Senate Ratification of the Treaty on Cession of the Territory of Alaska


Under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution relating to treaties, the U.S. Senate is required to give its advice and consent, by a two-thirds vote, for any treaty to be ratified and become law. On April 9, 1867, the Senate gave its advice and consent to the Alaska Purchase treaty by the necessary number of votes. Shown here is the notification, by John W. Forney, Chief Clerk, of the Senate’s action. Secretary of State William H. Seward relied on a number of supporters within the Senate to provide the political momentum for the purchase. Prominent among these was Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the Senate in support of the acquisition. In spite of his lofty rhetoric, Sumner was largely spurred by political calculation. The Russians had for years set a boundary that limited foreign fishing and whaling access to Alaskan waters. Yankee whalers sought unimpeded entry to new whaling grounds in Alaskan waters in both the Pacific and Arctic Oceans, especially since decades of intensive whaling had devastated whale stocks elsewhere. The global center of commercial whaling in the 19th century was southeastern Massachusetts, especially Nantucket and New Bedford. The whaling constituency was formidable at the state capitol on Beacon Hill in Boston and lobbied Sumner and other local politicians in support of the Alaska purchase. West coast fishing interests were also eager to gain access to the vast ocean expanses near Alaska, and this gained the votes of some Western senators. Bribery proved to be a part of the voting process as well, as the Russian ambassador in Washington paid secret kickbacks to select congressmen to secure their votes in favor of the purchase. Although pained by such corruption, Seward subsequently acknowledged its role to President Andrew Johnson.

Last updated: November 20, 2015