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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Ronald Reagan

Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

As the 40th president of the United States, actor and politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) led America’s charge through the neon-lit 1980s, navigating tense relations with the Soviet Union and tackling a highly controversial war on drugs. Though not everyone agreed with his politics, many consider him to be among the most charismatic leaders in the country’s history. If you’re thin on “Gipper” trivia, take a look at some facts about his life, his time in office, and how a chimpanzee nearly did him in.

1. HIS DAD CALLED HIM “DUTCH.”

Ronald Reagan in a publicity shot during his acting days
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan had several nicknames throughout his life, but his first was given to him by his father "Jack" Reagan shortly after he was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico, Illinois. Marveling at his son’s heft, Jack referred to the baby as a "fat little Dutchman,” a nickname strengthened by the “Dutch boy” haircuts he received as a child. According to Reagan’s autobiography, when he was older he began asking people to call him Dutch because he didn’t feel “'Ronald' was rugged enough for a young red-blooded American boy.”

2. HIS ACTING RESUME WAS LONG.

As a sports broadcaster, Reagan primarily covered Chicago Cubs games. Because the team held their spring training in southern California, Reagan was able to convince the broadcaster to let him use the training as a vacation away from Iowa’s winters. In 1937, on one of these trips, Reagan met up with Joy Hodges, a singer he knew from back home who went to Hollywood. She put him in touch with a talent agent who called up a casting director.

He got a screen test and scored a contract with Warner Bros. (At the time, studios were still in the business of signing exclusivity deals with actors, doling them out to whatever parts needed filling in their productions.) Reagan acted in over 50 movies over the next three decades, including Knute Rockne, All American, where he played real-life college football player George “Gipper” Gipp. The part gave him his “Gipper” nickname.

3. STILL, HE WAS UPSET ABOUT NEVER WINNING AN OSCAR.

President Ronald Reagan sits behind his desk in the Oval Office
Michael Evans, The White House/Getty Images

Most of Reagan’s films were not exactly award contenders, but that didn’t stop the president from feeling like he was owed a little consideration from the Academy. Reagan aide Mark Weinberg wrote in his 2018 memoir, Movie Nights with the Reagans, that during his time in the White House, the Commander-in-Chief expressed annoyance that no one from his former profession acknowledged his evolution from performer to world leader with an honorary award. “You would think that after what I’ve done—being the only one from that profession to do so—they would commemorate it in some way,” he reportedly told Weinberg in the 1980s. “But I guess their political agenda has taken over good manners.”

Reagan did have one flirtation with the Oscars. On March 30, 1981, he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr. The award ceremony, scheduled to take place that day, was postponed by 24 hours out of respect for the president. (Reagan made a full recovery.)

4. HE WAS NEARLY KILLED BY A CHIMP.

Ronald Reagan poses with Peggy the chimpanzee
Washington/AFP/Getty Images

The nadir of Reagan’s acting career may have been 1951’s Bedtime for Bonzo, in which the future leader of the free world tries to corral a mischievous chimpanzee. While shooting a scene with Peggy, the chimp portraying Bonzo, the animal became intrigued by Reagan's tie and began pulling on it like a rope. Refusing to let go, she compressed the knot into something no bigger than Reagan’s fingernail. After finally being released by his animal assailant, Reagan was tended to by crew members who had to cut the tie off his neck.

5. HE WAS AN FBI INFORMANT.

Ronald Reagan poses with first wife Jane Wyman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1940s, Reagan—then still an actor, but becoming increasingly involved in politics—became a real-life FBI informant. Both Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman tipped off the Bureau to suspected Communist activity in Hollywood. (His code name was T-10.) Reagan apparently had some misgivings about his actions, fearing Hollywood was using too heavy a hand in persecuting suspected red sympathizers. He once asked an agent, "Do they expect us to constitute ourselves as a little FBI of our own and determine just who is a Commie and who isn't?”

6. HE WAS AN AVID FAN OF WRITING LETTERS.

Ronald Reagan makes an address from behind his desk
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Reagan carved out time in his day to both read and answer letters, and he wasn’t discriminating about where they came from. A seventh-grader once wrote to the president asking for federal assistance because his mother declared his bedroom a disaster area. Tickled by the kid’s sense of humor, Reagan responded and suggested he clean the room. In 1984, Reagan wrote a letter of support to entertainer Michael Jackson, who had been badly burned during the shooting of a Pepsi commercial: “You've gained quite a number of fans along the road since ‘I Want You Back’ and Nancy and I are among them.”

7. HE GOT COMPLEMENTARY JELLY BEANS FOR YEARS.

Ronald Reagan shares a laugh with Bill Clinton
Paul Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan first began snacking on jelly beans in 1966 after he gave up pipe smoking. Goelitz Candy, which made his preferred jelly bean, sent him shipments while Reagan was holding office as governor of California from 1967 to 1975. After debuting the Jelly Belly line in the '60s, the company continued to ship their goods to the White House during all eight years of Reagan’s presidency. They even received permission to issue jelly bean jars with the official presidential seal to be given out at functions.

8. HE HELPED DE-STIGMATIZE HEARING AIDS.

Ronald Reagan addresses a crowd from behind a podium
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1983, Reagan admitted he relied on use of a hearing aid in order to address age-related hearing loss. Previously, hearing aids had been stigmatized in the U.S. as representing a feeble constitution. After Reagan’s announcement, sales of hearing aid equipment soared. Starkey Laboratories, which made the president’s device, quadrupled its sales in the months following the publicity.

