Things Didn’t Turn Out Well for Russia After Tsar Gave Up Alaska

A portfolio of 12 signed prints by Ansel Adams, including Mount McKinley, Alaska, 1948, realized $37,500 at an October 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Russia offered to sell Alaska to the United States in 1859 since they were concerned that the British would simply take it and add it to their Canadian portfolio. But the looming Civil War prevented any binding agreement. After harmony in the U.S. was restored, Secretary of State William Seward was quick to pounce.

In 1867, the United States paid $7.2 million to Tsar Alexander II in a mildly controversial transaction dubbed “Seward’s Folly” and “Polar Bear Park.” Once gold was discovered in the Yukon, followed by the Klondike Gold Rush, most skeptics’ doubts were dispelled.

Earlier, in 1861, Alexander II had issued an Emancipation for Russia’s 20 million serfs (non-free workers), but it was not for purely humanitarian reasons. This was a further attempt to modernize a Russia that was falling behind the industrializing nations of the West. To assume their perceived rightful place, they adopted wide-ranging reforms across political, social, economic and military areas.

The effects were mixed at best and Emancipation did very little to improve Russian agricultural productivity or the serfs’ well-being. However, Alexander refused to consider any real constitutional reform and maintained a conviction of his divine right to rule as an absolute monarch … which he did until his assassination in 1881 by the terrorist group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”).

His successor, Alexander III, was willing to embrace industrial reform, but also created a police state, suppressed protest and made trade unions illegal. He also scrapped the concept of a Duma (representative council) and increased military capability. Politically, however, the regime’s unwillingness to reform would ultimately ensure its complete destruction in a Soviet revolution.

The polar bears had a better fate, as Alaska became a full-fledged U.S. state in 1959.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Diderot’s ‘Encyclopédie’ Ushered In New Era of Thought

Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie included entries on technologies of the period, describing traditional craft tools and processes.

“Skepticism is the first step toward truth.” – Denis Diderot (Philosophical Thoughts, 1746)

By Jim O’Neal

In the middle of the 18th century, French philosopher Denis Diderot decided to compile the collective knowledge of the Western world into an encyclopedia. He invited France’s leading intellectuals – scientists, literary men, scholars and philosophers – to write articles for a huge “Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts & Trades.” His role was both editor-in-chief and contributor.

The first volume appeared in 1751 and the full work, consisting of 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of illustrations, was completed 21 years later. The basic mission of the Encyclopédie was to catalog the knowledge of the Western World’s Age of Enlightenment. This was a multifaceted intellectual movement that started circa 1715, although its true origins were contained in works done by pioneers of modern scientific and philosophical thought of the previous century.

The 72,000 multi-disciplinary articles distilled the ideas and theories of France’s key Enlightenment thinkers, including the writers and philosophers Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu. The articles were centered on three main areas:

1. Rational thought (not faith or religious doctrines),

2. Observation and scientific experiments, and

3. The search for organizing government around natural law and Justice.

Excluding religion and God as specific categories was controversial since religiosity had been at the very heart of life and thought in Europe for centuries. The Encyclopédie and the Enlightenment per se internationally denied this key distinction, in addition to magic, mythology and other arcane beliefs. In spite of repeated efforts by authorities to censor its articles and intimidate and threaten its editors, the Encyclopédie became the most influential and widely consulted work of the period.

In Europe, the Enlightenment had a profound impact on social, political and intellectual life. Its proponents believed they were sweeping away oppressive medieval views and ushering in a new era that they hoped would be characterized by freedom of thought, open mindedness and tolerance.

More than 250 years later, this remains a work in progress.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Firebombing of Dresden Remains Controversial Seven Decades Later

A 1969 presentation copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, inscribed by the author, realized $4,500 at an April 2015 Heritage auction. A central storyline is the main character surviving the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

By Jim O’Neal

The famous bombing raid of Dresden, Germany, on Feb.13-15, 1945, has been called the most barbaric, senseless act of World War II. During the night, the RAF Bomber Command carried out the first raid, with 873 bombers dropping thousands of incendiaries and high-explosive bombs as large as 4 tons. This set the city on fire and started a ferocious firestorm. As the rising columns of intense heat sucked up oxygen and burned it, hurricane-like winds were created and temperatures soared up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

At noon, 311 B-17s from the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped 771 tons of bombs on the flaming city, specifically with the intent of killing firefighters and rescue workers as they worked on the streets. The following day, another 210 B-17s dropped 461 tons of bombs on the remains of the city.

The firestorm raged for four days and could be seen from 200 miles away.

