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How are you spending Seward's Day? Sarah Palin calls it historic

March 30, 2009 |  6:14 pm
Republican President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State William H Seward who escaped assassination to push for the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867

Millions of us showed up for work today, stupidly forgetting it's a major holiday.

At least in Alaska.

Gov. Sarah Palin marked the state holiday with a special release celebratng the 142nd anniversary of the final signing of the purchase of what became the naton's largest state from Russia.

Once called Seward's folly for William Seward, who pushed the purchase with the political foresight of someone who could not have known about Prudhoe Bay and his party's 2008 need for a female vice presidential nominee. The price for all that frozen land and caribou was barely one or two AIG bonuses -- $7.2 million. (No extra charge for the volcanos or earthquakes.)

"With the purchase of Alaska from Russia," Alaska's first female governor said today, "the United States expanded its Pacific influence, gained tremendous natural resources and made the United States an Arctic nation, one of only eight such nations today.” Not to mention a well-located Cold War listening post.

It was actually a crucial year for North American history, 1867.  After 15 years of internal debate, somewhat progressive Russians prevailed in their argument that the United States would eventually overrun North America anyway, so Russia might as well get something for its colonial land while it could.

Secretary of State Seward was the most vocal American proponent for that strategic land abutting the future Soviet Union, but he was lucky to be alive. Seward was one of the assassination targets in the John Wilkes Booth 1865 conspiracy. But he wasn't in his boarding house room when the assassin arrived as President Lincoln was being shot across town. 

Seward was assisted in getting the purchase through the Senate by the eloquent Massachusetts Republican Charles Sumner, an ardent abolitionist and then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He got Republicans on board in part by arguing for eviction of Tsarist rule from North America.

And Britain, having assisted the Confederacy during the Civil War, even permitting guerrilla raids into New England, saw the expansionist Alaskan move as a potential threat against its colony next door to the well-armed U.S. So Britain quickly created the country of Canada the same year, not by a revolution or domestic demand but by an act of the British Parliament. (Not all Canadians agreed, however; Novia Scotia's legislature voted to secede and join the U.S. but was overruled.)

The result: the world's longest undefended border and the largest bilateral trading partnership. Not to mention creating the country that became the source for a majority of the players in the misnamed international National Hockey League.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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