Frederick Douglass and Robert Burns: The American Abolitionist and Scotland’s national poet

01 October 2022
Douglass-78965.jpg Frederick Douglass
Laurence Fenton tells the story of the Abolitionist leader born into slavery in 19th-century Maryland, who became inspired by the work of Robert Burns and travelled to Scotland during a speaking tour, meeting the poet’s family.

Browsing through the shelves of a Massachusetts bookshop in the early 1840s, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass came across a volume whose contents would be a source of inspiration throughout the rest of his life – an American edition of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns’s Collected Works. He read it so often Burns’s words flowed as easily through the abolitionist orator as his own speeches, ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’ becoming a regular refrain.

Inspired by Burns

A few years later, Douglass even found himself on a stage in Dundee paraphrasing lines from ‘Tam O’Shanter’ – ‘the De’il has business on his hands’ – in attacks on the Reverend Dr Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the then recently established Free Church of Scotland.

Douglass had come to Scotland as part of a two-year speaking tour of Britain and Ireland, having been advised to leave America until the furore over his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, died down.  Arriving in Glasgow in early 1846, he criss-crossed the country for nearly five months, delivering devastating denunciations of slavery in packed venues from Paisley to Perth and from Kelso to Kirkcaldy, often brandishing a pair of bloody manacles before his astonished audiences as part of the spectacle.

Content continues after advertisements

Send back the money!

More controversially, he also campaigned to get the Free Church to return the thousands of dollars it had raised in the slaveholding states of the South, his powerful new catchcall ‘Send Back the Money’ quickly woven into poems and songs, daubed on walls and even dug into the ground of Arthur’s Seat. ‘The agitation goes nobly on … The very boys in the street are singing out “Send back that money,”’ he wrote triumphantly to an abolitionist colleague.

ONLINE TALK: The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery (1775-1838), 27 October 2022 - BOOK NOW!

The attacks on Chalmers and the Free Church made Douglass famous across Scotland. Far more personally satisfying, however, was the pilgrimage he made to the town of Ayr, ‘the birthplace of Robert Burns,’ he wrote to the New York Tribune, ‘the poet, by whose brilliant genius every stream, hill, glen and valley in the neighbourhood have been made classic’.

Douglass had been met off his coach by Reverend Renwick, at whose meeting house he was due to lecture, before being escorted the three miles to the site of the ‘Burns Monument’, a striking 70-foot-high Grecian-style temple surrounded by manicured gardens that had been built on the banks of the River Doon in early 1820s.

In the footsteps of Burns

‘The banks of the “Doon” rising majestically from the sea toward the sky, and the Clyde stretching off to the highlands of Arran, whose dim outline is scarcely discernible through the fog by which it is almost constantly overhung, makes the spot admirable and beautifully adapted to the Monument of Scotland’s noble bard,’ Douglass wrote near-reverentially. ‘In the Monument there is a finely executed marble bust of Burns – the finest thing of the kind I ever saw. I never before, looking upon it, realised the power of man to make the marble speak. The expression is so fine, and the face is so lit up, as to cause one to forget the form in gazing upon the spirit.’

There were also life-size sandstone statues of some the characters from Burns’s most famous poem, like ‘Souter Johnny’ and the eponymous ‘Tam O’Shanter’ in an adjoining Statue House, Douglass noted, as well as a Bible in a glass case and a lock of hair from Mary Campbell, the ‘sweet Highland Mary’ who died from typhus at a young age after inspiring many of the poet’s greatest works.

A radical whose political outlook was formed during the era of the American and French revolutions, Burns had published an anti-slavery poem, The Slave’s Lament, in 1792, the first verse of which read: ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,/For the lands of Virginia, -ginia, O:/Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;/And alas! I am weary, weary O:/ Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;/And alas! I am weary, weary O.’

Nevertheless, like many young Scots before him, a financially troubled Burns had been tempted to make a career in the West Indies, accepting a post as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica just before the publication of his first volume of poems brought surprise success and financial freedom.

The family of Robert Burns

En route to the monument, Douglass had been thrilled to meet Burns’s last surviving sibling, Isabella Begg, a ‘spirited looking woman’ in her mid-seventies who lived in a nearby cottage. He also met two of her daughters, the poet’s nieces, their ‘jet black eyes’ sparkling ‘with the poetic fire which illuminated the breast of their brilliant uncle’. Kind words were exchanged and some letters in Burns’s own handwriting passed around for the American visitor to examine, the family having grown accustomed by this time to entertaining Burns-loving guests from all over the world.

Caught up in the emotion of the moment, Douglass tried to link their lives, describing how the poor, self-educated Burns had lived in the midst of a ‘bigoted’ clergy who ‘looked upon the ploughman … as being little better than a brute’ before he broke loose – like the similarly self-educated Douglass escaping the bonds of slavery in America – ‘from the moorings which society had thrown around him’.  

Douglass, the bicentenary of whose birth occurs in February 2018, would always consider his tour of Britain one of the most transformative periods of his life, travelling back to America in the spring of 1847 not only a free man – his manumission having being purchased by a group of British supporters – but a celebrity and icon of international standing. Scotland, in particular, would always stay close to his heart, the American abolitionist assuring a room full of Scotchmen of his ‘warm love of Scotch character’ during a ‘Burns Night’ address in Rochester in upstate New York in January 1849.

His copy of Burns’s Works, meanwhile, was passed on to his son eldest son Lewis, complete with a handwritten note on the flyleaf. Frayed around the edges, it can still be viewed today at the Special Collections Library of the University of Rochester.

Laurence Fenton is a writer and editor. His latest book, I Was Transformed’ Frederick Douglass: An American Slave in Victorian Britain, is published by Amberley. For more on Laurence's work, visit his website.

Originally published January 2018. Reviewed October 2022.