Guest Essayist: David Shestokas


It’s difficult to determine a precise moment when Russia came to dominate recent American news and politics. The events that may have spun Russia into part of America’s daily discussions may have been accusations of Russia’s involvement in the 216 elections.

Since then, Russia and the villainous Vladimir Putin have been a daily part of our political discourse. Even as the novel coronavirus raged, mentions of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Lt. General Michael Flynn broke through coverage of the pandemic.


Russia has not always been a mortal enemy in the American story. America’s Founders reached out to Russia in our earliest days. In December, 1780, the United States sent its first envoy to St. Petersburg, then Russia’s capital. The envoy, Francis Dana, brought a secretary with him.

The secretary was fourteen-year-old John Quincy Adams. Dana could speak no word of French, the language of the Russian court, and so John Adams[1] had lent Dana his son, who was fluent in French. Young John Quincy thus became a diplomatic interpreter.

Dana’s mission was to secure aid and support from Tsarina Catherine I for the American Revolution against England. The mission was unsuccessful, but for three years John Quincy became familiar with the workings of Russia’s ruling class. Catherine’s grandson was about the royal court during John Quincy’s tenure in St. Petersburg. In 1801, the grandson would become Tsar Alexander I.

Twenty-six years later, after John Quincy’s father had been President of the United States and Alexander’s father had preceded him as tsar, John Quincy returned to St. Petersburg. In November, 1809, Tsar Alexander I received John Quincy Adams as the first official United States Ambassador to Russia.

The Tsar greeted Adams warmly: “Monsieur, je suis charmé d’avoir le plaisir de vous voir ici.”[2] After this warm welcome, Ambassador Adams and Tsar Alexander spoke at length of trade, European politics, wars and Napoleon, the sometime ally, sometime adversary of both Russia and the United States.

The Tsar became ever more comfortable with his American guest, ultimately confiding the difficulties of managing his empire. Alexander revealed to John Quincy: “Its size is one of its greatest evils,” the Czar mused of his own country. “It is difficult to hold together so great a body as this empire.”

Ambassador Adams included the Tsar’s comment in his diplomatic dispatch to the State Department and President Monroe. It became part of the institutional memory of the United States, a country that only six years before had bought Louisiana from Napoleon.[3]


In July, 1741, Vitus Bering, a Russian naval officer culminated years of Russian eastward exploration with the sighting of Mount Saint Elias (a.k.a. Boundary Peak) on the North America mainland. The coming years would see periodic trips by Russian hunters and trappers.

In 1781 the Northeastern Company was established to organize and administer Russian colonies in North America. Company operations were directed from Kithtak (now Kodiak Island) and later from Novo-Arkhangelsk (now Sitka, Alaska).

For the next 70 years, Russian traders and trappers inhabited coastal Alaska. The Russian colonists regularly had violent confrontations with Native Alaskans. The Russian colonies grew in dependence upon both American and British traders for supplies. Alaska was not a profitable undertaking for Russia.


Then came the Crimean War (1854-1856) with Russia facing off against France, England and Turkey. The war did not end well for Russia; the loss was great in both blood and treasure. The monarchy needed to replenish its coffers, and the possible sale of Alaska seemed to hold an answer. Beyond the tsar’s need for cash, the Russians felt unable to defend Alaska should either the British or Americans move to take it.[4]

Even after the Crimean War, England remained a Russian adversary.  England was undesirable as an Alaskan neighbor, so the best scenario would be a sale to the United States.

In 1855, Tsar Alexander II had become emperor of Russia. He was the nephew of Alexander I who had confided to John Quincy Adams the difficulties of managing his distant empire. Given post Crimean War realities and aware of his uncle’s wisdom, a sale of Alaska to the United States appeared to be the best Russian course of action.

Russian Ambassador Eduard de Stoeckl was directed to actively pursue a sale in 1859. Stoeckl’s overtures included discussions with, among others, then New York Senator, William H. Seward. In 1861, the United States Civil War erupted. Discussions of Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States fell silent.


The United States Civil War was not only of interest to the Union and the Confederacy. Both parties were actively involved in seeking either international support or neutrality. The Confederacy had courted both the British and French. The Rebels had a fair chance of receiving aid from either.

