Lincoln Turned Down a Chance to Fill the U.S. 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,” wrote the king, “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.

8 Things You Might Not Know About Warren G. Harding

Twenty-ninth president Warren G. Harding (1865-1923) was two years into his first term when a (probable) heart attack put an abrupt end to both his life and his presidency. (Vice-president Calvin Coolidge stepped in and was then elected in 1924.) But just because his time as president was brief doesn't mean Harding isn’t deserving of closer examination. Take a look at some facts about his upbringing, his office controversies, and how a big family secret was revealed nearly a century after his death.

  1. Warren G. Harding was a newspaper reporter before he was a politician.

Warren G. Harding was born in a farming community near Blooming Grove, Ohio, on November 2, 1865. He was the oldest of eight children. Raised on physical labor, he displayed an interest and aptitude for writing and journalism while in college, later performing a variety of tasks for the Marion Mirror, a Democratic-leaning newspaper that was in contrast to the Harding family’s Republican politics. In 1884, a competing paper, the Marion Daily Star, was put up for sale; some friends of Harding’s financed its acquisition and soon, Harding was running it as he saw fit. The paper’s popularity made Harding a name in his community—one that would eventually graduate to local, then national, politics. Yet he remained involved in the Star, never ceding his financial interest in the paper until two months before his death in August 1923.

  1. Warren G. Harding could get feisty.

Harding’s temperament was even-keeled during his political career, but that doesn't mean he was a pushover. While editing the Star, Harding was the target of personal attacks by the editor of a competing newspaper, the Independent. Eventually, he had his fill of the vitriol, and Harding exploded, telling the man he would “mop up the street” with him if the alleged slander didn’t stop ("and then," Harding continued, "I’ll go over and mop up your office with what remains").

  1. Harding's presidential nomination was a compromise.

Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate in 1899 before taking office as lieutenant governor from 1904 to 1906. From 1915 to 1921, he served in the U.S. Senate. While Harding was well-liked, his candidacy was the result of a deadlock: Republicans couldn’t decide on a candidate, so Harding was chosen as a compromise. Along with running mate Coolidge, he defeated Democratic candidate James Cox by winning 60 percent of the popular vote and 76 percent of the Electoral College. Harding’s 1920 victory remains the largest popular vote margin since the 1820s.

  1. Harding got a celebrity endorsement when he ran for president.

Decades before actors and public figures openly endorsed presidential candidates, Harding’s campaign was the beneficiary of support from Al Jolson, the performer who was among the most popular entertainers of the 1920s. Jolson, a devoted Republican, agreed to visit Harding’s home in Marion, Ohio—where the candidate was making speeches from his front porch—and led a parade down the block. Jolson then sang “Harding You’re the Man for Us,” a hastily-prepared melody that cemented his backing of the politician. Actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford also made the trek to rally behind Harding.

  1. Warren G. Harding's presidency was marked by scandal.

Though Harding himself was never implicated in any wrongdoing, his cabinet was embroiled in controversy. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts in the Teapot Dome Scandal. He spent a little under a year in prison. Attorney General Harry Daugherty was accused of selling liquor permits during Prohibition. Several other officials took bribes. “I have no trouble with my enemies,” Harding once said. “But my damn friends ... they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights.”

  1. Harding named his penis "Jerry."

Harding married his wife Florence in 1891, but he was far from faithful: He had two affairs that we know of. In 2014, letters between Harding and one of his mistresses that had been sealed for 50 years were finally released by the Library of Congress. In them, Harding expressed his affection for his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Written on official Senate stationary, the letters, dated between 1910 and 1920, offer a glimpse into his proclivities. He referred to his penis as “Jerry,” a code word in case a third party read the correspondence, and elaborated on his fantasies involving her “pillowing breasts.” An example:

"Jerry came and will not go, says he loves you, that you are the only, only love worthwhile in all this world, and I must tell you so and a score or more of other fond things he suggests, but I spare you. You must not be annoyed. He is so utterly devoted that he only exists to give you all."

When he won the Republication nomination in 1920, the party allegedly paid Phillips as much as $25,000 (or $297,000 today) to remain quiet about the affair.

  1. His Prohibition stance didn't keep him from drinking.

As a senator, Harding supported the 18th Amendment prohibiting the sale and transportation of alcohol, an era that lasted from 1920 to 1933. He agreed to back the Anti-Saloon League, which rallied against imbibing, in exchange for support during his elections. But according to long-time White House employee Elizabeth Jaffray, with his friends Harding had no problem downing scotch and soda in the White House.

  1. The Harding DNA unlocked a family secret.

Nearly a century following Harding’s sudden death due to a heart attack in August 1923, a DNA test added another bit of salacious detail to the president’s sex life. In 1927, one of his mistresses, Nan Britton, claimed Harding fathered her child a year before his Presidential campaign. Harding’s political allies chastised her and cast doubts over her credibility, but in 2015, DNA sampled from relatives of Harding and Britton’s grandson confirmed she was telling the truth. Their daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, died in 2005. She was Harding’s only child.

The Original Telegram Announcing Lincoln's Death Could Sell for $500,000

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the days before radios, telephones, and the 24-hour news cycle, seismic events in world history had to be broadcast the old-fashioned way: by telegram, and then in print. The death of President Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, was news that traveled via a message that originated with Major Thomas Eckert, head of the War Department’s telegraph office. It read, “Abraham Lincoln died this morning at 22 minutes after seven.”

That original handwritten document largely disappeared from view after Lincoln's death. Now it’s resurfaced, and a collector or historian looking to own a key piece related to one of the most notorious assassinations in history can expect to pay $500,000 for the privilege.

The paper is being offered by the Raab Collection, a memorabilia business specializing in historical items. In their description of the telegraph, they note that Charles Leale—a physician who had been in attendance when the president was shot the previous evening by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.—placed two coins over Lincoln's eyes and pulled a bedsheet over his face. Working with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Eckert drafted a telegram to communicate the sad turn of events and signed Stanton's name. After being rushed to the telegraph office, the document is said to have remained in the hands of a Union general and his descendants.

The paper is expected to be placed on sale by the Raab Collection this week. Monday, April 15, marks the 154th anniversary of Lincoln's death.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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