Written by: Highland Titles
Published: 13th May 2021, last updated: 5th October 2021
On 6 April 1320 an unknown scribe at the Abbey in Arbroath wrote a formal letter in Latin to Pope John XXII in the name of 38 named Scottish noblemen. They, and a total of possibly as many as 50 of Scotland’s barons, then added their seals to the document to indicate their agreement with its contents. The letter, now generally known as the Declaration of Arbroath, is one of the most dramatic and important documents in the history of the British Isles, and its central statement has gripped the imagination of readers so powerfully that it still resonates seven hundred years later:
…from these countless evils [inflicted by the English invasions of Scotland] we have been set free, by the help of Him who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless prince, King and lord, the lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua. Him, too, divine providence, the succession to his right according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our prince and king. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.
Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself (1)
There are moments in the affairs of humankind that, generation upon generation, seize the imagination of posterity. The Declaration of Arbroath is one of these, as is the symbolic moment at Lexington on 19 April 1775 when a shot was fired that was ‘heard round the world’ (2).
The answer is that out of Scotland came a revolutionary tradition that was directly transmitted to Britain’s American colonies by thousands upon thousands of Scottish emigrants.
Of all the ethnic groups who populated the British Isles at the time of the American Revolution it was the Scots who had the strongest cultural affinity with revolutions and other cataclysmic political upheavals. England was by comparison a land of tranquillity, stability and continuity (3). We know the formal political theories that shaped the American revolutionary era came out of books written by the Englishman John Locke in the late seventeenth century and Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu.
But that is only half the story. For a revolution really to take off it has to energise the hearts and minds of a people, and in late eighteenth-century America the hearts and minds of Scots and Scots-descended colonists were already culturally prepared to embrace it.
Uniquely among the many immigrant communities living in British North America in the eighteenth century, for the Scots taking up arms against what they felt was corruption and tyranny fitted uniquely well with their cultural understanding of the appropriate response to a government gone irredeemably wrong. Revolution and radicalism, and just as importantly, national pride in, and identification with, revolution and radicalism, lay at the core of early modern Scottish identity (4).
Scotland and more importantly, the Scottish people, were transformed during the course of multiple conquests, rebellions, reconquests and a seemingly endless guerrilla war against its English occupiers and their Scots allies (4).
And at the heart of this reshaped identity was a radical vision of the relationship between the nation and its rulers. This was most dramatically expressed in the Declaration of Arbroath, a document which has become the foundation stone of modern Scottish nationalism and was already celebrated with pride by ethnic Scots at the time of the American Revolution.
On the face of it, this was a classic factional baronial statement. Pope John XXII was maintaining his predecessors’ policy of supporting Edward II of England’s claim to rule Scotland despite the manifest collapse of English control of the country after 1314. As part of this package of papal support for the English claim those parts of Scotland under the control of the self-proclaimed King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, were laid under a papal interdict, theoretically denying Scots living there the ministrations of the church. King Robert had also been personally excommunicated for murdering his political rival, John Comyn, in a church in Dumfries.
The declaration of Arbroath was, then, draughted in April 1320 as an appeal to the pope to rescind these punishments and abandon the English cause. It was, therefore, on one level a partisan document, designed to promote the interests of the victors in Scotland’s first War of Independence and consolidate their hold on the country. Yet there was much more to it than that. From the outset the barons and clerics who draughted and attached their seals to the declaration asserted that they were speaking and acting on behalf of a Scots people, whom they characterised as warlike and triumphant, but also devout Christians, and whom they flatly stated had held the land ‘free of all servitude’ ever since they had conquered it. Robert the Bruce they likened to Judas Maccabeus and Joshua, liberators of the Jews from oppression according to the Bible, and they praised his contribution to their victory and pledged to support his claim to the throne of Scotland to the end: ‘To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.’ But, crucially, they at the same time firmly put their new king in his place. He was king with, ‘the due consent and assent of us all’, which is to say they chose him as king regardless of any hereditary rights he may or may not have had, and forthrightly stated:
Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself (6).
There could not be a more trenchant statement of the fundamental principle that many if not most Scots then and subsequently believed underlay all government: the state existed solely to serve and protect the interests of the nation (7). When it failed to do so, they as a people were entitled to remake it as they saw fit, the better to serve its purpose. The state, and the monarch, were not divinely ordained, or in essence anything more than useful instruments for protecting and administering the commonwealth.
