Robert Burns and Frederick Douglass – The Bard’s Legacy

Happy #BurnsNight2019!

My favourite Robert Burns fact is his connection to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who called him “the man who taught me a man’s a man for a’ that.” I love this part of our history so much I embarrassed myself a little at last year’s Burns’ Supper by running up to Nicola Sturgeon to talk about it.
Robert Burns didn’t live at the same time as Douglass, but his work had travelled to the new United States and his lyrical discussion of freedom and liberty – what it means to be free – inspired people all over a country failing to live up to its founding ideals. Douglass had already chosen his last name based on the work of Sir Walter Scott, which the man he stayed with after becoming free had been reading. But it was Burns he talked of and wrote about. When an American questioned the story he told about his experiences, he wrote:

“If I should meet you now, amid the free hills of old Scotland, where the ancient ‘black Douglass’ once met his foes, I presume I might summon sufficient fortitude to look you full in the face; and were you to attempt to make a slave of me, it is possible you might find me almost as disagreeable a subject, as was the Douglass to whom I have just referred. Of one thing, I am certain – you would see a great change in me!”

He visited Scotland as part of a tour to drum up support for the abolitionist cause – they desperately needed money. While here, he visited Ayr and wrote that it only made him more impressed with Burns now that he understood the ‘times in which he lived.’ In particular, he saw the resonance in Burns’ rejection of the worst parts of his society:

“He became disgusted with the pious frauds, indignant at the bigotry, filled with contempt for the hollow pretensions set up by the shallow-brained aristocracy.”

Of course, he knew that Burns was linked financially to the slave trade, and was in no sense a perfect man. He wrote:

“The elements of character which urge him on are in us all, and influencing our conduct every day of our lives. We may pity him, but we can’t despise him. We may condemn his faults, but only as we condemn our own. His very weakness was an index of his strength. Full of faults of a grievous nature, yet far more faultless than many who have come down to us in the pages of history as saints.”

While in Scotland, he found that

“In none of these various conveyances, or in any class of society, have I found any curled lip of scorn, or an expression that I could torture into a word of disrespect of me on account of my complexion; not once…”.

Writing from Dundee:
“Almost every hill, river, mountain and lake… has been made classic by the heroic deeds of her noble sons. Scarcely a stream but has been poured into song, or a hill that is not associated with some fierce and bloody conflict between liberty and slavery.”
He knew the power of symbolism, and how to use popular culture to resonate with people. But you can still find a copy of Robert Burns’ poetry in the museum to him, which he passed on to his son.
After returning to the US, Douglass was invited to speak at a Burns Supper, where he said:
“I repeat again, that though I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, I am proud to be among you this evening. And if any think me out of my place on this occasion (pointing at the picture of Burns), I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that ‘a man’s a man for a’ that.’”
Robert Burns was a deeply flawed, brilliant man. His words have reached the furthest corners of our world, and still offer us lessons today. We should not whitewash his history just because we like him, but we can learn from Douglass’ approach.
Some further reading: 

An excellent piece by Robert Somynne.

A piece by Alasdair Pettinger, who also has a new book with much more information about Douglass and Burns.
A piece by Laurence Fenton who also has a book on Douglass’ time in Britain.
A piece on the BBC which discusses Lincoln as well, about Burns and the end of slavery.
An excellent, comprehensive collection of papers on Burns’ financial links to slavery, edited by Frank R Shaw.
And the Strike For Freedom! exhibition which is on at the National Library of Scotland until the 16th of February, 2019. A detailed look at the exhibits can be found in this piece from Ordinary Philosophy.

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