As a Lincoln scholar living on Lincoln Avenue in Springfield, Illinois, I introduced my two daughters to Abraham Lincoln at a very early age. They got a little tired of hearing about Lincoln sometimes, but they were always very good sports about it, even in February when there was no escaping Lincoln at home or at school. You see, in Lincoln’s hometown, celebrating his birthday is a serious business. In 2000, when my daughter Mack was just five years old, she celebrated Lincoln’s birthday month with her kindergarten class at Dubois Elementary School (named after Lincoln’s old friend Jesse K., by the way). Their teacher sat with the students on the carpet, read some books to them, and got them all fired up about Lincoln. She then asked them to pen their own illustrated stories, and Mack’s exuberant piece remains to this day one of my favorite artifacts of her childhood.
And since I’m missing the Lincoln Symposium this year in Springfield, I thought I’d celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by sharing a few adorable depictions of Lincoln and his iconic hat done by little kids, starting first with the one that Mack made (I love love love her upside down bunting!): Over the years, I have given February presentations about Lincoln to school children, who have sent me thank you cards and letters with their own art work. I have a box of them that I treasure, and here a few of my favorites:
So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln! You continue to inspire us all.
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.
There is an abundance of wonderful, wacky, and weird Lincoln shit out in the world, like this adorable, but very strange Lincoln rubber ducky. I purchased this little fella for one dollar at the eclectic urban market across the street from my house. It was buried in a big bin of presidential rubber duckies just waiting for this Lincoln scholar to pluck him out from under a large number of far more numerous Washington and Reagan rubber duckies. Missouri was a border state, and Lincoln has never been all that popular here; however, with some hope in my voice, I asked the sales clerk if there had been a run on the Lincoln rubber duckies. He smiled broadly and laughed, noting that the Lincoln and the Obama rubber duckies had flown out of that bin, leaving the far less popular presidents behind. While Missouri is hardly a “reconstructed” state (just look at the November 2016 election returns), at least my border city knows how to pick the right presidents out of bin of presidential rubber duckies.
Over the years I have always trained my eye for wonderful, wacky, and weird Lincoln shit out in the world, and when I see it I make a beeline for it. I laugh…or groan, as the case may be. I bring it to the attention of my companions, who do their own groaning. I snap pictures and often, admittedly, plunk down hard earned cash to make it my own. I have Lincoln bandages, a Lincoln switch-plate, and a set of Lincoln salt and pepper shakers, to name just a few of my purchases. I have never documented my finds, but in the back of my mind has always lurked a desire to share what I have come to call my Lincoln Lunacies with the world. And so, with this website and effort to write history for the present, I finally have my chance.
Watch for regular Lincoln Lunacy blog posts, and send me your crazy-ass Lincoln finds, too. It’ll be fun to talk about how a great and ugly man from the 1860s came to be such omnipresent icon in our modern world.