The Declaration of Arbroath was the fundamental constitutional centrepiece of the remade kingdom of Scotland, but more importantly its principles continued to guide the conduct of Scottish politics and the responses of the people and their noble leaders to bad government for the next four and a half centuries. Kings who were felt to be slipping into corruption or tyranny accordingly tended to have short lifespans. James I was assassinated in 1437 after being dragged from his hiding place in a sewer (8). James III, who was just plain feckless, grasping and incompetent, was killed in battle by a rebel army led by his own son and heir (9). Underlying the Scots nobility’s pragmatic application of the customary medieval solution to unsatisfactory government, however, was always a willingness to contemplate more programmatic, permanent reforms.
This was dramatically demonstrated in December 1557 by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, the barons known as the ‘Lords of the Congregation’. Despite the certainty of both English and French opposition (10)(11) Archibald Campbell, Earl of Argyll, and his confederates declared a ‘Band’, i.e. an openly military alliance of noblemen and their followings, dedicated to carrying Scotland wholesale into the Protestant fold. In forthrightly provocative fashion they publicly declared that they believed: ‘Satan, in his members the antichrists of our time, cruelly doth rage, seeking to downthrow and destroy the evangel of Christ and his congregation’, and that they considered it their, ‘bounden duty, to strive in our Master’s cause, even unto the death, being certain of the victory in Him’(12). They pledged, furthermore, to commit:
…our whole power, substance, and very lives, to maintain, set forward, and establish the most blessed Word of God and his congregation; and shall labour at our possibility to have faithful ministers, purely and truly to minister Christ’s evangel and sacraments to his people. We shall maintain them, nourish them, and every member thereof, at our whole powers and wairing [expending] of our lives against Satan and all wicked power that does intend tyranny and trouble against the foresaid congregation (13).
And they were as good as their word. Despite defeats at the hands of the Regent Mary of Guise’s French forces and their Scots adherents, and the death of Argyll, they refused to give up, and fought on until the tide eventually turned in their favour in 1559-60 (14). When they seized power the Lords of the Congregation then brought in a radical religious reformation in the Parliament of 1560 and irrevocably committed Scotland to the Protestant cause in Europe. It was a remarkable achievement in what had been hitherto a devoutly Catholic country, and one underscored by the Lords’ response to the newly arrived Mary, Queen of Scots’ half-hearted and incompetent attempts to undermine the new order in the late 1560s. They blocked her politically, then deposed and imprisoned her, and when she escaped and rallied her supporters against them, roundly defeated her and chased her into permanent exile in England (15).
This tradition, whereby the Scots nobility and people would confront the monarch and the state and impose reform whenever they felt it was necessary, recurred again in the late 1630s. King Charles I was at that time trying to force Scotland to accept the form of Protestantism practised in England (16). The Scots, who were fiercely proud of what they regarded as their more advanced form of Protestantism, were bitterly opposed to this and greeted the imposition of a new English-style prayer book with nationwide rioting and ominously well-attended meetings by the nobility (17). The king’s administration quickly lost control of the country and the great majority of adult male Scots signed the National Covenant, pledging their lives and fortunes to maintain what they saw as true religion in Scotland — some using their own blood instead of ink — in 1638-9. The key function of the kings of Scotland was, they declared, to:
…procure to the utmost of their power, to the [church] of God, and whole Christian people, true and perfect peace in all time coming; and that they shall be careful to root out of their Empire all heretics and enemies to the true worship of God, who shall be convicted by the true Kirk of God of the foresaid crimes (18).
And to make sure the Kings of Scotland did this the Covenanters pledged their lives and fortunes to, ‘the defence and preservation of the … true religion, liberties and laws of the kingdom’ (19).
Completely misunderstanding the situation, Charles attempted to use force to exact compliance (20). The Covenanters responded by raising a large, disciplined army out of virtually nothing, and invading northern England. There they defeated a royal English army at Newburn on 28 August 1640 and occupied the Northumberland coalfields (thus threatening to starve London of heat and power over the winter of 1640-1) until Charles capitulated to their demands (21). Within two years Scotland had been transformed into a model Calvinist, Godly state in defiance of royal authority and in 1641-2 Scotland’s example inspired mass uprisings against Charles I in England and Ireland.
Yet despite the Covenanters’ initial successes it all ended in disaster. After Charles was defeated in the English Civil Wars he was tried and executed for treason by his own Parliament, but then Scotland was conquered and occupied by the army of the English Republic that was established after the overthrow of the monarchy. Then, when the Republic fell apart in 1659-60 the monarchy was restored throughout the British Isles and everything the Covenanters had achieved was systematically dismantled.
