Dead Presidents don't tweet. Even if Abraham Lincoln dodged the bullet at Ford's Theatre, he still wouldn't be here to defend his own legacy. So, an interesting subplot in the US election is Trump's brazen attempt to slip on the mantle of Lincoln and claim that he’s the second coming of the great emancipator. With typical hyperbole, Trump has declared that he's helped African Americans more than the man who actually ended slavery, telling Fox News in June: 'So, I think I've done more for the black community than any other president, and let's take a pass on Abraham Lincoln, cause he did good, although it's always questionable'.
Trump's cult of personality masquerading as Republicans is unrecognisable from the true party of Lincoln, but that hasn't stopped him taking the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible
and angling for greatness by association by hamming it up in front of Mount Rushmore. Springing to the 16th President's defence are groups like 'The Lincoln Project', a network of disillusioned Republicans appalled by Trump's shameless corruption of mainstream conservatism. They're now actively working to get Biden elected through blistering ads that turn the political dark arts of previous Republican campaigns into social media carpet bombing aimed directly at the sitting President.
Although it may not be obvious, Scotland has a dog in the fight when it comes to protecting the legacy of Lincoln from Trump's reality distortion field. Unlike Trump, Lincoln never visited Scotland, but there's a strong case to be made that his political philosophy and broader world view were definitively shaped by the poetry of our own Robert Burns.
Growing up in Scotland in the 1970s, my primary school Burns curriculum was heavily sanitised, with an emphasis on fond kisses over fornication. But even as I dug deeper into Burns, my perspective remained parochial and focused on how his life and works had impacted Scotland. It was only when I moved to America in the early 1990s that I started to recognise his influence on this country and specifically his importance to Lincoln.
Lincoln was born only 13 years after Burns' death and, when he was a travelling circuit lawyer in Illinois in the 1850s, he always had a copy of Burns in his saddle bag. For that we can seemingly thank Jack Kelso, a well-read frontiersman described by contemporaries as both a 'loveable vagabond' and 'the village idler'. Lincoln roomed with Kelso in New Salem when he was in his early 20s and the pair frequently fished together. Kelso encouraged Lincoln to memorise both Burns and Shakespeare, so he's often credited with introducing Lincoln to the bards, but it's likely that Lincoln had already heard many Burns poems and songs through the strong oral cultural tradition of the Ohio Valley where he was raised.
Charles Maltby, who worked in the same law office as Lincoln in the 1830s, recalled that he could recite large parts of Holy Willie's Prayer
, Address to the Deil
, Bonie Jean,
and many other Burns poems, and could quote Burns 'by the hour'. The evening Lincoln proposed to Mary Todd in 1842, he seemingly courted her with Bonie Jean
, which contains perfect wooing material in: 'She had nae will to say him naw. At length, she blushed a sweet consent'. Although Mary was effectively courted, she was a famous nippy sweetie when they were married, chastising Lincoln for often looking like an unmade bed by quoting To a Louse
back at him.
Lincoln clearly revered Shakespeare and quoted him often when it came to the subtleties of politics, but he also loved Burns for his nuanced portrayal of human nature, with all its complexity and foibles. There are many stories of Lincoln reading Burns aloud to guests in the White House during his Presidency, unlike the current incumbent who seems unwilling to read even national security briefings. The last known reference that Lincoln made to Burns was just before his assassination in April 1865. John Hay recalls Lincoln reciting several Burns poems on a boat trip on the Potomac, and then turning to him and remarking: 'Burns never touched a sentiment without carrying it to its ultimate expression and leaving nothing further to be said'.
There are many parallels between the lives of the two men. They both came from hardscrabble farming backgrounds, both suffered through bouts of depression as they struggled to find their way in life, and both pushed back against the hypocrisies of organised religion, although each relied on the King James Version of the Bible
for literary inspiration. Both dabbled in a variety of professions, including time as surveyors, before finding callings that used the power of language to move their fellow man. In death, each has been mythologised to the point where they function as load-bearing beams for their respective national identities, with their two birthdays still being formally celebrated each year.
