which present themselves at this stage and challenge the judgment. These concern nothing less than the unity, power, and grandeur of the republic, with the extension of its dominion and its institutions.
Foremost in order, if not in importance, I put the desires of our fellow-citizens on the Paciﬁc coast, and the special advantages that they will derive from this enlargement of boundary. They were the ﬁrst to ask for it, and will be the ﬁrst to proﬁt by it. While others knew the Russian possessions only on the map, they knew them practically in their resources. While others were still indifferent, they were planning how to appropriate Russian peltries and ﬁsheries.
These well-known desires were founded, of course, on supposed advantages; and here experience and neighborhood were prompters. Since 1854 the people of California have received their ice from the fresh-water lakes in the island of Kodiak, not far westward from Mount St. Elias. Later still their ﬁshermen have searched the waters about the Aleutians and Shumagins, beginning a promising ﬁshery. Others have proposed to substitute themselves for the Hudson Bay Company in their franchise on the coast. But all were looking to the Orient, as in the time of Columbus, although like him they sail to the west. To them China and Japan, those ancient realms of fabulous wealth, are the Indies. To draw this commerce to the Paciﬁc coast is no new idea.
For along time most, if not all, the sea-otter skins of this coast found their way to China, excluding even Russia herself. China was the best customer, and therefore Englishmen and Americans followed the Russian company in carrying these furs to her market.
To unite the east of Asia with the west of America is the aspiration of commerce. Of course, whatever helps this result is an advantage. This treaty is another advantage, for nothing can be clearer than that the western coast must exercise an attraction that will be felt in China and Japan just in proportion as it is occupied by a commercial people communicating readily with the Atlantic and with Europe. This cannot be done without con sequence not less important politically than commercially. Owing so much to the union, the people there will be bound to it anew, and the national unity will receive another conﬁrmation. Thus the whole country will be a gainer.
The extension of dominion is another consideration, calculated to captivate the public mind. Few are so cold or so philosophical as to regard with insensibility a widening of the bounds of country. Our territorial acquisitions are among the landmarks of our history. If the United States have from time to time added to their dominion they have only yielded to the universal passion for annexation, although I do not forget that the late Theodore Parker was accustomed to say that among all people the Anglo-Saxons were remarkable for “a greed of land.” It was land, not gold, that aroused the Anglo-Saxon phlegm. I doubt, however, whether this passion is stronger with us than with other nations, except, perhaps, that in a community where all participate in government national sentiments are more active.
More than the extension of dominion is the extension of republican institutions, which is a traditional aspiration. In this spirit independence was achieved. In the name of human rights our fathers overthrew the kingly power, whose representative was George III. They set themselves openly against this form of government. They were against it for themselves, and offered their example to mankind.
John Adams, in the preface to his Defence of the American Constitution, written in London, where he resided as Minister, and dated January 1, 1787, at Grosvenor Square, the central seat of aristocratic fashion, after exposing the fabulous origin of the kingly power in contrast with the simple origin of our republican constitutions, thus for a moment lifts the curtain of the future: “Thirteen governments, thus founded on the natural authority of the people alone, and without any pretense of miracle or mystery, and which are destined to spread over the northern part of that whole quarter of the globe, is a great point gained in favor of the rights of mankind.” Thus, according to this prophetic Minister, even at that early day was the destiny of the republic manifest. It was to spread over the northern part of the American quarter of the globe; and it was to be a support to the rights of mankind.
By the text of our Constitution, the United States are bound to guarantee a republican form of government to every State in this Union; but this obligation, which is only applicable at home, is an unquestionable indication of the national aspiration everywhere. The republic is something more than a local policy; it is a general principle, not to be forgotten at any time, especially when the opportunity is presented of bringing an immense region within its inﬂuence. Elsewhere it has for the present failed; but on this account our example is more important.
The present treaty is a visible step in the occupation of the whole North American continent. As such it will be recognized by the world and accepted by the American people. But the treaty involves something more. By it we dismiss one more monarch from this continent. One by one they have retired; ﬁrst France, then Spain, then France again; and now Russia — all giving way to that absorbing unity which is declared in the national motto: E pluribus unum.
This ends our series of passages on The Alaska Purchase by Charles Sumner from his Speech to the Senate During the Treaty Ratification Debate published in 1867. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
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