The new royalist regime of Charles II was brutally authoritarian, vengeful and corrupt and eventually provoked exactly the kind of resistance that had by then become ingrained in Scottish culture. The most dramatic example of this comes from southeastern Scotland where the so-called ‘Society men’, better known as the Cameronians, first rebelled and then waged a long guerrilla war against the Stuart state (22). They were extreme Calvinist Protestants, but the declaration read at Sanquhar Cross by Richard Cameron and twenty armed members of his congregation on 22 June 1680 well demonstrates that they were still embedded in the Scots revolutionary tradition. Charles II, Cameron asserted,
hath so far deboarded from what he ought to have been, by his perjury, & usurping in Church matters, & Tyranny in matters Civil, as is known by the whole Land; that we have just reason to account it amongst the Lord’s great controversies against us, that we have not disowned him, & the men of his practices, whether inferior Magistrates or any other, as Enemies to our Lord Jesus His Crown & the true Protestant & presbyterian Interest in these Lands, our Lord’s espoused Bride & Church (23).
Correspondingly, Cameron and his followers therefore,
Do, by [this declaration], Disown Charles Stewart who hath been reigning these years bygone (or rather we may say Tyrannizing) on the throne of Britain, as having any right, title, or interest to or in the said Crown of Scotland or Government; as forfaulted several years since, by his perjury & breach of Covenant with God & His Church, & usurpation of His Crown & Royal Prerogatives, & many other breaches in matters Ecclesiastick, & by his tyranny & breaches of the [fundamental laws of the kingdom] in matters Civil (24).
And not content with such breathtaking defiance, Cameron solemnly proclaimed to the world that from thenceforth: ‘we under the banner of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Captain of Salvation, do Declare a war with such a Tyrant, & usurper, & all the men of these practices, as Enemies to our Lord Jesus Christ & his Cause & Covenant’ (25).
Though, to put it mildly, the Cameronians’ war against the Stuart state was not a success, it provided plenty of further examples of royal tyranny as far as opponents of the Stuarts in Scotland were concerned and, too, seems to have reminded the Scots nobility of their traditional leadership role in resisting what many Scots perceived as royal tyranny (26). For certain, when news of the Revolution of 1688 in England arrived in Scotland there was a dramatic explosion of direct action by both nobles and people. All across southern Scotland clergymen who had adhered to the state church were mobbed out of their parishes, and magistrates and officials who had faithfully served the crown through what were popularly known as ‘the Killing Times’ were forced to flee for their lives. The nobility meanwhile seized the moment, assembled in a self-appointed ‘Convention’ and there solemnly deposed James II and VII as king of Scotland (27).
Their justification for such a radical solution to Scotland’s political crisis is well worth exploring. One of the most arresting features of the ‘Declaration of the Estates of the Kingdom of Scotland’ of 11 April 1689 is its very forthright quality. Unlike the English Convention, which was so squeamish about actually using the word ‘depose’ that it settled instead on the mealy-mouthed fiction that James II and VII had abdicated the throne, its Scots counterpart flatly stated that James could never legally have taken the coronation oath because he was a Catholic and was thus never in fact king of Scotland (28). To modern eyes this looks like a piece of doublethink, but in fact it was truly fighting talk, because by implication it meant James was nothing more than a usurper and tyrant. Accordingly:
…the Estates of the Kingdom of Scotland, Find and Declare, that King James the Seventh being a profest Papist, did assume the Regal power, and Acted as King, without ever taking the Oath required by Law, and hath by the Advice of Evil and Wicked Counsellers, invaded the Fundamental Constitution of the Kingdom, and altered it from a legal limited Monarchy, to an Arbitrary Despotick Power, and hath exercised the same, to the subversion of the Protestant Religion, and Violation of the Laws and Liberties of the Kingdom, in inverting all the Ends of Government, whereby he hath forefaulted the Right to the Crown, and the Throne is become vacant (29).
The use of the term ‘forefault’ to complete the declaration is highly significant. It was a term out of Scottish feudal law and directly connected the attitudes and approach of the nobility to the crisis of 1689 to the approach taken by their ancestors to the crisis of the 1310s that culminated in the Declaration of Arbroath. If someone forefaulted they broke their feudal contract. Thus as far as the Convention of Estates was concerned in 1689, James had done what the nobles said they would depose a king for doing in 1320: betraying the interests of the people of Scotland — and they were dethroning him as promised. It was a ringing testament to the continued vitality of the the revolutionary tradition in Scotland at the end of the seventeenth century.
