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.

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