Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Bill Dawson and I first met
in Columbia, SC in August of 2004 where we gathered with many others from
the States, as well as Scotland, to celebrate Professor G. Ross Roy’s 80th
birthday. This celebration was in conjunction with an exhibit at the
University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library entitled Robert
Burns in His Time and After. Bill and I have visited often over the
years via email and in person in Ayr during a meeting of the Robert Burns
Since our initial meeting,
Bill has compiled a wonderful book entitled Directory to the Articles
and Features Published in The Burns Chronicle, 1892 - 2005. No
one today, scholar or layman, would dare attempt to write a knowledgeable
book on Robert Burns without consulting The Burns
Chronicles. Whether it be a book or a speech or just general reading
on Burns, Dawson’s book is indispensable for research dealing with the
chronicles; it’s that valuable. Bill is currently working on another book
dealing with the second Commonplace Book of Robert Burns. Noteworthy about
the future book is that the introduction will be written by Dr. Roy, the
imminent Burns scholar who is known affectionately as “the Chairman of the
Bard”. On a more personal note, Bill helped me tremendously during my own
collecting of The Burns Chronicles and filled a big gap in my
search by pointing me in the right direction to find many that I lacked.
He recently flew into Atlanta
on his way again to Columbia to speak at the University of South Carolina
during its international conference on contemporaries, contexts & cultural
reform entitled Robert Burns at 250. His stopover in Atlanta allowed
him the opportunity to speak at the Burns Club of Atlanta and gave us a
chance to visit again as well. We had a marvelous time during those two days
in our home as we discussed matters related to Burns and his books. We even
visited the Burns Cottage to make a picture of him holding, not one, but two
Kilmarnocks in that grand old building. The following is the presentation
Bill delivered in Atlanta. (FRS: 4.20.09)
Address to the Burns Club
1st April 2009
By Bill Dawson
President, The Robert Burns World Federation
Influences of Robert Burns
Mr Chairman, Honoured Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Burns Club of Atlanta, thank you for your very
warm welcome here tonight. It has been a tremendous pleasure to spend a
little time with you talking about your various interests in the life of
Robert Burns, and now it is my turn to give you a short address on a view I
It is a great Honour for me
to stand before you as President of The Robert Burns World Federation, and
it is a great pleasure for me to be back in Atlanta, and here in your
cottage, this fantastic atmospheric touch back into history, this unique
home for a Burns Club.
I am a little cautious. I
wonder what you expect from the President of the World Burns Federation.
This chain, magnificent though it is, does not bring with it any gifts of
great knowledge or skills of oratory. However, I am here to give my point of
view and the title I assigned to my address, with perhaps more bravado than
insight, is The American Influences of Robert Burns. This is
my personal view, as of this moment, and perhaps I will learn more and
develop my opinion on this trip, so I will only touch lightly on a couple of
points, in the hope that it may give you a little food for thought to
examine further and develop for yourselves through future time and perhaps
respond and better inform me for future reference.
When Robert Burns was a young
man, around 1760 -1780, Scotland as a people had lost its way, its identity,
and its nationhood. At the beginning of the century, our Government had
ceased and joined with England, we had been “bought and sold for English
There was unrest, the
uprising of 1715 and so forth, ongoing as we struggled to adjust to the new
Scotland as part of the enlarged country that was styled Britain.
In Burns’ times, we had just
gone through a bloody civil war that in 1746 culminated at Culloden, and we
were yet to recover from that. Prince Charles’ army had gotten so close to
overall victory at Derby, much nearer to an outright victory than Charles
had understood, the English had received such a fright at that, when they
once again had the upper hand after Culloden they moved to ensure that the
Highlands would never “rise to be the nation again that fought and died for
their wee bit hill and glen”. There were around 1,000 clansmen killed in
around an hour at Culloden. The aftermath was much, much bloodier.
Cumberland posted sentries around the field to keep rescuers off, and the
next day sent his men through the field to bayonet or club to death any
survivors. For days the killings went on as the troops rampaged through the
Over the next 5 or 6 years
English troops were garrisoned in the Highlands, and between 30,000 and
40,000 people were summarily executed on the smallest suspicion of being a
Jacobite sympathiser. About 5% of the Scottish population, much more
severely felt in the Highlands where the killings took place. Laws were
passed to suppress national identity, bagpipes and the kilt were proscribed,
lairds were imprisoned, lands seized, and the clan system was split asunder,
rents raised, a population struggling for subsistence. Many, many people
were displaced by force or by need from the lands they had considered home
This was the Scotland that
Robert Burns found himself born into, a non-nation, and his thoughts and
those of many thinking Scots would frequently align with the other places in
the world that were struggling with far off governments seeking to determine
their positions. Scots had emigrated to the New World since the 17th
century. There would be many links from back home with those forging a new
life, forging a new nation.
