I am speaking next Tuesday to the LA Civil War Roundtable about William Henry Seward. As I wrote the speech, I revisited the question of “Seward’s Folly.” In the book, which I published seven years ago, I said that although there were some critics of the Alaska purchase in 1867, none of them used the phrase “Seward’s folly.” In other words, I argued that it was a myth that that phrase was pinned to the purchase of Alaska from day one, that that phrase was created later.
One of my favorite research tools is newspapers.com, a database that now has more than half a billion newspaper pages. I am not sure whether it existed in 2010 and 2011, when I researched the Seward book, but if it did, it would have had perhaps ten million pages. In any case, I did a search this week for Seward’s folly from 1867. Newspapers.com is good at ordering results, so that the first few results are the best matches, and some of those results used the phrase.
For example, there was an article in May 1867, in the Brooklyn Daily Union, introducing an article by the humorist Petroleum Nasby, said that Nasby explained “how Seward’s folly became ours.” I checked: Nasby did not use the phrase himself; this was just the Union’s introduction. But still. There was an article in the Kansas Tribune from the same month, hoping for rain, “as wet weather will do more to kill the young grasshoppers than all the freezes in Seward’s folly.” There was an article in the Chicago Tribune, in the same month, saying that Seward rejoiced over the possibility of building a railroad to Sitka “or Seward’s folly, which he thinks perfectly feasible.” In July 1868, as the House debated whether to provide funds to pay for the Alaska purchase, a Wisconsin newspaper ran an article under the headline “The Alaska Folly” saying it was glad to see “Seward’s great folly” being questioned and criticized.
So if I were writing that section of the book again, I would write it differently. The press reaction to the Russian treaty was generally favorable. But there were critics, and some of those critics used the phrase “Seward’s Folly,” used it often enough that the phrase became a phrase in 1867 and 1868.
If you are in LA, come hear me Tuesday, 7 pm, Family History Center, East Temple Way.