On Friday morning, December 30, 1792, Archibald Robertson, an ambitious painter from Aberdeen, Scotland, arrived at the doorstep of the executive mansion at Philadelphia. David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, entrusted him to deliver a wooden box to President George Washington. Yet this was no ordinary box and Robertson’s call no ordinary visit. For those of an early whig historical persuasion, both gift and guest reflected that timeless pursuit of liberty, dignity, and human progress. And for Buchan, at least, Washington’s disinterested leadership during the War for Independence not only liberated Americans from British oppression, it created a nation whose political mission prioritized private pursuits of happiness. From the earl’s perspective, Washington continued a tradition that Scottish freedom fighter Sir William Wallace commenced some five hundred years earlier. The centuries may have changed, but for Buchan the circumstances revealed synergetic continuity.
Lord Buchan’s earldom originated in 1469 (the second iteration of a 1374 creation) and, for more than two centuries, his family moved among Scotland’s most elite circles. His parents educated him at home with the assistance of tutor James Buchanan, who later became Professor of Oriental Languages at Glasgow. Needless to say, Buchan developed a remarkable command of both English and Latin. At university, he studied jurisprudence and politics under Adam Smith and demonstrated a real interest in and talent for drawing and printing. In 1758, Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, summoned Buchan to meet King George II at London; the earl remarked of that meeting, “The forms of the english court and its dullness disgusted me greatly.” In 1762, he accepted a commission in the 32nd Regiment of Foot offered by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham but later declined to take a post in the British embassy at Madrid. Tellingly, the young aristocrat’s real interests lay beyond the intrigue of court and desire for martial glory.
Despite the expectation that Buchan would enter court politics, he felt a deep sense of public responsibility to preserve Scotland’s cultural integrity and advance human knowledge. Buchan’s education and experience exposed him to sixteenth-century Scottish historians such as John Major, Hector Boece and George Buchanan. Major and Boece produced patriotic pseudo-histories of ancient Scotland that recorded, in one historian’s take, “the most implausible tales of Scottish antiquity.” Buchanan’s controversial work advanced the claim that all political power originated from the people and any monarch broaching the bounds of their allotted authority deserved both resistance and retribution. The earl hoped to investigate the Scottish past without relying on mythology. And he appears to have absorbed Buchanan’s political radicalism: an outspoken critic of how Scottish representative peers advanced into Britain’s House of Lords, he championed and secured freer and fairer elections for those positions. And he embraced American defiance to king-in-Parliament’s attempts at regulating British North America after 1763. In 1780 he formed the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, hoping to recover lost customs, traditions and even languages. In the process, he expected to examine constitutional, military and ecclesiastical organization. These endeavors required the earl and his fellow antiquarians to locate and examine the remains of Scottish castles, weapons and churches among other lost artifacts. Each of these “noble and disinterested actions,” Buchan claimed, inspired and motivated his continued efforts on behalf of the public.
Lord Buchan referred to himself as an “Old acquaintance” of Benjamin Franklin and the Scottish earl kept a watchful eye on the American colonies as the imperial crisis intensified. Buchan may have encountered Franklin in Scotland as early as 1759, but the two had certainly met at London by 1764. The earl criticized Britain’s “foolish and oppressive conduct toward the colonies” and described America as a sanctuary for “truth and freedom.” According to scholar James Gordon Lamb, Buchan began to identify himself in spirit with the American cause. Lamb summarized Buchan’s whiggish simplification of the empire’s turmoil as a British “attempt to enslave a brave and industrious people fighting for the preservation of a simple and dignified way of life.” Once the United States secured its independence, Buchan contributed to American intellectual life by continuing to write letters of introduction for Scottish academics seeking appointments at American universities.
In 1786, Lord Buchan purchased Dryburgh Abbey, a dilapidated estate once in the possession of his ancestors. The earl hoped to bring that ancient property back to its former glory and live quietly as a country gentleman, attending to printing, publishing and curating a “Temple of Caledonian Fame.” Buchan planned to dedicate this space to housing likenesses of “illustrious and learned Scots.” Drawing on George Washington’s own Scottish ancestry, the earl sought to commission a portrait of the American president for his temple. In 1791, he found his opportunity to do so; the Goldsmiths Company of Edinburg presented Buchan with a gift in recognition of his services in preserving Scotland’s cultural heritage and identity. The offering, a lidded wooden box with “an elegant silver binding,” put into the earl’s hands a powerful connection to Scotland’s past.
The box harnessed the combined emotional power of Scottish history and folklore. In 1298, King Edward I’s forces comprehensively defeated Scottish independence leader Sir William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk. The resistance warrior supposedly evaded capture by his English enemies by climbing up an oak tree with his broad sword and waiting out their watch. The Goldsmiths Company of Edinburgh used timber they believed came from the heart of that tree to fashion a relic commemorating both Scottish liberty and Wallace’s spirit of defiance. When the Goldsmiths Company delivered this token of appreciation to Buchan, the earl felt unworthy receiving what he described as such a “magnificently significant present.” He requested and received the company’s permission to gift the box to the one “Man in the World to whom I thought it was most justly due.” The earl designed to send it to American president George Washington.In doing so, Lord Buchan aimed to connect two revolutions and two revolutionaries through a political relic that represented, to the earl, humanity’s common march toward liberty and dignity. Lord Buchan simply needed someone to deliver the box. In 1791, he found his opportunity.
