On July Fourth, Thank the Scots

Participants carry the American flag during a Fourth of July parade in Los Angeles in 2013. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)
In the Declaration of Arbroath, Scotsmen vowed to fight for liberty. Sound familiar?

Last year’s July Fourth was my first on American soil. I celebrated with a bunch of Americans in Central Park. There’s a limit to how patriotic you can feel if you’re not a native. But I tried hard anyway and wore a red top, blue denim shorts and my very own, very white, Scottish skin. Tossing back a Jell-o shot, I said something along the lines of, “Well, here’s to celebrating your ancestors killing my ancestors.” “To hell with that,”one American replied, “let’s agree to blame the English!” “My mother is English,” I said. Incidentally, so is the editor of National Review Online, Charles C. W. Cooke — my boss.

Affiliations aside, I ought to point out the foolishness of blaming an entire people and their descendants for a historical grievance. But on the subject of how the Scots helped make America (dare I say?) great, I am continually disappointed to find that, beyond sincere statements such as, “I’m [insert fraction] Scotch,” “Edin-burg is beautiful,”and “It sure does rain a lot in Glass-gow,” many Americans remain unaware of their Scottish legacy.

It’s not their fault, of course. We’re few, and typically bad at self-promotion. But as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, there are times when speaking one’s mind ceases to be a moral duty and becomes a pleasure. And it is a pleasure here and now on this auspicious occasion (or thereabouts) to recall Presidential Proclamation 8233, issued in 2008 by George W. Bush on National Tartan Day, April 4:

The Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence signed in 1320, embodied the Scots’ strong dedication to liberty, and the Scots brought that tradition of freedom with them to the New World. Sons and daughters of many Scottish clans were among the first immigrants to settle in America, and their determination and optimism helped build our Nation’s character.

Yeah, yeah. Presidents say stuff like that all the time, one might think. Well, fair enough. But is one acquainted with the Declaration of Arbroath? Permit me to assume not.

Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776, before the first shot of the Wars of Independence was fired by Ebenezer Monroe (a Scottish-American chap), a very similar document, sung to the same tune of liberty, and railing against the same enemy, was signed. Issued in 1320 and addressed to Pope John XXII, the Declaration of Arbroath was a bold assertion of Scotland’s right to independence from England.

As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Opposing tyranny, demanding liberty, pledging their lives, screwing the English — familiar, no? If one examines both the Declaration of Arbroath and the Declaration of Independence side by side, one sees striking similarities in both wording and content. Remarkably, the same is true of a later Scottish document, the National Covenant of 1638. This, again, asserted Scotland’s opposition to an unrepresentative English monarch and parliament. It details the “usurped authority” of the King’s “tyrannous laws.” It also invokes the role of divine providence: “We call the Living God to witness . . . and bless our proceedings with a happy success.”

Here, a word of caution: It would be unwise to overstate the connection.

And, of course, many foreigners have sought a slice of great big American-Exceptionalism Pizza Pie. In his book 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, John F. Kennedy wrote that “no one man can take complete credit for the ideal of American democracy.” Yet he dished out some credit to one man — an Italian — Thomas Jefferson’s friend Philip Mazzei.

What of the distinct Scottishness of the signers themselves? It is surely significant that at least 21 of the 50 men behind America’s founding legal document were of Scottish descent.

In 1774, Mazzei had penned the immortal lines Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti. Accordingly, in 1994, the 103rd Congress of the United States, with Joint Resolution 175, recognized that “the phrase in the Declaration of Independence ‘All men created equal’ was suggested by the Italian patriot and immigrant Philip Mazzei.” And so the record stands.

But what of the distinct Scottishness of the signers themselves? It is surely significant that at least 21 of the 50 men behind America’s founding legal document were of Scottish descent. (This is highly disproportionate representation. It makes up around 38 percent, versus the 6.7 percent of Scots in the general colonial population in 1790.) Two — John Witherspoon and James Wilson — were native Scots.

As Duncan A. Bruce writes in The Mark of the Scots: Their Astonishing Contributions to History, Science, Literature and the Arts, the ideals of Scottish Enlightenment were hugely influential in the creation of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had had multiple Scottish tutors during his formative years. One of them, William Small, had, he said, “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”

Thomas Paine, likewise, before coming to America, was taught by Adam Ferguson. Benjamin Franklin wrote that Edinburgh’s professors were “a set of truly great men . . . as ever appeared in one age or Country.” Benjamin Rush said that Edinburgh (the g is silent, by the way) was “the most rational and perhaps enlightened city in the world.” Robert Burns, a Romantic and revolutionary, who died only weeks after the Declaration was signed, was beloved by his American contemporaries. I could go on. But you see the point.

Now, to return briefly, if I may, to the subject of the English. Let me reinstate: 1) I love my mother and my job. 2) English tyranny simply does not exist now, as it did then. Maybe I’m stating the obvious. But with the continual battle cry for Scottish Independence these past few years — especially after the Brexit vote — I’m no longer sure. Tyrannical monarchs are safely behind us. (Have you seen the current royals?) And while England may be Scotland’s bossy big sister, she’s a lot easier to manage than her extended family in Brussels.

So, with all that cleared up: Happy Fourth, America. Here’s to living with the English — and remembering the Scots.


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