Burns undoubtedly saw himself
as a citizen of the world, and his hopes and aspirations were being
developed in this new world of new nations.
The Declaration of
Independence was written when Burns was 17. This was when he was reading
all manner of things to learn about the wider world, developing his
intellect, his abilities and his ideas. When did Burns first come across the
Declaration of Independence? I do not know, but I am certain he was very
soon aware of it and would seek it out and discuss it with his
contemporaries and other bright minds. He would see in it the influence of
the Scots and The Declaration of Arbroath.
He would see Jefferson’s hand
and would go on to discover more of Jefferson’s principles, idealising the
farmer as the backbone of society, and of the rights and strengths of the
people. Jefferson and the founding fathers would undoubtedly be heroes of
Burns in the same vein as Bruce and Wallace.
When Burns wrote the
Ballad on the American War around 1784, it was his first political work.
We have some 40 pieces prior to this; they are love songs and pieces to
amuse his local friends. This is way before thoughts of publishing. This is
the politics of young Robert Burns.
The ballad logs the major
campaigns of the War of Independence, referring to various leaders in
nickname – and I would suggest with a more lampooning style towards the
British side. The latter verses show how the American developments influence
British politics and Burns again leans toward his side. This is American
influences on Burns political posture and thinking.
The ballad was not published
in the Kilmarnock Edition, although Burns had sought opinions on how it
might be received, thinking it was perhaps a little too political for the
Ayrshire Poet. But with the confidence of success, he included it in the
Edinburgh Edition 1787.
Burns’ other poem touching on
American politics, his Ode for General Washington’s Birthday, was
written around 1794 (and did not see publication), but here Burns reflects
American politics into a powerful Ode whose theme is Liberty. This did not
see publication on either side of the Atlantic until late 19th
century, but it is Burns equating his view of American values with his
aspirations for liberty and equality. He contrasts English “Damned Deeds”
with Scotland – the land of liberty, and Washington brings America along
with us in the sentiment. This Ode from Burns’ later years shows he held
America as his ideal of equality:
“But come, ye sons of Liberty
Columbia’s offspring, brave and free”
He visits the same in The
Address of Beelzebub, the mock congratulations to the Earl of
Breadalbane as he moves to thwart his people emigrating to join Hancock or
Franklin, the foremost signators of the Declaration of Independence. Where
the Highlanders might “mak what rules an’ laws they please”, American
influences on Burns reflected within his work and throughout his life.
Influences and appreciation
flow the other way also. The first American editions of Burns works in 1788,
only two years after the Kilmarnock Edition which probably did not reach
America - but certainly the Edinburgh edition did - the Philadelphia
edition published by Peter Stewart and George Hyde promoted by several poems
previously placed in newspapers - and New York where there had maybe been
some earlier subscription. Now I wonder if these were principally directed
towards a market of ex-patriot Scots - certainly the New York vendors, J&A
MacLean, were natives of Glasgow who migrated to New York in 1783. There was
a significant population of Scots hungry for the best from their homeland.
But probably the wider population saw in Burns a man of the people who sang
their song, while the ballad on the war appeared in these editions, it was
the beauty and themes of Burns, the farmer poet that attracted.
There was another
Philadelphia edition (1798) after the death of Burns and again in New York
in 1799. But real popular appreciation of Burns started in 1801 with the
first American issue of Curries collected edition, only months after its
first publication in Liverpool.
By the Centenary of 1859,
there were celebrations throughout the USA where people turned out in their
droves at hundreds of dinners and celebrations of these worldwide phenomena.
Apart from the numerous Burns Clubs celebrating the occasion, there were
many great dinners and gatherings, in every corner - North, South, East, and
West - enjoying the beauty of Burns and the principles he had stood for as
closely aligned to their own.
Of course, you all know the
influence Burns has had on your country’s great men through time. It is
often said that to quote Burns in the UK Parliament would raise a smile, but
to quote him in your Congress would not raise an eyebrow, so often and so
familiar are your politicians with his famous phrases and principles which
have become an accepted part of life.