In early 1791, Dr. Thomas Gordon, Professor of Humanity at King’s College, Aberdeen, Scotland, secured an invitation for local artist Archibald Robertson to visit Columbia College in New York. Robertson initially balked at the idea of traveling to the United States, imagining that young nation as home to a race of uncivilized barbarians. When he finally agreed to cross the Atlantic he did so more in the spirit of curiosity than anything else. Once Lord Buchan learned of the artist’s impending departure, he requested the two meet at Edinburgh. After their appointment, the earl entrusted Robertson to deliver the “Wallace box” to President Washington. Buchan wrote a letter of introduction for his new acquaintance to present to the president, describing Robertson as “an honest artist seeking for bread and fame in the New World.” Shortly after the painter arrived at New York on October 2, 1791, his former prejudices toward America began to evaporate. In fact, the nation impressed him so much that he resolved to take up a permanent residence. Once settled, Robertson undertook the pilgrimage to the executive mansion at Philadelphia. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Tench Coxe introduced the artist to the president in December 1791.
This meeting and the purpose behind it briefly captured the American news cycle. The National Gazette reported the president received a box “made of the celebrated Oak Tree that sheltered the Washington of Scotland, the brave and patriotic Sir William Wallace.” According to the Gazette of the United States, Buchan requested that Washington, upon his death, consign the box to an American who, in the president’s judgment, merited ownership “upon the same considerations that induced [the earl] to send it to the present possessor.” Both papers printed a concise history of Wallace’s pursuit of Scottish liberty, defeat at Falkirk and eventual betrayal and execution.
In private correspondence between Lord Buchan and the president, the earl expressed hope that “providential aids” would assist Washington in securing the “Liberties and Happiness of the American People” through “Government instituted by themselves for publick and private security.” After offering a brief summary of the box’s supposed provenance, Buchan labeled it “a relique of long endurance” and a “Mark of . . . Esteem.” Washington responded, accepting, “with satisfaction, the significant present of the Box.” The president recognized the artifact as memorializing mankind’s deep appreciation for “patriotic and heroic virtues” and thanked the earl “for the sentiments that induced the transfer.” It is impossible to know whether or not Washington saw any connection between Wallace’s resistance efforts and his own; he certainly detected in the Scot’s defiance a timeless form of patriotism and virtue.
Buchan then requested Washington sit for a portrait “from the pencil of Mr. Robertson.” Once completed, he asked the president to send it to Dryburgh Abbey so “that I may place it among those whom I honour most” in his Temple of Caledonian fame. Robertson’s own account of his meeting with the president reveals just how intimidated the recent arrival became in Washington’s presence. Though Robertson claimed to be comfortable in intimate settings with those of the highest rank in his own country, he recorded that he had “never felt as he did on his first introduction to the American hero.” Washington, recognizing his guest’s palpable anxiety, broke his customary silence and engaged in unguarded conversation with Robertson, but the president’s small talk failed to relax the painter. The commander-in-chief next called for social backup: Martha Washington. Yet even her “polished, and familiar gaiety, and ceaseless cheerfulness” (as described by Robertson), did not completely settle the Scotsman. Washington finally resorted to inviting Robertson to dinner the following evening and, “contrary to his usual habits, [the president] engrossed most of the conversation” with humorous stories that, according to the portraitist, “repeatedly set the table in a roar.” Sufficiently relaxed, the Scottish artist finally felt prepared to begin his assignment. He successfully produced an oil painting of Washington for what he described as Lord Buchan’s “collection of portraits of the most celebrated worthies in liberal principles.”
Of the finished image, Washington wrote to Buchan that the “execution does no discredit” to Robertson, “of whose skill favorable mention has been made to me.” Robertson explained he sought to capture his subjects in “lines, bold, and free,” a quite accurate description of his breezy Washington portraits. The Scottish artist ultimately produced three pictures of the president and one of Martha. Indeed, Robertson’s career took off in his new American home. He partnered with his brother, Andrew, to found the Columbian Academy of Painting which flourished for thirty years. Robertson enjoyed a career as an accomplished artist and lecturer and authored multiple manuscripts on artistic technique and theory. Incredibly, he saw his American gamble pay off as he earned a respectable living in an honest pursuit.
George Washington kept the Wallace box for the duration of his presidency and brought it back to Mount Vernon upon his retirement in March 1797. There it rested under the same roof as another revolutionary relic: the Key to the Bastille. When Washington finalized his will on July 9, 1799, the old warrior did not feel himself the appropriate judge to select another American worthy of the box so, upon his death, he directed the “valuable curiosity” back to Lord Buchan, thanking him for “the distinguishing honour.” After Washington’s passing in December 1799, the relic found transport back to Dryburgh Abbey in 1800 by way of Sir Robert Lister, British minister to America. In the earl’s own will, he designated the box to “Washingtons University of Columbia.” He requested that students who made the “greatest progress in useful knowledge” and possessed principles most friendly to the “genuine liberties of Mankind” be awarded medals from that American university. In his later years, the earl remained committed to advancing human knowledge while organizing his papers and publishing his work.
