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Happy Independence Day, America!
More than 230 years ago the Founding Fathers of the United States put their names to one of the most important documents in human history. It upheld the unalienable right of all to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in a phrase that was to echo around the world.
The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, is the most cherished symbol of liberty in the United States. It also has strong Scottish connections.
It has been estimated that more than a third of its 56 signatories were men of Scottish descent. One Dr John Witherspoon, who was born in Gifford in East Lothian, left Scotland only eight years previously. His countryman James Wilson arrived in the United States from Fife two years earlier. Both were to play leading roles in forging the new nation.
Another founding father Benjamin Rush had studied medicine in Edinburgh and described his two years in Scotland as the most “important in their influence upon my character and conduct of any period of my life."
Rush and other young Americans were attracted to Edinburgh by the endorsement of Benjamin Franklin who corresponded with leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. "You have great Advantage in going to study at Edinburgh at this Time, where there happens to be collected a Set of truly great Men, Professors of the several Branches of Knowledge, as have ever appeared in any Age or any country," he said.
These links between the leading thinkers, politicians and statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic come through strongly in NLS’s United States collections which are the largest foreign collections held by the Library. They include material from or about America from the foundation of the British Colonies right up to the present day. It is an important resource for anyone interested in American history and culture.
“Information on every period in American history from the fight for independence to the Civil War, the Cold War and Vietnam is being used regularly in our reading rooms,” said senior curator Chris Taylor. “There is a real thirst for knowledge about all things American.”
This summer iconic items relating to early American history and to the War of Independence will be displayed in the Library’s Treasures space to highlight the richness of the collections. The display will include letters written by Benjamin Rush to friends in Scotland commenting on developments within the newly forged nation following its independence from Britain.
In a letter to the Earl of Buchan in 1801, Rush writes: “Our late rapid population, our increasing agriculture and manufacture, and our unlimited and productive commerce, all indicate the immense influence of liberty and equal government upon human happiness. The only alloy that we feel in our public blessings is that they are not enjoyed in an equal degree by all the nations in the world.”
Buchan was a political reformer who supported the American colonists during the War of Independence and he was a friend of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, again emphasising the links between prominent Scots and the leaders of the new United States. He sent Washington a snuff box which was said to be carved from a tree in which William Wallace hid after the battle of Falkirk.
Rush was also friends with Sir Robert Liston, born in Kirkliston, a diplomat who was appointed British minister to the United States in 1796, only 13 years after the War of Independence ended. Liston remained in the United States for five years and was credited with improving relationships between Britain and America.
He received a letter from Rush in 1809 where the American comments on the first four US Presidents, well known to both men. “Our new President Mr Madison is trying a bold experiment, and that is, whether our people will submit to the administration of our government by a regard to its principles, in extending its honors and offices to men of both the great parties that have long divided our Country.
“Hitherto the experiment has succeeded, for he is alike popular with all classes of our Citizens. With uncommon talents, and attainments, he possesses in an eminent degree the prudence and common sense of one of his predecessors, General Washington, from the want of which Mr A. and Mr J. have retired, without being followed with the affection or attachment of the respective parties to which they were devoted.”
The Mr A referred to in the letter is John Adams, the second President of the United States and Mr J is Thomas Jefferson who succeeded Adams as President. This letter provides a fascinating insight into how the key figures in the birth of the nation were seen by one of the Founding Fathers at a time that the new nation was still being formed.
Rush was also instrumental in persuading John Witherspoon to quit his ministry in Paisley and start a new life in the United States at the age of 44. Witherspoon was offered the presidency of the College of New Jersey in Princeton, later to become world famous as Princeton University. Witherspoon’s wife was set against the move but eventually relented after Rush spent several days in Paisley extolling the virtues of a new life at Princeton.
As well as being a leading figure in the move towards independence, Witherspoon played a key role in preparing the future leaders of the United States. His students included among them a future president and vice-president of the United States, nine cabinet officers, 21 senators, 39 congressmen, three justices of the Supreme Court, and 12 state governors.
Dora Petherbridge, assistant curator said: “We have some fascinating material on the Founding Fathers, many of whom were clearly influenced by the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. There are also accounts written by Scots who took the British side in the War of Independence and had to leave the US after the British defeat. This rich and important period in American history is well represented in our collection, but it is only one part of the extensive range of US material available at NLS. Other items include maps of the US, letters, recordings of American poets, newspapers and material on Scottish emigration.”
Chris Taylor added: “We hope the Treasures display we are working on for the summer will give more people an insight into the high quality of the material in our US collections.”
Highlights from the US collections are being featured throughout this year in a series of short films on the NLS website. These look at the dreams and declarations that have shaped America and the conflicts, alliances and friendships tied to them.