It is often reported that
Abraham Lincoln knew all of Burns poems and could recite them from memory
and often did. It was not just Lincoln’s equation of himself as the honest
working man, the railsplitter, with Burns the ploughman poet that attracted
him. Burns power with words no doubt inspired Lincoln, how much of Burns is
behind his Gettysburg Address. Sam Houston, the great statesman of Tennessee
and Texas, carried a copy of Burns’ works with him. I went to Huntsville
last year hoping to see Houston’s copy. It is locked up but on display was
his mother’s edition showing the passing of these principles through
Other great men in US history
influenced and inspired by Burns:
And the influence continues.
President Barrack Obama cites Abraham Lincoln as his greatest influence, and
therefore by extension Burns, and in his recent inaugural address he refers
to the strength of the US and of the world being the work of ordinary men
and women everywhere, speaking of men and women “obscure in their labour”.
That’s not very far removed from “For a’ that an’ a’ that, their toils
obscure an a’ that”.
Burns has inspired great
literature. John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men; J D Salinger
inspired by the Catcher in the Rye. Maya Angelou is one of the most
ardent Burns admirers of our age.
That great thinker, Ralph
Waldo Emerson, was a fantastic proponent of Burns’ memory, and he in turn
influenced and inspired many.
There have been so many
outstanding enthusiasts, and several great Collectors:
The enthusiastic collector
Robert B Adam of Buffalo, New York;
A S W Rosenbach, Philadelphia
book dealer and personal collector, leaving a great research museum and
As did Pierpont Morgan whose
library I hope to visit next week to see the unequalled collections of Burns
WK Bixby who shared so many
of his treasures, at least in facsimile; and
The most generous John
Gribbel of Philadelphia who so graciously gifted the Glenriddell Manuscripts
to the Scottish people rather than take these for his own collection.
Then we have the great Roy
Collection which many of us will visit tomorrow - a collection not only
magnificent for the treasures it holds - but for the scholarship which
surrounds it, enlightening the world to so many aspects of Burns’ life and
I will come back to
scholarship, but I cannot move on from here without touching on the
fantastic collection of your own Frank Shaw, and what a joy it has been for
me to visit with him in his library today and, of course, a similar
enthusiasm of Victor Gregg. There is no other club I know of that has two
members who possess the revered Kilmarnock edition.
In mentioning Frank, of
course, I am also aware of his enthusiasm for Burns in his Robert Burns
Lives! Web pages containing so many great articles on so much of
Burns’ life. This club is very fortunate that Frank and others in your Club,
Jim Montgomery, Mac Irvin and others can hold their own on any international
platform elucidating on various aspects of Burns.
There is a great tradition of
Burns scholarship in the USA. I mentioned Professor Ross Roy, and I do not
need to elaborate to this audience on the lifetime of contributions he has
made to our understanding - The Merry Muses, the letters etc., and on
into other Scottish literature.
I was at the Glasgow
University conference in January, and there were a number of American
academics giving papers on various studies. We have had great studies
published by Carol McGuirk of Florida and, before her, the sadly curtailed
songbooks under the expert view of Serge Hovey.
Some of the most useful work
on Burns this last century comes from American studies. A
Bibliography of Robert Burns by Professor Joel Egerer of New York
University - what a labour of love that was, and how useful to the Burns
The biography by Professor
Franklin Snyder of Illinois opened the door to a whole new understanding,
putting a reality on what had become romanticised pictures of the poet’s
life. DeLancey Fergusson opened up Burns’ letters in scholarly form for the
There are many others
examining aspects of Burns. Go back to John D Ross of New York, a most
prolific enthusiast producing many volumes on some of the less well known
parts of Burns’ life, and one who used to be on almost every Burns bookshelf
in some edition or another, perhaps enthusiasm replaced accuracy? But
enthusiasm there certainly was and scholarship and an appreciation of Burns
in a perspective that was not initially Scots.
This takes us to where we are
today. As a young man, Robert Burns was a proud Scot certainly, but he
considered himself a citizen of the world, and he saw in this wider new
world many of the principles he went on to weave into his works. These
views in his works are the reason we join together in his memory today.
We, in appreciation of Burns,
certainly live in a worldwide culture. I benefit greatly from my
communication with enthusiasts and clubs on this side. It gives me perhaps
a better grasp of why Burns is valued worldwide, where Burns is seen as a
worldwide influence rather than a Scottish poet.
And for these influences and for your attention here tonight,
ladies and gentlemen of Atlanta, I must thank you most sincerely.