When Abraham Lincoln Turned Down the Chance to Fill America With Elephants

Getty Images
Getty Images

When a new president takes office, it’s normal to get showered with diplomatic greetings, gifts, and political overtures. But when Abraham Lincoln’s administration moved into the White House, they turned down what could have been the greatest gift of all: the chance to populate the United States with wild elephants.

In 1861, Lincoln received a pile of swag from King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut of the country then known as Siam. You might know him better for his role in the hit musical The King and I, which fictionalized his relationship with English governess Anna Leonowens. What is true is that Mongkut was eager to “get to know” the West better—during his reign, he managed to open up and begin modernizing Siam.

The gesture wasn’t actually meant for Lincoln: In fact, Mongkut had sent the presents to “whomsoever the people have elected anew as chief ruler in place of President Buchanan.” He sent along a pile of lavish gifts, from a precious handmade sword to photos of himself and his daughter to two gigantic elephant tusks. But much more meaningful was the king’s offer to send along a generous stock of elephants that could be bred on American soil.

It’s no wonder Mongkut offered that gift: Pachyderms were not only native to what is now Thailand, but were also prized as important and valuable creatures. “It has occurred to us that, if on the continent of America there should be several pairs of young male and female elephants turned loose in forests,” the king wrote, “after a while they will increase till there be large herds as there are here on the continent of Asia until the inhabitants of America will be able to catch them and tame and use them as beasts of burden making them of benefit to the country.” Mongkut acknowledged that he hadn’t yet figured out how best to ship over some elephants, but that it sounded like a good idea to him.

In a master stroke of diplomacy, Lincoln’s administration disagreed. In Lincoln’s reply, which was penned by Secretary of State William Seward, he deftly informed Mongkut that his gifts belonged by rights to the American people and would be placed in the National Archives (where they remain to this day). As for the elephants, the administration deftly dodged the issue altogether.

"This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States,” wrote Lincoln via Seward. “Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

By refusing the elephants, Lincoln’s government managed to honor the far-away king without taking on a complicated burden. It was a move that acknowledged not only the king’s respectful gesture, but gave him a much-needed nod. Mongkut realized that in order to survive, Siam would need to engage in trade with the West—and that kindness would go much further than the fear displayed by some of his closest neighbors.

There’s no telling what would have happened if the Lincoln administration had said yes to Mongkut’s gift. Perhaps to this day, the United States would be a place where herds of wild elephants roamed free.

More or Less: U.S. Presidents Edition

10 Things You Might Not Know About Jimmy Carter

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Bridging the gap between the often-maligned Gerald Ford and the drug-busting Ronald Reagan was Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States and one of the most esteemed humanitarians ever to hold the office. At the age of 95, Carter—who was born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924—is also the oldest living former president.

While a near-century-long life is hard to summarize, we’ve assembled a few things that may surprise you about one of our most fondly-remembered elected officials.

1. Jimmy Carter did not grow up in the lap of luxury.

Born in Plains, Georgia on October 1, 1924, James Earl Carter’s early years didn’t involve a lot of the rapid technological progressions that were taking place around the country. His family relocated to Archery, Georgia—a town that relied chiefly on mule-drawn wagons for transportation—when Carter was 4 years old. Indoor plumbing and electricity were rare. To pass time, Carter typically listened to entertainment shows on a battery-operated radio with his father.

2. Jimmy Carter drew criticism for rejecting racist beliefs.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Carter served in the military, during which time he married and had three sons. (A fourth child, daughter Amy, was born in 1967.) After his father died in 1953, Carter was honorably discharged and settled on the family peanut farm in Plains, where he found that the South’s deeply-rooted racial biases were in direct conflict with his own progressive views of integration. When Plains residents assembled a “White Citizens’ Council” to combat anti-discrimination laws, Carter refused membership. Soon, signs were pasted on his front door full of racist remarks. But Carter held to his views: By the 1960s, voters were ready to embrace a politician without biases, and Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

Unfortunately, Carter found that his liberal views could only take him so far in Georgia. When he ran for state governor in 1970, he backed off on many of his previously-publicized views on racial equality, leading some to declare him bigoted. Once in office, however, Carter restored many of his endorsements to end segregation.

3. Jimmy Carter caused quite a story by doing an interview with Playboy.

Few, if any, presidential candidates have attempted to stir up support by submitting to an intensive interview in the pages of Playboy, but Carter’s 1976 bid was an exception. Just weeks before he won the election, Carter admitted to having “committed adultery in my heart” many times and that he “looked on a lot of women with lust.”

4. Jimmy Carter never liked the pageantry of the presidency.

When Carter entered the office of the presidency in 1977, he made it clear that he considered himself no more elevated in status than his voters simply because of political power. He sold the presidential yacht, thinking it a symbol of excess; he also carried his own briefcase and banned workers from playing “Hail to the Chief” during appearances.

5. Jimmy Carter may have seen a UFO.

Prior to taking office, Carter filed an interesting report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, or NICAP. In 1969, Carter wrote, he spotted a strange aircraft in the sky over Leary, Georgia. It appeared to hover 30 degrees above the horizon before disappearing. Carter promised to release every sealed document the government had collected about UFOs if elected, but later walked back on the promise, citing national security concerns.

6. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White House.

Carter spent considerable time and effort promoting renewable energy sources as the world struggled with an ongoing fuel crisis. To demonstrate his commitment, Carter ordered that solar panels be installed on White House grounds in 1979, decades before such a practice became commonplace. The panels were used to heat water on the property. Ronald Reagan had the panels removed in 1986 during a roof renovation.

7. Jimmy Carter was a movie buff who watched more than 400 films while in office.

Carter was a movie buff who, as president, enjoyed early access to many films—and he averaged a couple of movies a week while in office. Among those viewed: 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, 1976’s All the President’s Men, and 1980’s Caddyshack. Carter also screened 1977’s Star Wars with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

8. Jimmy Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

After Soviet forces failed to heed Carter’s mandate to pull their troops out of Afghanistan, Carter committed to a radical step: He prevented American athletes from competing in the 1980 Games in Moscow, the first time the nation had failed to appear in the competition. Canada, West Germany, Japan, and around 50 other countries followed Carter’s lead. When the Games moved to Los Angeles in 1984, it was the Soviet Union's turn to refuse to appear.

9. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit.

Before running for (and losing) re-election in 1980, Carter decided to take a little time for himself and go fishing near his home in Plains. While in his boat, a wild rabbit that was being chased by hounds jumped into the water and swam toward the boat. Carter shooed the animal away with a paddle. Although it was a minor incident, a photo snapped of Carter flailing at the bunny and numerous editorial cartoons gave some voters the perception he was a less-than-ideal adversary for the powerful Soviet Union and may have led to an image of Carter as ineffectual.

10. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

After decades of philanthropic work, including a longstanding association with Habitat for Humanity, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. It was actually a quarter-century overdue: The Nobel committee wanted to award him the prize in 1978 after he helped broker peace talks between Israel and Egypt, but no one had nominated him before the official deadline had closed.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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