Amidst the debate over the statue to Henry Dundas and Scotland’s role in the slave trade, it’s often forgotten that arguably the two greatest proponents of abolition were avid fans of Scotland’s Bard. Many are aware that Burns once briefly contemplated going to Jamaica though thankfully didn’t, but few know that Abraham Lincoln who waged war over the issue and Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, and the foremost orator against the iniquitous trade, revered him.
Burns celebrations this year will be muted due to coronavirus. But they’re longstanding. In 1859 on the centenary of his birth 61 US cities hosted events, and the one in Springfield, Illinois was attended by Lincoln, soon to ascend to the Presidency.
It’s said that Lincoln quoted Burns while he worked in his law practice and that continued into his tenure in the White House. He was said to have memorised many of the Bards works of by heart and which he quoted extensively, including Tam O’Shanter and Holy Willie’s Prayer. Indeed, his secretary recalled that as he sailed down the Potomac in April 1865 shortly before he was assassinated, he recited several of the Bards works ending with “Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn”. Lincolns affections acknowledged by the American National Park service who have a bust of Burns in the President restored home.
Douglass likewise both revered and recited Burns though ironically took his name from another Scottish literary great. Born Frederick Bailey he was advised to change his name when he fled north, and recapture was still a threat. An avid reader of Sir Walter Scott’s works, he chose Douglass from “Lady of the Lake”. An extra “s” was added by him for individuality.
Ironically, his slave owners were called Hugh and Thomas Auld, perhaps, confirming Scotland’s mixed relationship with the evil trade. Notwithstanding that, Douglass revered Burns and is recorded as having a “lifetime passion” for him. Indeed, when on his speaking tour of Scotland in support of abolition in 1846 he made a pilgrimage to Alloway.
Whatever Scotland’s role in that evil trade, Burns was the Abolitionists Bard.