Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


Lincoln’s Letter to Siam

Historical Background

(Note: Siam became Thailand in 1939.)

Very early in our nation’s history, foreign nations began to offer gifts to the President and other high-ranking officials. Article 1, section 9, of the Constitution clearly sets forth the United States government’s position on gift offers from heads of foreign governments to federal officials. The specific clause reads: "No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." When consulted, however, Congress has often allowed United States diplomats to accept relatively inexpensive foreign gifts, especially when refusal of a token gift might be construed as an insult.

Most Presidents accepted gifts only on behalf of the American people, and they deposited them in governmental archives. Usually the State Department received these gifts in the President’s name and Congress assumed responsibility for their ultimate disposition. Congress formalized this policy in 1881. But, as the actions of subsequent administrations indicated, the 1881 gift law did not sufficiently address a number of significant questions: Could the President keep gifts personally intended for him as opposed to those officially tendered to him as head of his government? Could the State Department turn over gifts it had received during his term to the President when he left office? Could official gifts be housed somewhere other than with State Department archives—for example, in a Presidential Library? Since 1881, various interpretations of these questions have prompted Congress to draft additional legislation to clarify its position toward foreign gifts.

Lincoln’s Response to a Royal Proffer

From 1851 to 1868, Maha Mongkut (Rama IV) ruled Siam. Like the kings that preceded him, King Rama IV wished to resist Western imperialist designs upon Siam, but, unlike them, he so admired certain Western practices, particularly in education, that he sought contacts in the West. His unique melding of Eastern and Western ways has been fancifully characterized in the movie "The King and I." His letters to the United States Presidents of his day are among the treasures of the National Archives.

The two letters to which Lincoln replied demonstrate King Rama IV’s knowledge of the United States, or at least its government. One letter recognized that the President could accept royal gifts only as "the common property of the Nation"; the other noted the United States military experiment to introduce camels into the American Southwest and suggested that, in the same spirit, elephants be imported from Siam to perform heavy labor.

In his reply to this offer by King Rama IV, Lincoln graciously accepts three gifts—a daguerreotype portrait of King Rama IV and his favorite daughter (right), a sword, and elephant tusks. However, he courteously declines the proffered elephants.

Further Details

• The Salutation "Great and Good Friend" used in the President’s letter to the King was commonly used for addressing membersof royalty.

Click the image to view a larger version

• Several words in the document appear to substitute an "f" character for the first of two consecutive "s"s. Actually, the "f" is what is called a "long s" and was a common writing practice in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The letter reproduced here is from Volume 3 (1856-1864) of the "Communications m Foreign Sovereigns and Heads of States" Series, General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59. It is in a clerk’s hand, not that of President Lincoln.

Suggestions for Teaching

The following suggestions are ideas for class discussions or for independent student projects. They are organized by course subject.

For Geography classes: The gifts offered to President Lincoln by the King of Siam reflect some of the natural resources and cultural values of Siam. Direct students to do research on one country and to select several products or items that might be representative gifts from that country. The following are suggested countries: Belgium, Colombia, Sierra Leone, Pakistan, and New Zealand. Place a map of the world on a bulletin board and ask students to locate their countries and explain to the class the reasons for selecting these particular gifts.

For American History and Government classes: American Presidents are prohibited from accepting gifts from foreign governments without Congressional permission. Discuss this policy with students. Consider these issues: What motivates a head of state to send expensive gifts to the leader of another country? Does the value of a gift affect whether it should be accepted?

For World History classes: What gifts do you think would have been appropriate for the President to have sent to the King? Would the same gifts be appropriate today? What was the nature of the relationship between the United States and Siam in 1861? What is that relationship today?

For American Studies classes: King Rama IV is characterized in the novel Anna and the King of Siam (and later in the movie, "The King and I"). Many other fictionalized books are based on historical incidents. Assign students to read one of these works and to describe to the class how it reflects the historical period: The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Red Badge of Courage, In Cold Blood, Northwest Passage, and The Winds of War.

Here is a simple puzzle designed to stimulate interest in the document. We suggest that you post the document on the bulletin board and reproduce copies of the puzzle for interested students.

Click the image to see a printable, full-page version of this teaching activity

Answer Key
1. T R O P H I E S
2. S E W A R D
3. P A C I F I C
4. A R C H I V E S
5. Y E A R
6. S W O R D
7. S T E A M
8. C O N G R E S S
9. S I A M

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Chicago: "Lincoln’s Letter to Siam," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 24–29. Original Sources, accessed May 25, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3EF11TSPM4RZUWQ.

MLA: . "Lincoln’s Letter to Siam." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 24–29. Original Sources. 25 May. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3EF11TSPM4RZUWQ.

Harvard: , 'Lincoln’s Letter to Siam' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.24–29. Original Sources, retrieved 25 May 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=3EF11TSPM4RZUWQ.