In 1814, Lord Buchan commissioned amateur sculptor Joannes Smith to craft a statue of William Wallace. Smith carved a twenty-one-and-a-half foot Scottish colossus out of red sandstone and painted it white. On its almost ten-foot-tall pedestal, the extant plaque reads (in part) “Wallace: Great Patriot Hero!” Somewhere on the same property sat the Robertson portrait of the American president. The Scottish Washington and the American Wallace, separated by both seas and centuries, finally rested together on the ancient acres of Dryburgh Abbey. Buchan’s efforts at last joined the two revolutionaries together in time and space.
When Buchan died in 1829, his executors sent the Wallace box back to America as the earl’s will stipulated. During transit, however, someone stole it. The box supposedly resurfaced in a private collection in England during the 1950s but has officially been missing since the early nineteenth century. And not long after the relic’s disappearance, Dryburgh Abbey fell back into a state of disrepair. Buchan’s artwork filtered into various collections and the earl’s Caledonian temple disappeared.
David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, subscribed to a particular view of the past that scholars today define as whig history. Though British historian Herbert Butterfield did not coin that term until more than a century after the earl’s death, contemporary chroniclers had practiced this progressive-oriented narrative since at least the early eighteenth century. Broadly speaking, whig historians endeavored to explain the present as a triumph over the past, celebrating, among other things, secularism, scientific inquiry and constitutional forms of government that promoted individual liberty and dignity. In light of this dominant historical persuasion, Lord Buchan might be forgiven for claiming a connectivity between Wallace and Washington; through a glass darkly their struggles appear similar.
Naturally the political, social and material circumstances of William Wallace’s Scotland and George Washington’s anglosphere mirror each other in only the most tangential fashion. Wallace fought for Scottish independence against an English king, suffered a key betrayal and received the ultimate punishment; English authorities hanged and beheaded him before drawing and quartering his remains. Washington fought for American independence against a British king, suffered a key betrayal yet managed to defeat George III and received the ultimate reward: American citizens offered him near-unanimous esteem, praise and trust. In the laboratorial mindscape of whig thinker Buchan, the adjacency lies not in the negative but positive spaces. In the earl’s cosmic drama, Wallace transformed into the “Washington of Scotland” just as Washington metamorphized into “the modern American Wallace,” one completing the other. Another nineteenth-century statue of Wallace bears the whiggish inscription, “From Greece rose Leonidas, from America Washington, and from Scotland Wallace, names which shall remain through all time the watchwords and beacons of liberty.” Despite their being separated by half a millennium, for antiquarian whig thinkers like Lord Buchan, the eternal longing for liberty and dignity echoed as but a song that remained the same.
Andrew Robertson, ed., Letters and Papers of Andrew Robertson, A.M., Born 1777. Died 1845. Miniature Painter to His Late Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex: Also a Treatise on the Art of his Eldest Brother, Archibald Robertson, Born 1765. Died 1835, of New York (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1895), 9.
Ronald G. Cant, “David Steuart, 11th Earl of Buchan: Founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland,” in A. Bell, AS, ed., The Scottish Antiquarian Tradition: Essays to Mark the Bicentenary of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1780-1980 (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1981), 1-30.
David Erskine Steuart, 11th Earl of Buchan, as quoted in James Gordon Lamb, “David Steuart Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan: A Study of his Life and Correspondence,” PhD diss., University of St. Andrews, 1963, 16.
John Major, De Gestis Scotorum(Paris: Badius Ascensius, 1521); Hector Boece, Scotorum Historiae a Prima Gentis Origine (Paris: Badius Ascensius, 1527); for a brief assessment and the quote, see Denys Hay, “The Historiographers Royal in England and Scotland,” Scottish Historical Review30, no. 109, pt. 1 (1951), 18.
Lord Buchan to George Washington, June 28, 1791 in Dorothy Twohig, et al., eds., Papers of George Washington: Presidential Series, 21 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998-2020), 8:305-8.
The Earl of Buchan to Washington, September 15, 1791, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0207.
George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, in W.W. Abbott, ed., Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, 4 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1998-99), 4:479-511.
Papers of the Earl of Buchan, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-08-02-0207.
“Detail of Inscription,” Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, November 21, 2022, canmore.org.uk/collection/1117782.
Peter Novack, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 12-13; William Cronon, “Two Cheers for the Whig Interpretation of History,” Perspectives on History, September 1, 2012,www.historians.org/research-and-publications/perspectives-on-history/september-2012/two-cheers-for-the-whig-interpretation-of-history.
Joseph Ellis, His Excellency: George Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
For “Washington of Scotland,” see National Gazette, January 2, 1792; For “modern American Wallace,” see Lord Buchan as quoted in Martha Joanna Lamb, Unpublished Washington Portraits: Some of the Early Artists (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2012),