The 1680s, of course, just about brings us within a long lifetime of the American Revolution, but the Scots revolutionary tradition did not go into abeyance between 1689 and 1775. For Scotland’s Parliament was coaxed, bullied and bribed into voting itself out of existence in 1707.
The Act of Union between England and Scotland was sold to the Scots political elite as a constitutional partnership of equals that would bring with it an economic uplift that would rescue Scotland from what appeared to be a poverty trap (30). In fact, for the first fifty years following the Union it turned out to be a mess of potage.
English M.P.s and peers were the overwhelming majority in the new ‘British’ Parliament and they were profoundly uninterested in looking after Scotland’s interests. The Scots representatives at Westminster found themselves nothing more than adjuncts to English political games and the promised economic rescue of Scotland failed to materialise for nearly two generations (31).
Hardly surprising then, that a substantial section of the Scots nobility and a broad constituency in the nation at large deemed it appropriate to look for a radical solution to the failure of the Union. The vehicle for this was to be a Jacobite restoration, in other words bringing back the Stuart dynasty driven into exile in 1688. This was a thoroughly pragmatic decision: attaching the cause of Scotland’s independence to that of the exiled Stuarts offered the possibility of military aid from two of the European great powers, France and Spain, and the Scots Jacobites made very sure that their prospective Stuart monarchs agreed in advance to a raft of radically reformist terms and conditions, and, too, made an adamantine commitment to dissolving the constitutional union with England (32).
So what were kind of radical transformation were the Scots Jacobites aiming at in this last phase of Scotland’s history prior to the American Revolution? Their objectives were first thrashed out by the Scots Jacobite leadership, the so-called ‘Juncto’, in 1705 (33), but they were for the first time explicitly presented to the Stuart king in exile as a non-negotiable item in 1707 in a remarkable document that is worth quoting at length. Entitled ‘Heads of the Instrument of Government’, the key elements laid down,
 That no alyance be made, either public or private, without consent of Parliament.
 That the officers of state, privie councell, lords of session and justiciarie, be named by Parliament.
 That a Parliament be caled and continowed to sitt for the dispatch of publick business and the service of the nation once in three years.
 That a libertie of consitience and toleration be setled upon a right foundation (34).
In a separate document (the ‘Scheme’) the conspirators further laid down,
 That the scheme of the securitie be form’d in limiting the prerogative … and establishing a clame of right and [a constitution] containing the essentiall and warantable conditions by which a prince … is to be regulat under a failor of the aledgiance of the subject.
 That a convention be caled, and the [constitution] concerted and adjusted before the King enter upon the administration of the government.
 That if the condition[s] be rejected or declined, the government may be considered as absolutly loosed and subverted, and methods falen upon for a new settlement most conducive to the [well] and good of the nation with respect to the sacred and civil intresst, and of the advantages and disadvantages that doeth or may occurre to it through the measures and conduct of other nations (35).
What the Juncto was proposing was an entire revision of the Scots constitution. They intended to manacle a restored Stuart king to a permanent partnership with the Scots Parliament. If they had succeeded the future King of Scotland’s foreign policy would have been subject to Parliamentary oversight and veto. Their appointment of ministers, judges and other officers would have been subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and required Parliamentary approval (one is reminded of the role of the US Senate in this respect). Parliament’s electoral cycle would have been emancipated from royal control and followed a regular pattern, as was to be the case in the future United States.
In addition, the future Stuart kings were to be bound by oath to uphold the new constitution, as laid down by Parliament, before they took up the reins of government, and in the event that he breached that oath, or would not accept these terms and conditions, all Scots would be released from their allegiance to them, the constitution would be dissolved and the Parliament would be free to establish whatever new form of government it deemed fit. By any criterion, this was the most radical proposal for the reform of the relationship between crown and Parliament made in the British Isles before the 1780s and arguably before the 1840s.
* * *
This, then, was the cultural-political background hundreds of thousands of first and second generation Americans of Scots descent came from in 1775 (36). For a great many, if not most, of these immigrants and their descendants political revolution was a hallowed tradition, and restructuring the polity to make it work better was not an appalling affront to the dispensation of God, but a pragmatic response to political crisis. After 450 years of fighting to make Scotland a workable polity, and one that served the common good of the Scottish people, a constitution made by the people, of the people and for the people held no terrors for them.
Written by: Dr Daniel Szechi
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