Sunday, November 25, 2012

Did Payoffs Grease the Way for the U.S.'s Purchase of Alaska?


Tom Kizzia has a front-page story in today's Anchorage Daily News discussing evidence that questionable payments--perhaps bribes--went to key Members of Congress to secure passage of legislation to buy Alaska from Russia in 1867.   This evidence comes from a new biography of Secretary of State William H. Seward. 

Norms were different back then, as shown in the historically accurate portrayal of political maneuvering in the new movie Lincoln.   The film shows lobbyists associated with Seward--and President Abraham Lincoln--dangle jobs in front of Members of Congress to get them to vote for the 13th Amendment to prohibit slavery.   It is even more clear that laws--and the enforcement of the laws--also were substantially different in the 19th century than they are today.   The magisterial book Bribes by John T. Noonan, Jr. points out that it was not until 1853 that it was against the law to bribe a Member of Congress, and there were no convictions before 1905.   Noonan cites the English observer James Brice's estimate in 1889 that about one-quarter of Congress took cash, stocks, land, or other property for their votes or committee actions. 

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