In Europe, relations remained tense between the Crimean War foes.  Although, Russia had lost that war, it had taken a devastating toll on all participants. In the short three-year span of the war, Britain had lost 22,000 soldiers. Against this background, the French and English entertained Confederate overtures.

The Russians viewed a strong unified United States as a counterweight to its European foes and a Union victory to be in Russia’s interests. In the summer of 1863, the Russian Baltic Fleet set sail for New York. The Russian Far East Fleet journeyed to San Francisco. President Abraham Lincoln sent the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, to greet the Russians in New York in September, 1863.

Overt assistance for the Confederacy by England or France disappeared. The Russians had tilted the playing field in favor of the Union. In 1865, the Civil War ended with a Union victory and no active participation by the French, English or Russians.


After the Civil War, Alexander II resumed pursuit of an Alaskan sale. Stoeckl began negotiating with William Seward who became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. Over the next two years, issues of reconstruction, Lincoln’s assassination and mid-19th Century communications hampered U.S./Russia negotiations.

Things changed the evening of March 29, 1867, while Secretary Seward was at his Washington, D.C. home, playing whist with his family. The whist game was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, Minister Plenipotentiary and Ambassador of the Russian Tsar.

Stoeckl advised Seward: “I have a dispatch from my government. The Emperor gives his consent to the cession. Tomorrow if you like. I will come to the department and we can enter upon the treaty.”

Seward, with a smile of satisfaction responded: “Why wait until tomorrow? Let us make the treaty tonight.”

Stoeckl demurred: “But your department is closed, you have no clerks and my secretaries are scattered about the town!”

“Never mind that,” responded Seward, “if you can muster your legation together before midnight you will find me awaiting you there at the department, which will be open and ready for business.”

Carriages were dispatched around Washington and by 4 AM, March 30, 1867 the treaty was signed, engrossed and ready for presidential transmittal to the United States Senate for ratification.


President Andrew Johnson submitted the treaty to the Senate that same Saturday.

Seward had known that Congress was scheduled to adjourn for two months. Due to receipt of the treaty, the Senate set a special session for Monday, April 1, 1867. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings that entire week, then reported the treaty favorably.

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, spoke in favor of the purchase for three hours. On April 9, 1867, just ten days after Stoeckl interrupted Seward’s whist game, the Senate ratified the treaty 37-2.

Though drafting and ratification took only ten days, it was nearly 68 years after Alexander I mentioned problems managing his empire to John Quincy Adams.

There remained appropriation of the $7.2 million for the purchase by the full Congress, which took place on July 27, 1867.

On October 18, 1867, in a formal ceremony, the United States took possession of Alaska. For the nearly 600,000 square miles, the United States paid about 2 cents an acre. Alaska was a better deal than Louisiana. October 18 is celebrated annually as a state holiday in Alaska.


The natural resources and strategic location of Alaska that came with the purchase cannot be understated. The gold rush that the Russians feared in 1855 came to pass in 1896. Alaska contributes to the American economy through its riches in oil, minerals, precious metals, seafood, timber, and tourism. Alaska is the second largest crude oil producer in the country and the salmon run in Alaska’s Bristol Bay basin is the largest in the world.

America’s Founders recognized the value of a cordial relationship with Russia and began working on it in 1780. The benefits of that effort came to fruition on October 18, 1867 with the peaceful acquisition of Alaska.

While the connotation of the mantra RUSSIA!!! RUSSIA!!! RUSSIA!!! differs greatly from 1780 to 2020, it has been part of the American lexicon through our entire history.

David Shestokas, J.D., is a former Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney and author of Constitutional Sound Bites and Creating the Declaration of Independence. Follow him on Twitter, @shestokas, and join his Facebook group, Dave Shestokas on the Constitution

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[1] The Second President and First Vice-President had been the fledgling country’s envoy to France from 1777 to 1779 and his son, John Quincy had been with him.

[2] “Sir, I am delighted to have the pleasure of seeing you here.”

[3] Napoleon needed money for war in Europe, France’s Louisiana territory was 828,000 square miles, and the $15 million purchase price was about 3 cents/acre.

[4] Alaska would prove to hold a wealth of natural resources, including gold.  Strangely, this was of actual concern to Russia. The 1848 gold discovery in California brought in more than 300,000 people in 7 years. The Russians had no ability to manage a similar event in Alaska. They would be better off to sell the land rather than have it taken.

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