Note: posted on History for the Present, December 21, 2016
My daughter works for Greenheart International in Chicago, and last year she purchased Christmas gifts for me at the company’s fair-trade store. While the alpaca-wool scarf made in Ecuador was lovely and very practical, it was the adorable and useless string-doll Abraham Lincoln that really made me happy. The doll’s woolen hat is attached to a key ring, but I could not bear the thought of this precious little Lincoln holding a bunch of keys and dangerously knocking around in my pockets and bags. So since I received him, he has been hanging out under the shade of an antique lamp on my desk. When I pull the chain to switch on the light each morning, the bell on Lincoln’s hat rings, drawing my eyes to his funny face. His haphazard beard, wide-set eyes, and prominent nose always make me smile. String-doll Mr. Lincoln is almost as powerful as my morning coffee to get my day off to a good start.
Now string-doll Mr. Lincoln, it turns out, is a member of the String Doll Gang, a product line made my artisans in Thailand and distributed by an American fair-trade company. Gang members include animals, kids playing various sports, literary characters, and (of course?) American historical figures. Each of the dolls come with a small tag, identifying the character and offering a pithy moral. The Tuskegee Airman doll “helps you pave the way for important and necessary changes.” Harry Truman “reminds you not to believe everything you read in the newspapers.” Alexander Hamilton “helps you achieve financial stability and maintain good credit.” (I’m thinking the Hamilton string doll is probably the newest member of the gang, right?). And this will be a real shocker, I know, but string-doll Mr. Lincoln is called Honest Abe, and his tag speaks the truth.
No doubt the String Doll Gang is made for a western and not an Asian audience. No doubt the American marketers of this Asian folk art have ordered up particular American characters about which few Thai people are even aware. My daughter, who incidentally, taught school in Thailand for a couple of years, assures me that Thai children are not learning about Abraham Lincoln. But I cannot help but wonder if the artisan who crafted my string-doll Mr. Lincoln might have recognized the stovepipe hat and the beard and understood the reference “Honest Abe.” That would make it a lot less weird that string-doll folk artists in Thailand are making string-doll Mr. Lincolns just like mine. I would also like to think that at least in some college preparatory high school somewhere in Thailand there is a world history teacher who knows that his country actually has a very interesting connection to Abraham Lincoln. Surely said teacher tells every new class of students the story about the famous Siamese King Mongkut (this is Anna’s king, you know) and his offer to send elephants to America, and about President Lincoln’s polite return letter refusing said elephants.
But while my daughter might be a genius in the selection of perfect mom gifts, she is very skeptical of her mom’s enthusiastic hope in regard to this U.S.A./Thailand Lincoln connection thing. And, in fact, she suspects that only Lincoln scholars and very well-read Lincoln loonies (affectionate term, don’t get mad) in America know about Lincoln’s refusal to accept elephants. Perhaps. But just because most people do not know about it does not mean they should not know about it; and so I will take this opportunity to tell the story just in case.
On February 2, 1861, King Mongkut, the fourth monarch of Siam (which did not become Thailand until 1939) wrote to President James Buchanan, sending gifts and waxing poetic about the utility of elephants. “On this account,” wrote the King, “We desire to procure and send elephants to be let loose [to] increase and multiply in the continent of America but we are as yet uninformed what forests and what region of that country are suitable for elephants to thrive and prosper; Besides we have no means nor are we able to convey elephants to America, the distance being too great.” The King’s letter must have arrived some time after Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, because the Lincoln administration finally answered it on February 3, 1862. While most diplomatic correspondence was crafted by the Department of State and merely signed by the President, I think this letter sounds like Lincoln; and given the unusual content of Mongkut’s letter, I kinda think Lincoln may have had a hand in writing it. If the original letter ever surfaces in Thailand and it is all in in Lincoln’s hand, perhaps that will be enough to prove I am correct. But whoever wrote it, it is a very humorous, although very diplomatic, reply: “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 in our own 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.”
And so, my friends, that is how you begin with a Lincoln Lunacy, in this case my useless, string-doll Mr. Lincoln, and end with a useless, esoteric, historical tale that is worth far less than the $10 fair-trade gift that is responsible for this essay in the first place.