Monday, February 27, 2012

The Probable Influence of Robert Burns on Abraham Lincoln

This is a summary of my presentation to the First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, on February 11, 2012. I am neither a Lincoln scholar nor an expert on Robert Burns. I have always admired Abraham Lincoln and I presently struggle to understand the writings of Burns. Lincoln understood Burns because he could quote the longest poems and with the correct Scottish accent. How much Robert Burns influenced President Lincoln is something each person will have to decide for themselves.

Robert Burns died July 21, 1796.  Thirteen years later, Abraham Lincoln was born. Neither was born into wealth, and each knew the struggles of poverty. Burns was born in a house with a straw roof and Lincoln once slept on a bed of straw in a lean-to while his father was building their log cabin. Burns had a poor diet which led to his early death. The Lincoln family probably had a better diet because they could live off the land. Both began hard, physical labor as teens. Burns was an expert at plowing - Lincoln was an expert with the ax. Life was not easy for either man.

Neither had educated parents. Both had little in the way of a formal education. Lincoln once said that, if it was all added up, it would be less than a year, while Burns was occasionally taught by a tutor. Both were avid readers and would walk long distances to borrow books. They read and studied everything. If you believe the Ann Rutledge story, then both were unlucky in love. Both suffered from depression and used the same word, “hypochondria,” to describe their condition.

They differed in how they looked at religion and the church. Burns was called a dangerous rebel against religion. He found the church controlling, dark and corrupt. However, he did develop an interest in the Bible. He was so taken with the first four books of the Bible that he had a special edition printed and distributed to his friends. He struggled with the concept of God but God is mentioned in his writings. The same holds true for the writings of Mr. Lincoln.

In Springfield, Lincoln met the Rev. James Smith, a Presbyterian and a Scotsman. He had written several books and was the first educated minister in Lincoln’s life. The family attended his church and they owned pew #20. In Washington, the family regularly attended the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The pastor was also a Scot, the Rev. Dr. Phineas Densmore Gurley. He was often observed visiting the White House, especially in the early morning hours. The Pastor was at his bedside when Lincoln died and traveled with the funeral train on its long journey back to Springfield.

Lincoln was often seen in prayer because events were happening over which he had no control. “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of all around me seemed insufficient for the day.” It’s true, he never joined the church but some scholars believe that once he returned home to Springfield, the Presbyterian Church would have been his choice. He once expressed a desire to visit the Holy Land and Scotland, especially the birthplace of Robert Burns.

Burns believed in the individual worth of the person. He wrote a song which we often call “A man’s a man for all that.” It’s not what you wear, or your wealth - It’s the man that is important.

  “The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
  The man’s the gold for all that.”

In his "Ode to Washington," Burns spoke of “The royalty of man.”  His idol was William Wallace, made famous today by the movie "Braveheart." In his poem “Scots Wha Hae," (Scots, Who Have) he has Wallace speaking of “chains and slavery” and then “freedom and liberty” even if the price is death. “Let us do or die!” is the closing line. Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln named their third son William Wallace; they called him “Willie.” Lincoln would certainly have known about William Wallace and the poems of Burns which spoke of liberty and freedom.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln used just 10 sentences, a couple of hundred words and a few minutes, to speak of liberty, freedom and justice. Words that Robert Burns spoke in his lifetime and wrote in his poems.

In the first sentence Lincoln said: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

He concluded by saying “-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Two men, the same in many respects but different in other ways. Both believed that all men should be free from tyranny and injustice. The character and mind of Lincoln was formed by many things but the Bible and Robert Burns must have had a major role. You can decide!

Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club

The History Club meets March 3, 2012. Our speaker will be Rob Knuepfer, Jr. who is well known to Rotarians in this area. Paul Harris, founder of Rotary International had some very special connections to Scotland. A visit to his grave will be part of our history tour on March 31. The History Club meets in Heritage Hall at the Scottish Home, 28th and Des Plaines, North Riverside, IL. The meeting begins at 10 a.m. Everyone is welcome.

HISTORY TOUR - March 31. The charter bus will leave the Scottish Home at 9:30 a.m. for the Auditorium Theater. We will be given a tour of the Theater, its past, present and future. It should be a very interesting tour of a Chicago landmark. Somewhere along the way, we will have a box lunch and then visit Mount Hope cemetery and drive by "Comely Bank," home of Paul Harris. Reservations are now being taken. Cost is $22.50 per person. Payment and reservations can be made on the website. Or you can call, send an email to me or you can also register by calling Kristin at 708-447-5092.

