American independence

Title page from book of George Washington's letters
George Washington's
copy of 'Official letters'.

Boston protestors with wounded man

Our display about American independence ran from 4 July to 16 September 2012.


The focus of our summer 'treasures' display is the American Revolution and its role in founding the United States of America.

The display affords extraordinary insights into the Founding Fathers and their pursuit of liberty.

Visitors can see manuscripts dating from the revolutionary era to the early 19th century, and printed material from the 1750s to the present day.


Conflicts, alliances and friendships

Rare material from the National Library of Scotland's United States collection illustrates the conflicts, alliances and friendships of the period.

Scots, and Americans of Scottish descent, were key participants in the debate over independence.

Of course, some of the ideas and debates from this period are also prevalent in contemporary Scottish politics.


Items on display

Benjamin Franklin portrait
George Washington portrait

Material on display represents several aspects of the war:

  • The potent rhetoric used to incite action
  • The personal relationships influencing events
  • The way in which the war made and destroyed fortunes — George Washington, for example, rose to prominence through his military success.

Highlights include:

Detail from handwritten letter
Washington letter to
Major General
Smallwood, 1782.

'Philadelphia, September 30th, 1804' on letter
  • George Washington's own copy of 'Official letters to Honorable American Congress' with his signature and the editor's handwritten notes
  • A George Washington letter to Major General William Smallwood written from his headquarters in Newburgh during the War of Independence
  • A George Washington letter to Alexander Spotswood written from his Virginia estate Mount Vernon after his retirement from presidential office
  • A Benjamin Franklin letter to British MP David Hartley about American prisoners of war
  • Governor George Clinton's copy of John Jay's 1779 Act of Congress for recruiting the army
  • Founding Father Benjamin Rush's letters to Scotsmen Robert Liston and the 11th Earl of Buchan
  • Henrietta Liston's diaries from her stay in America with her husband, Robert Liston, who was British Minister to the United States from 1796-1801
  • Andrew Ellicott's 1792 'Plan of the City of Washington', engraved by Thackara and Vallance.

The road to revolution

Title page of Thomas Paine book
'Common sense' by
Thomas Paine, 1776.

'John Hancock' and other signatures
Declaration of
1852 compilation.

Title page of constitutions handbook

'He died' on handwritten diary page
Henrietta Liston's diary
  for 1799 records
Washington's death.

Our display begins with items representing ideas and events that set America on the path to independence.

The power of the British Government was keenly felt in the colonies as new taxes were imposed after the costly Seven Years War.

In addition to British politicians, the British monarch at the time, King George III, came to be abhorred by many in America. The Revolutionary Thomas Paine called King George 'the royal brute'.

Ideological battles began and violence erupted.


The War of Independence

War broke out in 1775 when British troops clashed with American militia at Lexington and Concord.

On 4 July 1776 Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. The 13 colonies became states. However, Britain sent more troops and the fighting continued.


Building a country

With the revolution began transformations in the social, political, and intellectual life of America.

Peace was declared in 1783. The United States shaped itself on principles of republicanism, liberalism and 'natural rights'.

This section of the display illustrates key moments in the young country's history — including the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, and the establishment of presidential government.


Re-building the special relationship

Scots Henrietta Marchant and Robert Liston married shortly after he was appointed British Minister to the United States in 1796.

Robert Liston's service coincided with a significant period in British-American affairs, and both he and Henrietta helped repair the relationship between the two countries.

The Listons also represent the special bond between Scotland and America.




The treasures display in our George IV Bridge Building is a small sample of the millions of items in our collections. We change the display several times a year.

Past treasures displays



Treasures main page


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