9. THERE HAVE BEEN AT LEAST 10 STATUES ERECTED IN HIS HONOR.

A statue erected in Ronald Reagan's honor
Ben Stansall, AFP/Getty Images

Reagan’s hometown of Dixon, Illinois has no shortage of tributes to their most famous resident. A statue of Reagan stands near his boyhood home, while a second—this one depicting Reagan on horseback—is near Rock River. Reagan has also had statues erected in his honor at the California Capitol (with an exact replica at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley), at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, and in Newport Beach. There are two in Budapest, one in London, and one in Warsaw. The largest to date—a 10-foot-tall monument of Reagan saluting—stands in Covington, Louisiana. Yet another is planned near Lowell Park in Dixon, where Reagan reportedly saved 77 lives while serving as a lifeguard there for seven summers. A local joke has it that some of them were women who faked distress in order to get his attention.

10. WILL FERRELL UPSET HIS FAMILY.

Actor Will Ferrell is photographed at a public appearance
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

Following Reagan’s death in 2004 from pneumonia, the Reagan estate was quick to cut down any suggestion that his longtime struggle with Alzheimer’s disease affected his role while in office. In 2016, his children, Michael Reagan and Patti Davis, chastised actor Will Ferrell for considering a comedy titled Reagan in which he would play a neurologically-afflicted president whose behavior leads to “alternative” takes on world history. The Alzheimer’s Association said in a statement it was “appalled” by the idea. Ferrell quickly distanced himself from the film, which has yet to be made.

11 Historical Figures Who Were Really Bad At Spelling

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iStock

Do you struggle with spelling bees? Do you always seem to get “lose” and “loose” mixed up? Would you recoil in terror if spell-check ever stopped working? Fear not: You're in good company. From Nobel Prize winners to the authors of great literary works, the inability to spell correctly has plagued some of history's most influential people. Here are 11 of the most famous.

1. JANE AUSTEN

Luckily, the author of Emma and Pride and Prejudice was always fortunate enough to find editors who could weed out her various alphabetical mishaps. An early work, written when Austen was 14, was called Love and Freindship.

2. GEORGE WASHINGTON

According to Richard Lederer in his book More Anguished English, the man who would become the first American president wrote “we find our Necessaties are not such as to require an immediate transportation during the harvist" while complaining about a supply shortage during the Revolutionary War. The National Archives cautions, however, that for many letters from 1787 to 1790, the spelling issues are actually the result of his nephew copying them: “The mistaken impression shared by some that the mature GW was a bad speller and careless writer derives in large part from the defects of Lewis and other copyists.”

3. WINSTON CHURCHILL

Though he later became universally regarded as one of the greatest orators of all time, one of Churchill's early report cards said “Writing good, but so terribly slow—spelling about as bad as it well can be.”

4. AGATHA CHRISTIE

“Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me... [I was] an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.” It's incredible to think that this humbling statement came from the pen of one of the greatest mystery authors of all time: a woman who would later be celebrated as “The Queen of Crime." Later researchers have proposed that Christie could have been dysgraphic (and possibly dyslexic) [PDF].

5. ANDREW JACKSON

Examples of Old Hickory's seemingly innumerable botched spelling attempts include the continent of “Urope" and performing before a “larg audianc.” This ineptitude even went on to become a political punchline. His perennial political rival John Quincy Adams once denounced him as “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name.”

6. ALBERT EINSTEIN

In Einstein's defense, English was his second language. It's therefore easy to understand why spelling and grammatical errors in his works were a constant source of frustration to the physicist. “I cannot write in English,” he wrote to a friend, “because of the treacherous spelling.”

7. ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Hemingway seemed to have difficulty with present participles, as “loving” became “loveing” and “moving” turned into “moveing” in his manuscripts. Whenever an editor complained of these bloopers, however, Hemingway would supposedly snap “Well, that's what you're hired to correct!”

8. F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

The original draft of The Great Gatsby contained literally hundreds of spelling mistakes, some of which are still confounding editors. These include “yatch” (instead of “yacht”) and “apon” (instead of “upon”). One of his most famous gaffes, which occurs toward the end of the novel, inspires debate to this day.

9. OLIVIA CLEMENS

“Livy's” frequent compositional errors were an endless source of amusement to her husband Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. After receiving one of her letters, in which she miraculously made virtually no bloopers, he wrote “Oh you darling little speller!—you spell 'terrible' right, this time. And I won't have it—it is un-Livy-ish. Spell it wrong, next time, for I love everything that is like Livy. Maybe it is wrong for me to put a premium on bad spelling, but I can’t help it if it is. Somehow I love it in you—I have grown used to it, accustomed to expect it, & I honestly believe that if, all of a sudden, you fell to spelling every word right, I should feel a pain, as if something very dear to me had been mysteriously spirited away & lost to me. I am not poking fun at you, little sweetheart.” Despite Samuel's playful jabs, he relied upon his beloved wife as a “faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor” until her death in 1904.

10. WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

According to biographer David A. Ross, “Yeats' spelling, indeed, seems at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork.” Ouch. The great Irish poet and senator's idiosyncratic writing style resulted in some distinctively misspelled words cropping up throughout his works, such as “feal” instead of “feel." Despite this Achilles' heel, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

11. DAN QUAYLE

No list of famously bad spellers would be complete without mentioning the 44th Vice President's infamous “Potatoe Incident." The story goes that Quayle had the incorrect spelling on a cue card from the school—but perhaps ironically, Quayle may have ensured that everyone else spelled the word correctly. According to Ammon Shea, consulting editor for American Dictionaries for Oxford University Press, potatoe was used in respectable publications right up to the Quayle incident, when, according to Shea, “they suddenly drop off or become used in an ironic way, referencing this incident. Quayle may have misspelled the word, but in doing so perhaps he taught the rest of us how to not make his error.”

This piece originally ran in 2016.

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