Nuuk_city_below_Sermitsiaq

Sermitsiaq mountain looms over Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Nuuk has a population of just under 18,000; Greenland’s entire population is about 56,000, about the same population of Franklin County on an island more than three times the size of Alaska. For further context, that’s also about how many people were living in Alaska when the United States bought it from Russia in 1867. Our editorial at left looks at the history of how U.S. bought both Alaska and the Louisiana Purchase, two precedents relevant to President Trump’s interest in buying Greenland. Teaser: We misremember the politics of both acquisitions.

The president’s proposal to acquire a vast and mostly unknown territory is an unconstitutional power grab that will undermine American democracy by bringing thousands of potentially treasonous foreigners under our domain.

Are we talking about President Trump’s proposal for the United States to buy Greenland from Denmark? No, instead, that’s what critics said about Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Hold that thought. Trump’s interest in buying Greenland is unorthodox only because nations don’t do that kind of thing anymore. In the 1800s, though, territorial acquisition was a theme that ran through American politics. Trump, in some ways, is a 19th century president.

Of course, in those days if we wanted a territory, we often simply just took it. That’s more or less how we acquired Hawaii and Texas — Americans moved in, overthrew the locals already there, then looked to Washington to absorb them formally. We picked up a lot of other territories through wars with Mexico and Spain. So, if this were the 19th century, we’d simply send some settlers to Greenland and let nature — and gunboat diplomacy — take its course. Fortunately for today’s Greenlanders, we live in a more refined age.

Trump’s interest in Greenland is often likened to the American acquisition of Alaska. The Arctic comparison is a natural one. So is the laugh track that accompanied some of the responses to Trump’s overtures on Greenland. That’s a joke that can cut both ways. After all, Alaska was ridiculed at the time as “Seward’s Folly” — after Secretary of State William Seward. Now Alaska is regarded as one of the best deals of all time. Who’s to say Greenland wouldn’t be the same, especially after climate change melts away all the ice and we can strip-mine the place like the rapacious people we are?

Here’s where our understanding of history is tangled up with myth. It’s true that some people criticized the acquisition of Alaska in very colorful terms — most notably New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. He was famous for his admonition to “go west, young man,” but apparently didn’t mean that far west — or north. He also deeply disliked Seward — a fellow New York politician — so his opposition may have been based more on personality than policy. In any case, historians say the reality is that the Alaska purchase was actually quite popular at the time. The acquisition was seen as a sign of renewed American strength in the years following the Civil War. We just tend to remember the opponents and their gift for phrase-making. By contrast, we think of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase as a brilliant stroke of diplomacy — yet it was far more controversial at the time and almost didn’t go through. Ours selective memory is funny that way.

Some didn’t think the president had the power to make the deal — the Constitution made no mention of acquiring new territory. Some worried about the cost. Some in New England feared adding western lands would diminish their political clout (they were right, of course). Some feared that the practice of slavery would extend into the new territory (they were right about that, too, at least the southern parts). Some worried about the strange people of New Orleans — some Spanish, some French, some free African-Americans; how would we govern them? Some just didn’t like Jefferson — we in Virginia regard him as a demi-god today, but he was a polarizing figure at the time. If there had been cable television then, the news channels would have been blaring non-stop about Jefferson’s visionary expansion (that’s on the pro-Jefferson Democratic-Republican channel) or his dangerous and lawless land grab (that’s on the anti-Jefferson Federalist channel).

Gaylord Griswold, a Federalist congressman from New York, had what he thought was the ultimate argument: Did France actually own the land it was trying to sell us? After all, Spain had owned Louisiana for about 40 years before selling it to France — but that land deal had been a secret one, for complicated matters of European politics. In practical terms, though, Spain still controlled Louisiana. So was this a legitimate deal or a giant real estate scam? Griswold demanded to see France’s title to the land — and almost succeeded. Even though Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party held a nearly 3-1 advantage in the House, even many of his own party members were persuaded by this paperwork argument. The House voted just 59-57 to reject Griswold’s title search. Had two congressmen voted the other way, who knows who would own Louisiana today? Instead, we’ve forgotten that close call and remember only the Lewis and Clark expedition.

We also tend to forget this: Both Napoleon in 1803 and the Tsar Alexander II in 1867 figured if they didn’t sell their North American lands to the Americans, they Americans would simply take them someday anyway. Both were somewhat amazed the Americans actually paid money for something they could have simply stolen. Jefferson hadn’t even intended to buy all of Louisiana; he just wanted the port of New Orleans — his negotiators were stunned when Napoleon offered the whole territory. Likewise, the Russians had been trying since the 1850s to interest the U.S. in buying Alaska. The Russians saw how quickly California filled up after gold was discovered there. They feared gold might be discovered in Alaska, and Americans would pour in. The Russians wanted to cash in while they could The Americans of the 1850s were too preoccupied by slavery to focus on Alaska. After the Civil War, the Russians again came calling and this time found an administration open to the idea. (It also helped that President Andrew Johnson was, at the time, beset by political troubles that ultimately led to his impeachment. Alaska was a nice distraction, for a while.)

Both Napoleon and Alexander thought themselves grand geopolitical strategists. Napoleon figured that if he couldn’t have Louisiana, at least he kept it out of British hands. Likewise, Alexander preferred Americans in Alaska to the British, who then controlled present-day Canada. Indeed, both Russians and some Americans figured that the U.S. would someday want to unite Alaska to the rest of the country — and simply take British Columbia. That never happened, of course.

The point is all these acquisitions were far more complicated than simple real estate deals. Sellers were eager to sell. Meanwhile, the odds of Denmark selling Greenland appear to about the same as certain winter-time temperatures on that island — below zero.

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