September 23, 1999
The National Archives to Display King of Siam Letter to U.S. President
Washington, DC. . On Thursday, November 18, to coincide with the release of the major motion picture, Anna and the King, the National Archives will display an 1861 letter from the King of Siam to the President of the United States. The document will be on display through November 30 in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building. For further information relating to these and other programs, the public may call the public events line at (202) 501-5000. The hearing impaired should call TDD (202) 501-5404 for information.
Although most people remember the story of Anna and the King of Siam as a magical romance portrayed in Margaret Landon's book (and later translated onto the Hollywood screen and Broadway stage), the story is rooted in history. King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut ruled Siam from 1851 to 1868 and employed a governess named Anna Leonowens to teach English to his children. In the mid-19th century Siam enjoyed good relations with the United States, and the kingdom's ruler deftly managed relationships with American Presidents through a correspondence that is today preserved among the documents of the National Archives.
In a gesture of friendliness between the two countries, King Mongkut sent two gifts to President Buchanan during the last month of his administration—a sword and a photograph of the King with one of his children. In an accompanying letter, dated February 14, 1861, King Mongkut said that he had heard that the United States had no elephants. As a remedy, he offered a gift of elephants—several pairs of them—that could be "turned loose in forests and increase till there be large herds." The elephants would be useful in the unsettled parts of the United States, he continued, "since elephants being animals of great size and strength can bear burdens and travel through uncleared woods and matted jungles where no carriage and cart roads have yet been made." President Buchanan's successor, Abraham Lincoln, responded to the extraordinary offer. In a letter dated February 3, 1862, he graciously accepted the sword and photograph from the King but politely declined the elephants, explaining that the geography and climate of the United States do not "favor the multiplication of the elephant."
For additional PRESS information, please contact the National Archives Public Affairs staff at (301) 837-1700 or by e-mail.