Maybe because of their parallel struggles, Burns and Lincoln also shared a world view. Lincoln clearly saw in Burns a kindred spirit who believed in the value and nobility of the common man. Although Lincoln recited Burns on a regular basis, he didn't quote Burns much in his own speeches. However, there's plenty of indirect evidence that Burns' belief in tolerance and his commitment to social equality helped shape Lincoln's own political philosophy. Also, if Lincoln had indeed memorised swathes of Burns as a young man, then it's almost certain that the cadence and clarity of Burns would have had a major impact on his own rhetorical style and use of language.
If you remain sceptical about Lincoln's admiration for Burns, consider these two facts. First, if you're one of the 400,000 visitors each year to the Lincoln House memorial in Illinois, you'll find three literary busts in the parlour: Shakespeare, Dickens and Burns. Second, in 1869, Lincoln's widow Mary Todd made an extended trip to Europe, during which she made a point of visiting Alloway to pay her respects to a man who she knew had helped shape her husband's character. Luckily, she didn't bump into Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who also travelled to Scotland that same summer to make a pilgrimage to Burns Cottage, having previously claimed that if he hadn't been born an American, he would choose to be a Scot.
In mid-19th-century America, the opposing Civil War Presidents weren't alone in their admiration of Burns. The first American edition of Burns was published in 1788 and there was a copy found in the library of George Washington. The extent to which America embraced Burns was shown in the Presidential election of 1828, during which Andrew Jackson's campaign used a parody of John Anderson, My Jo
to skewer John Quincy Adams, and parodies only work if the audience is very familiar with the original. Scots Wha Hae
was then widely quoted in leaflets that inspired Texans during their rebellion against Mexico in the 1830s. By 1841, a Kentucky reporter felt confident writing in an article that 'you all know the history of Burns'. At the end of the 19th century, an American writer claimed that Burns had 'filled a great want in American literary life', but then he may have been a little bit of a biased Caledonophile given that his name was Wallace Bruce.
An indication of the prominence of Burns in American literary life during the Lincoln era was that in 1859 over 100 centenary Burns Suppers took place across America, with the one in New York drawing 2,500 guests. Lincoln himself gave a formal toast at the one held in Springfield, Illinois, but sadly there's no record of what he said that evening. Six long years later in January 1865, as the civil war still raged, Lincoln was asked to speak at the Burns Club in Washington DC. This time he declined, but he responded with a written note that said: 'Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything that is worth saying'.
Although Burns influenced Lincoln and many other leaders in 19th-century America, Burns had in turn been shaped by the events of the American revolution 80 years before. When the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776, Burns was just 17 and labouring on his father's farm. Just over a decade later, as the Constitutional Convention sat in Philadelphia, Burns was a fully-fledged literary celebrity. So, the American revolution unfolded during a transformative period in the short life of Burns, and you can see its impact in his political writing. Burns' politics can often be a little slippery, but it's evident that towards the end of his life he greatly admired American democracy.
Burns knew the key role the Scots had played in the founding of the American republic, from the inspirational claim to self-determination in the Declaration of Arbroath, through the bottom-up governance model of the Kirk, to the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment carried to America through immigrant Founding Fathers. His admiration for what America had achieved is clear in one of my favourite pieces of political Burns, his Ode for General Washington's Birthday,
written near the end of his life in 1794. Because of its overtly republican content it wasn't published by Burns himself, and fittingly it first appeared in print in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Written in English rather than Scots, Burns venerates George Washington for representing strength, liberty and freedom. Burns then challenges the Scots to follow the lead of 'Columbia's offspring', asking them: 'Where is that soul of freedom fled? Immingled with the mighty dead! Beneath that hallowed turf where Wallace lies!'
Born almost exactly 50 years apart, Robert Burns was clearly a literary touchstone for Lincoln throughout his life. Therefore, the next time Trump or anyone else tries to hijack Lincoln, anchor the reality of Honest Abe's legacy in that tattered copy of Burns that he carried in his saddlebag as he rode the circuit in Illinois 170 years ago. With this year's Presidential election just two months away, maybe it's time to put a copy of Burns' Collected Works
in the mail to Joe Biden, c/o 'a basement somewhere in Delaware', in the hope that Rabbie might once again inspire a Presidential hopeful in dark days for America.