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Seward's Folly

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

A trip on the Upper Mississippi has stimulated more than one mind to think great thoughts. William H. Seward, for example. Had he not taken a steamboat up to St. Paul in September of 1860, he may never have even thought of buying Alaska.

Seward had recently been defeated by Abraham Lincoln for the Republican presidential nomination, but with good grace, he was now on the campaign trail in support of his rival.

So impressed was Seward by the beauty and vastness of this great center of the country that he could hardly find words. Passing through Lake Pepin he wrote that it was a fitting vestibule for St. Paul. "The autumnal green of the shores is lost in a deep blue hue that emulates that of the heavens. A gorgeous piece of upholstery," he said.

By the time he got to his campaign speeches in St. Paul, Seward had become a convert to manifest destiny: a continent full of states with Minnesota as its heartland. "Here is the central place," he claimed from the platform, "where agriculture of the richest regions of North America must begin its magnificent supplies to the whole world." The St. Paul newspaper notes there was much applause. He waxed more eloquent: "The last seat of power on this great continent will be found somewhere within a radius not far from this very spot on the Mississippi River." More applause.

But why just the continental United States? Seward' manifest destiny kept going. "Standing here," he told the crowd, "I see the Russian as he busily establishes seaports and towns on the verge of this continent. I say, they will yet become outposts of my own country." Unable to stop, Seward went on to include Prince Rupert's Land and all of Canada as future United States. But why stop there? Seward proposed a reorganization of the republics in South America into "free, equal, and self-governing members of the United States of America."

As you know, Lincoln won the election that year. Seward eventually became Secretary of State, but some of his memory of his Upper Mississippi River trip and his St. Paul speech must have faded by 1867. He only bought Alaska.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Community
Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.