History Club meeting in April is canceled.

Friday, February 17, 2012

David Macrae Visits America in 1868 and Writes a Book

In 1868, David Macrae, a Scotsman, came to visit North America. He traveled through Canada, down the eastern seaboard, and across to New Orleans. He then took a steamboat to St. Louis, finally reaching Chicago. His thoughts and sketches were made into a book which sold in Europe but not in the United States. The book “The Americans At Home” can be purchased at or viewed on the Internet.

He thought that Americans were quite boastful to the point of it becoming a national characteristic. Each state appeared to claim that, in the Civil War, it made a greater sacrifice than any other state. “The soldiers of each state were braver and bigger, won more battles, and filled more graves that those of any other state.”  This was just three years after the Great War had ended. Here are some other thoughts from his book.

Philadelphia bragged it had the straightest streets and the largest orphanage in America. New Orleans had the “smoothest drives and the biggest river trade.” Milwaukee had the “best bricks;” New York, the largest population and the finest parks. Boston had the best schools and the “biggest pipe organ.” Chicago had the biggest saints, the biggest sinners, and the biggest pig killing establishments in America. He called Chicago “The Lightning City” because of its amazing growth. Just forty years before he had arrived, Indians had roamed the area. In 1830, there were four taverns, one merchant, one butcher and four Indian traders. In 1868, the population had soared to 300,000. Some of the streets were 7 to 8 miles long and 7,000,000 passengers annually rode on the street railways.

Before coming here, he envisioned that the American lady was a “dry, hard, angular, disagreeably independent, strong-minded female.” He said, he soon discovered that it was not true. He found, to his delight, that American women were in prominent and public positions. In New Jersey he found a lady “Doctoress.” by the name of Fowler, who was a public physician. He heard Miss Anna Dickinson give a public lecture. “In Massachusetts, I saw a female clergyman (clergywoman, I should say), the Rev. Olympia Brown.”

Finally, he said: “American women, as a rule, are just as gentle, as kind, as agreeable, as affectionate, and as lovely as our own.” He did think that American girls were generally too pale and thin and they were always trying to gain weight. One young lady said to him, “I have gained eighteen pounds in flesh since last April.” He reported that every girl knew her weight and was able to give that within ounces. “One of the first things done with a baby when it is born seems to be to hurry it into a pair of scales and have its weight duly registered. It continues to be weighed at short intervals all through its childhood . . . ” This may have also changed a little.

He wrote about the paleness of American women and wanted to blame that on the climate. However, he came to the conclusion that New England girls were pale because of “too much metaphysics, hot bread and pie.”  Every time he sat down to dinner in America there were pies - even in a poor man’s house. Not just one kind of pie but several kinds. “Pie seems indispensable. Take anything away, but leave the pie. American can stand the prohibition of intoxicating drinks; but I believe the prohibition of pie would precipitate a revolution.” (One of our readers in Washington, D.C. will appreciate these comments about pie.)

He made a lot of comments about New York City, especially the “shocking condition of the streets.” He observed that the dirtiest streets of London or Glasgow were “like a drawing-room floor compared with the streets of New York on a slushy day.” Crossing Broadway, he had to “tuck up his pants and wade.” He thought that if the condition worsened, the city would have to establish ferries at all their principal crossings.  (I am sure that has now also changed)

In 1868, he said the population of New York was nearly 2 million which included Brooklyn. The “Scotch” numbered only about 20,000. Most of them were prosperous and had risen to positions of influence and wealth. They did not organize themselves into a political party as did the Irish or Germans. “The Irish make a profession of politics, throw themselves with all the ardour of their race into the political arena, and almost monopolize the public offices.” With corruption abounding in New York, he did not think the results were very flattering.

I find the book very interesting and well written with a measure of sarcasm as well. Perhaps, he was a student of Robert Burns, who was the master of sarcasm. There is an entire chapter on George H. Stuart and the Christian Commission that was active during the Civil War. He spent an evening with Alexander Williamson who had tutored the Lincoln children in the White House and whose son had witnessed the assassination at Ford’s Theater. He met with General Grant and President Johnson. There is also a chapter about Chicago which I will use for a future blog. If you want a first hand view of America in 1868, you might enjoy this book.

Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club

History Club meets March 3, 2012. Our speaker will be Rob Knuepfer, Jr. who is well known to Rotarians in this area. Paul Harris, founder of Rotary International had some very special connections to Scotland. A visit to his grave will be part of our history tour on March 31.

HISTORY TOUR - March 31. The charter bus will leave the Scottish Home at 9:30 a.m. for the Auditorium Theater. We will be given a tour of the Theater, its past, present and future. It should be a very interesting tour of a Chicago landmark. Somewhere along the way, we will have a box lunch and then visit Mount Hope cemetery. Reservations are now being taken. Cost is $22.50 per person. Call or send an email.

History Club meeting in April is canceled.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Admiral Byrd, Three Guernsey Cows, A Milking Machine and a Scot born in Elgin, Illinois

When Admiral Byrd journeyed to the South Pole in 1933, he took three Guernsey cows and a milking machine. He also took sand and straw for bedding: 20 tons of hay, 12 tons of beet pulp and 2 tons of bran - enough to last for two years. (One of the cows was owned by J. C. Penney.) All of the cows, except one, made the 22,000 miles of sea travel and the isolation without incident. He brought back a new bull calf christened “iceberg” born just outside the Arctic circle. On the supply ship, the Jacob Ruppert, was a Surge Milking Machine invented by Herbert McCormack of Elgin, Illinois (USA).

The McCormacks were pioneers who came from Scotland in 1838 and settled just west of the little community of Elgin. They had 12 children and Herbert was the third from the youngest. “He was different from the rest because his pale blue eyes showed him to be a dreamer.” The parents were Presbyterians and ardent believers in religion and education. Most of the children graduated from the Elgin Academy and several were college graduates, including some of the girls. Herbert McCormack graduated from Beloit college in 1887.

On June 23, 1897, he was united in marriage to Miss Emma Miller and three children were born to the family. What were the goals and ambitions of Herbert McCormack? He just wanted to be an inventor! That was his goal and he was going to give it a try. During his lifetime he held more than 50 patents. He wrote all the patents himself and some of them you can now find on the Internet. He was a perfectionist, “never being satisfied until he had made his invention as nearly perfect as he could.” One of his first inventions was a “nail shingler,” which he used on buildings for the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904.

“On a fall day in 1922, Herbert McCormack showed his most famous invention which soon revolutionized the dairy business. It was a Surge Milking Machine. The machine had a surging action which permitted a tug – and – pull movement of the milker during normal milking, similar to the tugging and pulling of the calf.” One of the places where he experimented with his milking machine was the Elgin State Hospital. They began milking at 3:00 a.m. with a second session at 3:00 p.m. McCormack would be present making notes and keeping records.

Those of us who live in metropolitan areas go to the store and buy milk with hardly a second thought on how it arrived safely at market. Much of the credit goes to this man who just wanted to be an inventor. He died in August 1944. They lived in Florida at the time and his body was cremated and the ashes brought back to Elgin, Illinois, to be buried in the old pioneers’ cemetery which was part of his birthplace.

If you travel West out of Elgin on Highway 20, about 6 miles, on your right will be a small white church and a cemetery. I believe it is called the Memorial Washington Reformed Presbyterian Church. His father had given the land for the church and the cemetery. The church is now closed but the cemetery is cared for by the descendants of the pioneers buried there as a memorial to those people who had such a courageous and implicit faith in God.

Many years ago someone in the McCormack family sent me a lot of information about the family. I hope they will read this article and perhaps reestablish contact. One of the daughters was named Alice McCormack Ellingson, and in 1965, she lived in San Francisco, California. Descendants of those buried in the cemetery meet once a year, I believe in the month of June, and take care of the cemetery. They also hold a service and I remember that Rev. Donald Kinloch, former chairman of our board, was the speaker on several occasions. I no longer have the name and address of the contact person who at one time lived in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

This blog is a tribute to Herbert McCornack, a descendant of Scottish emigrants, who just wanted to invent things - and invent he did!

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois St. Andrew’s Society
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NOTE: The Scottish American History Club meets this Saturday, February 4, 2012. The meeting will be in Heritage Hall at the Scottish Home and will begin at 10:00 a.m. The speaker is Tom Campbell, author of “Fighting Slavery in Chicago.” Mr. Campbell is a life member of the St. Andrew’s Society and a graduate of Dartmouth. He received his J.D. from Cornell University and has been named among The Best Lawyers in America. You will enjoy his presentation.