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Robert Burns Lives!
Address to the Burns Club of Atlanta by Bill Dawson


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: jurascot@earthlink.net

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 World Federation.

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 of Atlanta
1st April 2009
By Bill Dawson
President, The Robert Burns World Federation

The American 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 hold.

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 gold”.

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 area.

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 for generations.

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 families.

Other great men in US history influenced and inspired by Burns:

Andrew Jackson
Theodore Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson

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 library; 

As did Pierpont Morgan whose library I hope to visit next week to see the unequalled collections of Burns letters;

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 works.

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 enthusiast. 

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 first time.

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.


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