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The National Library of Scotland’s current exhibition, Dreaming and Declaring American Independence: the Foundation of the United States of America, runs throughout the Edinburgh Festival, closing on 16 September.  It may have a long and complex title but its purposes are simple: to illustrate the roots of American independence and to demonstrate that the strong and vibrant links between Scotland and the United States long precede the American Revolution.
The exhibition includes books, handbills and posters from and about Colonial America’s revolutionary period and the early years of independence.  There are concise but informative notes on each of the individuals who were either the writers or the subjects of the various pieces on exhibition.
One of the oldest pieces, from 1757, in the exhibition is ‘A Memorial containing a summary View of Facts with their authorities: in answer to the observations sent by the English Ministry to the Courts of Europe’ by Frenchman, Jacob Nicholas-Moreau.  This analysis of incidents leading up to the Seven Years War (1756-63) is highly critical of George Washington who, of course, was in that conflict was an officer in the British forces.
The American Revolution effectively started with the Boston Massacre in 1770.  Thirteen years of debate, polemic and war followed.
Among the treasures are George Washington’s own copy of the ‘Official Letters to Honorable (The American spelling had already changed!) American Congress’ with his signature and handwritten notes and a letter from Benjamin Franklin to British MP, David Hartley, about prisoners of war.
John Witherspoon, born in Gifford, Haddingtonshire, the son of the Rev James Witherspoon, a graduate of Edinburgh and one-time Church of Scotland minister in Beithand in Paisley, became Principal of Princeton College in 1768.  He was radical, a republican and a leading figure in the movement towards independence.  Witherspoon signed the Declaration of Independence and his 1776 Princeton sermon, ‘The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men’, published in London in the same year is on display.  There is an 1852 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps one of the most influential documents in history.
The exhibition also includes an original 1776 edition of ‘Common Sense’ by Thomas Paine.  Paine, an Englishman born in Norfolk, later became internationally famous for his polemic in support of the French Revolution, ‘The Rights of Man’.  It was however, ‘Common Sense’ which first made his name, was seen as profoundly influential in the infant Republic and became the all-time best selling American book.
Material from the British perspective is also presented.  In particular there are various items relating to Henrietta Marchant and her husband Robert Liston.  Liston, who was born in 1742 in Millburn Tower, Kirkliston, married Henrietta shortly before his appointment as British Minister to the United States in 1796.  His period as ambassador coincided with a significant period in British-American affairs when he and his wife played a major role in repairing the relationship between the two countries and when, at a personal level, they were perceived as representing the special bond between Scotland and America.  Among the items on display are Henrietta Liston’s diaries and the invitation to her and to her husband to the funeral of George Washington.
The exhibition includes letters from Founding Father Benjamin Rush to Liston but also to the Earl of Buchan.  Although American by birth, Rush had a close Edinburgh connection.  After studying medicine at Edinburgh University, he returned to America to practice his profession and becameSurgeon General in the Continental Army.  He corresponded widely, including with Benjamin Franklin, but his links with the 11th Earl of Buchan flow from Buchan’s commitment to the cause of American independence, an unusual position for a member of the British aristocracy.
Rush was also an early abolitionist, opposed to the institution of slavery.  Perhaps one of the other most intriguing minor elements of the exhibition is a note which explains that Franklin also was an avid opponent of slavery.  Even prior therefore to the Declaration of Independence,the issue of slavery which, 85 years later, was to divide the new United States, was already matter of impassioned debate.
This exhibition fulfils several major functions.  It marks the National Library’s wonderful collection of books and other material relating to American history.  It may well attract an audience from the many Americans in Edinburgh for the Festival.  It may also however, as Scotland moves towards 2014, offer historical wisdom from the cradle of modern democracy to our own citizens as we contemplate grave constitutional matters and our relationship with the United Kingdom.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 13 August 2012:

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