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Palin’s Folly

November 18, 2009, 12:27 pm

So I’m currently suffering my way through Sarah Palin’s book, in a style not altogether dissimilar to Jesus’ ordeal in the hands of the Roman Empire. I won’t pollute the air around here with too many details from the book, but I was amused to see that my former governor repeats the cherished myth that Americans mocked 19th century maverick William Seward for writing a Facebook note about “death panels” arranging the purchase of Alaska in 1867.

Critics ridiculed Seward for spending so much on a remote chunk of earth that some thought of as just a frozen, inhospitable wilderness that was dark half the year. The $7.2 million purchas became known as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’ Icebox.” Seward withstood the mocking and disdain because of his vision for Alaska. He knew her potential to help secure the nation with her resources and strategic position on the globe. . . . [D]ecades later, he was posthumously vindicated, as purveyors of unpopular common sense often are.

 

As Richard Welch pointed out more than a half century ago in the pages of the American Slavic and East European Review — a title that I’ll concede is likely not a part of Sarah Palin’s titanic reading list — the “Seward’s Folly” narrative has very little evidence to support it. Americans in fact knew quite a bit about the Russian territory prior to its purchase. Anyone connected to the whaling and fishing industries of New England, or to the West Coast fur trade, would have understood the potential value of securing Alaska; anyone who appreciated the value of thwarting British ambitions to round out their Canadian empire would have been pleased as well. (This would have included those Americans who still subscribed to Polkian-era fantasies about capturing British Columbia up to the 54th parallel. With the purchase of Alaska, the westernmost British possessions were now in “an American vice,” as Seattle’s Puget Sound Gazette theorized.) Moreover, there was a great deal of emerging scientific literature on the territory, with recent expeditions funded by Smithsonian Institute as well as by other public and private backers.

So far as public opinion was concerned, most newspapers actually supported the purchase. The major exception was the New York Tribune, which was owned by Horace Greeley, a Republican who was nevertheless one of William Seward’s avowed enemies.  (Greeley believed Seward had been too radical on the slavery issue, among other things).  Even Democratically-aligned papers in the North — while not missing the opportunity to crack wise about polar bears and walruses — tended to support the purchase, mainly because there was no compelling reason to oppose it.  And at the end of the day, the treaty with Russia passed the US Senate by a vote of 37-2, with no significant expressions of opposition during the floor debate.

What’s odd — or not, depending on what view you take of Palin’s intelligence — is that most educated Alaskans are aware of all this, at least in its broad outline.  It’s taught in the schools, and the few textbooks that have been written about Alaskan history all incorporate Wright’s findings into their treatment of the Alaskan purchase.  Certainly someone who claims to know and love the state as much as the abdicated governor does  should know that the “Seward’s Folly” myth survives because most people outside the state know very little about Alaska and are perfectly comfortable substituting fable for fact when thinking about its history, culture and geography.  But since Sarah Palin’s entire schtick requires an audience that believes the myth — that believes, for example, that we can drill the shit out of the state without wrecking its ecology — I’m not surprised that she believes it as well. It’s certainly not the only bit of nonsense she’s peddling, but it’s a revealing bit at that.

…As an added bonus, Palin describes William Seward as just the sort of “colorful” character — like Soapy Smith and Skookum Jim Mason — that the Alaskan territory attracted. I don’t think anyone has ever described Seward as “colorful,” but I’m going to assume that Palin is actually thinking of William Seward Burroughs, whose fondness for guns and drugs would indeed have suited him well for an authentic Alaskan life.

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