American independence display

Rare documents tell story of American independence

The road to American independence is being mapped out at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) in a display which includes rare material written and signed by George Washington, the first ever US President.

The treasures display is opening on July 4 — US Independence Day — and comes at a time when independence is the big political question in Scotland. It is also only months before Americans go to the polls to elect their next President.

The War of Independence was marked by a clash of ideas where loyalty to a British monarch and the economic value of transatlantic trade competed with notions of liberty, independence, and republic.

Scots and those of Scottish descent played a prominent role. It has been estimated that more than a third of the 56 signatories to the American Declaration of Independence were men of Scottish descent.

The treasures display features rare and unique material from the Library’s US collections involving the great figures of US independence including Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. The US collections are the largest foreign collections held by NLS.

Interest in material relating to Washington has never been greater as was demonstrated last month when his personal copy of the US constitution sold for more than £6 million at Christie's in New York. One of the highlights of the display is Washington's own copy of his 'Official Letters to the Honorable American Congress' with his signature on the title page and handwritten notes from the editor, John Carey, for his consideration.

There is also fascinating material from the diaries of Henrietta Liston, wife of the Scottish diplomat Robert Liston who served after the American Revolution as British Minister to the United States. She knew many major figures of the time and recorded candid observations on American society, landscapes, customs, and, most notably, politics.

Other highlights include:

  • Two original letters written by George Washington
  • Benjamin Franklin’s letter to British MP David Hartley about American prisoners of war
  • Two letters by Founding Father Benjamin Rush from the post-revolution period
  • A copy of John Jay’s 1779 Act of Congress for recruiting the army
  • A 1776 edition of Thomas Paine’s 'Common sense' printed by Scotsman Robert Bell.

Senior Curator Chris Taylor, who has put the display together with Assistant Curator Dora Petherbridge, said: 'Much of the historic material we hold was collected by Scots who had an interest in the wider world. It demonstrates the strong links that have always existed between Scotland and the US and which continue today.'

Dora Petherbridge said: 'Through the 30 items in the display, we explore the conflicts, alliances and friendships that led to the birth of the United States. It is a fascinating story which has relevance for today, given that Scots will be asked to vote on independence in 2014.'

'Dreaming and declaring American independence' runs until September 16 at the National Library of Scotland, George 1V Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1EW. Entry is free.

4 July 2012

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