On the ground, people in air-raid shelters suffocated or were baked alive. Author Kurt Vonnegut (a German POW) described the scene in a letter to his parents: “On February 14th, the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden – possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me. … After that we were put to work carrying corpses from air-raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”

Vonnegut was eventually liberated by the Soviets after their planes strafed and bombed his POW railroad car. He said he was the only man to be shot at by Germans, Americans and Russians … and bombed by the British … and survive.

Why would the Allies want to bomb a commercial city into ruins when it was probably devoid of any genuine war targets? One theory is that they had simply run out of strategic places to hit. The cities along the Rhine-Ruhr in Western Germany had been demolished and/or occupied by mid-February. Berlin, Leipzig and other central cities were rubble. Dresden was one of the few relatively intact cities and was attracting refugees.

The British, unjustifiably, got most of the blame and the attack became a mark of shame. So much so that Marshal Arthur Harris, Commander of the RAF Bomber group, was the only major British wartime leader not to be honored with peerage after the war.

Vonnegut’s death toll was gradually reduced over time to 35,000, but his sci-fi book and movie Slaughterhouse-Five is filled with his WW2 experiences.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Railroads Helped America Claim Position as Most Powerful Nation on Earth

This 1876 “Lightning Express” broadside promoting the first through train service connecting the gold and silver fields of Virginia City, Nev., with San Francisco realized $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first American railroad was only 13 miles of track and formally known as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The “B&O Line” was started by a group of Baltimore merchants in 1828 and opened in 1830. At the time, turnpikes, rivers and canals were the primary modes of travel and transport.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads had become a major American industry, with numerous companies competing in a broad geographic area over 30,000 miles of track. The first railroad to link the East to the West was completed in 1869.

The Central Pacific Railroad had started in Sacramento and immediately had to confront the Sierra Nevada mountains … 7,000 feet up from the Sacramento Valley to the summit of the Sierras. Then there was the critical issue of labor since the mines were paying premium rates and workers were a scarce commodity.

A controversial decision was made to bring in Chinese laborers. Creative companies sprang up to organize these activities and, ultimately, 12,000 Chinese workers were digging and blasting through the mountains. For $30 a month, they had to feed themselves and live in makeshift camps alongside the tracks. When it snowed, they carved out entire galleries under the snow and lived there for weeks at a time.

The Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Neb., and their laborers were primarily Irish, up to 10,000 at times, although a few Civil War veterans and other migrants were used. Brigham Young, one of the original incorporators of the Union Pacific, was instrumental in steering the railroad through Utah. This provided badly needed jobs for Europeans who had come to join the Latter-day Saints.

When the two railroads finally met, it was in Promontory, Utah, and the Promontory Spike was pounded into the ground on May 10, 1869.

Big projects, big money and big government always seem to include corruption. And so it was with the Transcontinental Railroad. During the 1872 reelection campaign of President Ulysses S. Grant, a major scandal erupted that ground Washington, D.C., to a standstill. Major members of the administration and other ranking politicians were charged with enriching themselves. By then, railroads had become a major force in politics and everyday life. To have the industry linked to wild accusations of bribery and corruption was a significant letdown.

The House of Representatives was forced to start hearings after scandals erupted in newspapers almost daily. They started in closed session, but were soon open as crowds of reporters and spectators overflowed the rooms. It was the center of attraction for the nation’s capital on a daily basis.

Eventually, they caught fewer than 25 politicians who had profited off the railroads, but a larger group was actually linked to the scandal, including cabinet members, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Vice President-elect Henry Wilson, Speaker of the House James Blaine and Representative James Garfield, the future president. All were tainted with the same scandalous brush, although some were able to mitigate the charges and salvage their reputations.

In spite of the scandals, the nation obviously benefited significantly from railroads, primarily because of their influence on settlement patterns of those who ventured West. The large, empty space that was still generally called “The Great American Desert” flourished.

Wagon-train caravans were largely abandoned and huge areas of land were transformed into productive farms to help feed a growing country. Ranch land developed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Everyone seemed to benefit with the exception of the Plains Indians, who were exploited as their lands, mineral rights and even their way of life were lost.

The United States was entering the Gilded Age and gearing up to leverage the enormous opportunities waiting in the 20th century. The American worker was the envy of the world as compulsory education created large pools of labor that were literate and competent. They were eager to hone their skills with the new technologies that Edison, Bell, Ford, et al. were churning out. When combined with its natural resources, rule of law and a Constitutional Democracy, America was poised to become the most powerful nation on Earth.

Railroads played an important role in that achievement.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].