Not a member?
Register and login now.

Issue 97 - Twin Declarations?

Scotland Magazine Issue 97
February 2018


This article is 11 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

Copyright Scotland Magazine © 1999-2018. All rights reserved. To use or reproduce part or all of this article please contact us for details of how you can do so legally.

Twin Declarations?

The American Declaration of Independence is not based on the Declaration of Arbroath. Bruce Durie explains why

In April this year I will be involved in the celebrations of Tartan Week in New York, National Tartan Day in Washington DC, and Tartan Day South. These events sprang from a US Senate Resolution in 1998 establishing National Tartan Day on 6 April each year, the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath signing in 1320. The idea originated in Nova Scotia in the late 1980s and was made official throughout the Canadian Provinces in 2010, although it does not have the status of a public holiday in either Canada or the USA.

Among the events that take place in Washington DC, there are typically seminars and other celebrations organised by the National Capital Tartan Day Committee, and a Congressional Reception on Capitol Hill that is co-sponsored by the bipartisan Friends of Scotland Caucus in the US Congress. There is also a week of festivity in New York marshalled by the American Scottish Foundation called Tartan Week.

At the Congressional Reception and elsewhere, there will likely be at least one speech dedicated to the idea that the American Declaration was modelled on the Declaration of Arbroath. In fact, the 1998 Senate Resolution says no such thing - it is quite specific that it was primarily designed to recognise the many contributions of Scots and Scottish-Americans to the formation and development of the United States. And that’s a fine thing. Noone doubts the disproportionate influence Scots and Scotland had on the social, political, educational, commercial, artistic, scientific, military and philosophical development of America - and, for that matter, Canada.

Separation of church, education, state and so on, are concepts that emerged from the Enlightenment of Thought that started in France and found fertile ground in Scotland, where it was not necessary to be an adherent of the Church of England to get a university place. Therefore, free enquiry, universal (male) school education and widespread literacy were unrestricted. But that had nothing to do with the sentiments in the Declaration of Arbroath.

Far from being any sort of ‘Declaration of Scottish Independence’, the Arbroath document was a begging letter to the Pope.

Essentially, it asks an Emperor (the Pope) to let them choose one King (Robert Bruce) over another (the English Edward II), to get rid of him if he didn’t behave, and to secure their power. It was in no way any sort of paean to the rights of the common man or sovereignty of the people. It is an assertion of the rights of those prominent in the Bruce faction to determine the fate of the nation.

In the statement ‘as long as but a hundred of us remain alive’, the ‘us’ is not the nation but the aristocrats. It also asks the Pope to defend those ‘living in this poor little Scotland’ (in exili degentes Scocia), a sentiment worthy only of contempt.

It was also a justification of the rejection of John Balliol as King, who had died in 1314 in Papal custody in France, and in whose name William Wallace and Andrew de Moray had rebelled in 1297. By contrast, Robert Bruce had fought a necessary campaign for independence against the aggression of the English. Bruce (and by connection the whole of Scotland) was excommunicated at this time, a position the churchmen could not tolerate. An important section of the letter stresses that Scotland and its king would go on a crusade to the Holy Land ‘if the King of the English would leave us in peace’.

The Scots nobles also picked their moment, when Edward II was at the nadir of his political power. The fiasco of Bannockburn and the loss of Stirling Castle in 1314 were fresh in everyone’s minds. Bruce was pressing his advantage by raiding northern England and even threatening York. Edward’s expensive but unsuccessful counter-campaign in 1319 had been stymied by a famine. In England, all of this was felt to be a judgement from God and Edward was publicly criticised for his lack of regal behaviour, his ‘improper’ interests (notably his personal relationships) and his preferential treatment of royal favourites. This led to a revolt by those who had negotiated a peaceful compromise in 1318. The judgement in Scotland was that England was poised for civil war, which finally erupted as the ‘Despenser War’ in 1321.

Adherents of the ‘based on Arbroath’ theory usually cite the use of the word ‘freedom’ in the document, but that’s a modern English translation and comes with all the current connotations. The Latin used is the noun ‘libertas’. The phrase ‘pro nostra libertate tuenda’ is usually translated as ‘that our freedom may be still maintained’ and ‘Non enim propter gloriam, diuicias aut honores pugnamus set propter libertatem solummodo’ as ‘It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone’. The word libertas had a rather more complex meaning to the Mediaeval mind - it also signified unconstraint and frankness, and came closer to the American concept of ‘freedom of expression’ than it did to universal political or personal liberty. In any case, much of the quoted passages are a straight lift from Sallust (86-35 BCE), the most distinguished Roman historian after Tacitus.

Nor was it a ‘declaration’ in the sense that it would be read out at market crosses, or nailed to church doors. It was written for the eyes of one man - Pope John XXII in Avignon - and it seems that only one copy was kept in Scotland, along with some early drafts. It has a lot in common with the Magna Carta (AD1215), which was written when the English Barons ganged up on King John in order to secure their own rights and control.

But it had nothing whatever to do with the rights of the common people. In fact, such an idea would have been laughable. Scotland had to wait for Robert Burns (and lesser-known predecessors) for full-blown egalitarian or Social Democrat-type thinking that prevails today. No, the Declaration of Arbroath is a document of which Scotland should be ashamed, and which America did not emulate.

The writings of Thomas Jefferson make it clear that he knew about the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath and in the original Latin. Jefferson considered it, only to reject it as a model for what he was writing. From his own journals, we know that Jefferson realised the Arbroath document was not at all about independence, but was the Scottish establishment asking the Pope to give his blessing to the replacement of one king by another.

America was not looking for a new monarch, or seeking permission to be independent, so this was not any sort of template for the emerging American mindset. Jefferson was concerned with the Common Man - or at least the free, white, American, adult male.

Jefferson saw the 1689 English Bill of Rights as persuasive of the dangers of religion in government. That’s why the American First Amendment (1791) starts by prohibiting ‘the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion’. In Jefferson’s own notes about influences on the emerging ‘American mind’, he obviously took in Thomas Paine’s massively popular pamphlet, Common Sense, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

It’s usually said, by way of ‘proof’ that Arbroath was the basis for the Declaration of Independence, that almost half of the signers of the American Declaration were of Scottish descent. Of course, this means that the majority weren’t.

But why do so many people want the 1776 Declaration of Independence, one of America’s greatest achievements, to be based on something else, especially something so dedicated to the maintenance of power by an unelected elite? Why not take full credit for it as an expression of the American mind emerging in the 1770s? Why dilute it by having it emerge from the shadow of something earlier? America is better than that and should take full credit for it, without harking back to something that is, in any case, completely counter to the egalitarian spirit of the USA.

About the author

Dr. Bruce Durie BSc (Hons) PhD OMLJ FCollT FIGRS FHEA QG is a genealogist and historian in Scotland, but in much demand around the American and Canadian talks and lectures scene. He spent most of 2016 in the Carolinas and elsewhere, researching Scottish migrations into Colonial America, courtesy of a Fulbright Senior Scottish Studies Scholarship. His book Scottish Genealogy is a best-seller and his new books, Your Scottish-American Ancestry and The Great Celtic Swindle, are due out in the coming year.


Claim your free Scotland Magazine trial issue