On 8 February 1862, American President Abraham Lincoln responded to a letter that His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut, King of Siam, had sent to the previous president, James Buchanan.
In that letter, King Mongkut had apparently offered to provide the US with a stock of elephants. That letter arrived after Lincoln came to power, and Lincoln responded as follows:
“I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our soil. 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.”
“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.”
If one did not know that in his previous letter King Mongkut had merely offered to provide elephants, then Lincoln’s response could be read to mean that the elephants had actually arrived.
Apparently, an awareness of this letter and not the earlier one to Buchanan, led in the past to the creation of a myth that King Mongkut had actually sent elephants to the US. There are many sources on the Internet, however, that dispel this myth by pointing to the earlier letter to Buchanan (such as this one).
So while that issue appears to be resolved, there is another one, and a pretty embarrassing one for Lincoln, that I noticed in looking at his letter and other materials in the National Archives.
Earlier in his letter, President Lincoln thanked King Mongkut for gifts that he had actually sent. In particular, the president stated that:
“I have received in good condition the royal gifts which accompanied those letters, namely, a sword of costly materials and exquisite workmanship; a photographic likeness of Your Majesty and of Your Majesty’s beloved daughter; and also two elephants’ tusks of length and magnitude such as indicate that they could have belonged only to an animal which was a native of Siam.”
I do not recall ever having seen a picture of King Mongkut with his daughter. There is a famous daguerreotype of King Mongkut and his main queen, but I am unaware of one with his daughter.
In looking around in the National Archives, I found a scanned image of a “Daguerreotype of King Mongkut and Daughter, ca. 02/14/1861.”
So I clicked on the link to take a look, and found. . .
. . . that this does not look to me like a daughter. Instead, I assume that this must be a picture of King Mongkut’s son, the future King Chulalongkorn?
So why is this boy referred to in Lincoln’s letter as King Mongkut’s “beloved daughter”?
My guess would be that the garland around the topknot must have confused Lincoln, as boys in America at that time did not wear anything similar to that.
That said, I’m not entirely sure that these are in fact Lincoln’s words, as the letter (or the copy of its contents that are preserved in the National Archives) is signed as being “By the President” but the name of the secretary of state is listed after that. So who actually wrote this letter? And who actually thought that this was a picture of King Mongkut and his “beloved daughter”?
Whatever the case may be, since the “elephant myth” has been debunked, it’s probably appropriate to clarify/rectify President Lincoln’s (or the secretary of state’s) faux pas, or mistake, about Siamese royalty.
We can’t (and shouldn’t) alter what is written in Lincoln’s letter, but the archivists at the National Archives probably should at least correct the catalog information about the scanned image.
National Archives Identifiers: 6158611 and 5918073