CHICAGO - It is a lone letter, just a few inches square. To those with little sense of history, it is nothing more than a "thank-you" note, scrawled out in a matter of seconds on a scrap of paper.
Yet this letter of courtesy helps document the connection between Abraham Lincoln and his counterpart in Mexico, Benito Juarez. It is what helped Mexico maintain its independence when French forces would have liked to gain influence in the 1860s, and also had a hand in keeping the United States truly united, rather than split in two.
Today, it is among the artifacts on display as part of a pair of exhibits that opened Oct. 10 at the Chicago History Museum, paying tribute to the life of Juarez and the anti-slavery views of Lincoln that evolved over time from ambivalence to outright abolition.
The meeting occurred when Juarez sent his charge' d affaires, Matìas Romero on a trip to Springfield, Ill., where he met with then-president-elect Lincoln at his home in the days when Lincoln was preparing his family for the move from the Illinois capital city to the nation's capital --- one that was about to be torn apart by war.
Dated Jan. 21, 1861, Lincoln acknowledged the meeting with Romero, writing that he offered, "sincere wishes for the happiness, prosperity and liberty of yourself, your government and its people."
It might not sound like much, particularly since Romero was asking for support of the Mexican government just a few years after the United States conquered Mexico City and took about one-third of the nation for itself as compensation.
But Lincoln --- in a speech before the House of Representatives whose spirit has been resurrected many times in recent years by anti-Iraq War activists --- was one of the few members of Congress who had opposed going to war with Mexico in the 1840s.
Once the Civil War was underway, he became aware that it was the presence of Juarez in maintaining the support of the Mexican people that caused them to revolt so strongly to the presence of an Austrian emperor (Maximilian) installed by Napoleon III of France that the French were never able to seriously follow through on their rhetoric of offering military and economic support to the concept of the Confederacy.
Because of the fact that Juarez had a hand in helping maintain the concept of the United States as a single nation, it was after the Civil War that Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, approved military aid to Juarez' supporters, which ultimately was what led to the abdication and eventual capture and execution of Maximilian in 1867.
The museum's Juarez exhibit includes sheet music from 1866 for the song, "Get Out of Mexico," whose cover art shows Uncle Sam pulling Napoleon III by the earlobe.
And for his part, Juarez often talked of wanting to base a government for a prosperous Mexico on the democratic ideals of the United States.
It was such talk that caused him to have to spend so much time in exile, first from Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana in the 1850s and later from Emperor Maximilian, where he split his time moving about among seven Mexican cities --- including the far northern border town across from El Paso, Texas, that now bears his name, Ciudad Juàrez.
There was a time in 1854 when Juarez lived in New Orleans, taking a job in a cigar factory to support himself (and the museum even has the fish hook and line that he used on occasion to catch himself dinner).
To this day, the Juarez/Lincoln connection remains in many minds. Some try to label Juarez as the "Abraham Lincoln of Mexico," and among the many schools in this country named for Juarez -- including a Chicago high school at 2150 S. Laflin St. -- is an institution in La Joya, Texas, named Benito Juarez/Abraham Lincoln High School.
The Juarez/Lincoln High Huskies, for short.
But in its attempts to document Juarez/Lincoln connections, the museum's exhibits also came up with the big difference between the two men --- the first thing one sees when entering the Juarez portion is a suit and top hat worn by Juarez.
On first glance, they look like the kind of clothes we often associate with Lincoln.
But then we notice the size. Lincoln at 6-foot, 4-inches tall was one of the tallest U.S. presidents ever. Juarez, at 4-foot, 6-inches, is documented as the shortest world leader whose height was formally recorded.
If you go:
what: Benito Juarez and the Making of Modern Mexico
when: now until April 12, 2010
where: Chicago History Museum
Clark Street at North Avenue
more info: chicagohistory.org
Monday - Saturday
9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Noon - 5 p.m.
The Museum is free on Mondays.
Adults: $14 with audio tours
Seniors (65+): $12 with audio tours
Students (13 -- 22 with ID): $12 with audio tours