“The Big Thing”

April 20, 1867

Thomas Nast

“The Big Thing”

Presidential Administration, Andrew Johnson; Symbols, Uncle Sam; U.S. Foreign Policy;

Johnson, Andrew; Seward, William Henry;

Alaska; American West; Russia;

Old Mother Seward. "I'll rub some of this on his sore spot. It may soothe him a little."

In this Harper’s Weekly cartoon, Thomas Nast ridicules the American government’s purchase of Alaska from Russia by depicting Secretary of State William H. Seward as an elderly mother caring for her child, a small version of Uncle Sam. The latter is irritated because of his sore head—i.e., President Andrew Johnson (“Andy”), whose lenient Reconstruction policy had angered Republicans. Uncle Sam shakes his fist at a portrait of “King Andy,” a pejorative nickname for Johnson. Seward tries to relieve the national pain by applying Redding’s Russia Salve, a popular ointment for skin maladies advertised in the pages of Harper’s Weekly and elsewhere. For Nast, the purchase of Alaska was an administration ploy to ease widespread resentment toward the president. On the wall poster in the cartoon’s background, Uncle Sam is shown trudging in snowshoes across the icy tundra, planting American flags on Alaskan mountaintops, as polar bears and walruses watch. A picture of an Eskimo family is sarcastically labeled “One of the Advantages.”

By early 1867, the Russian company administering Alaska teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, and the imperial government in St. Petersburg desperately needed an influx of funds.  Russian officials also worried that the increasing American population in the region would one day lead to calls for annexation by the U.S. government (as occurred decades earlier in Texas).  Another strategic concern was how to defend it during a possible war with Great Britain, Russia's enemy which controlled Canada.  Consequently, the Russian minister to the United States, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, contacted Secretary Seward in March 1867 with an offer to sell Alaska.

When the opportunity presented itself, President Johnson was enmeshed in a bitter struggle with Congress over Reconstruction policy.  Seward, as well, had alienated most of his Republican colleagues by siding with Johnson.  Both men hoped that such a diplomatic coup would enhance their political prestige by diverting attention from domestic matters.  National interest, however, was their overriding motivation.  The great land mass, jutting well into the Pacific Ocean near Asia, offered numerous economic and strategic benefits.

Seward and Stoeckle quickly negotiated a treaty for the United States to buy Alaska for $7,000,000 in gold. Seward hoped to gain Senate approval before the Congressional session ended, and secured the president’s approval, but the Russians raised additional issues and upped the ante by $200,000. By this time, Congress had adjourned, so President Johnson called the Senate into special session on April 1, 1867.

Some of the Radical Republican press, especially the New York Tribune, mocked the Alaskan purchase as "Seward's Folly," "Johnson's Polar Bear Garden," "Walrussia," or "Russian Fairy Land" (as in this cartoon). Most newspapers, though, endorsed the treaty as advantageous for the United States.  To overcome personal animosity to the president and secretary of state, Seward waged an intensive war of propaganda and lobbying.  The effort received a boost from the support of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a leading Radical Republican opponent of Johnson.  

The decisive factor was winning the approval of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.  In addition to his standing as a prominent Radical, many Republican senators followed his lead (at this time) on foreign policy issues.  Like Seward, Sumner believed that the purchase of Alaska would expedite the withdrawal of Britain from Canada and the dominion's ultimate union with the United States.  (Britain, too, envisioned and feared this scenario.)  On April 9, the Senate voted in favor of the treaty, 37-2.

After Congress convened the next year, trouble arose in the House over the treaty.  In March 1868, Republican congressmen sought to embarrass President Johnson further by postponing an appropriations vote for two months until after the impeachment process against him was completed.  (The treaty stipulated payment to Russia by April 20, 1868.)  Another problem was the demand by Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts that a financial claim against Russia by an American arms merchant be settled before the House voted on the treaty funds. 

Once again, Seward and Stoeckl, the Russian minister, cranked up their lobbying and spin machine.  In addition to providing an indemnity to Butler's satisfaction (for which the congressman collected a fee), it later came to light that Stoeckl bribed several Republican congressmen, allegedly including the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Nathaniel Banks.  Most representatives, though, realized the importance of the treaty to the nation and did not want to offend Russia, whom they considered to have been the only European power to support the Union during the Civil War.  In 1868, after Johnson narrowly escaped removal from office (May) and lost the Democratic presidential nomination (July 7), the House voted in favor of the treaty appropriations on July 14, 114-43.

Robert C. Kennedy

“The Big Thing”
June 17, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to