Robert Burns in America

The Library has acquired a collection of individual issues of the PennsylvaniaBurns portrait Packet and Daily Advertiser newspaper from 1787 through to 1788, which probably contain the first examples of Robert Burns’s work in print in the USA! Each issue prints a poem or song by Burns to give American readers a taster of his poetry. This happenend before the first American edition Burns’s Poems chiefly in the Scottish dialect was published in July 1788.
The appearance of Burns’s work in an American newspaper, just over a year after his poems were first published in Kilmarnock shows how rapidly Burns’s fame spread in the English-speaking world. It’s also a good indicator of how close the trade and cultural ties between Scotland and the USA in the late 1780s were.

The Philadelphia story

The American edition of Burns’s Poems was the brainchild of two ex-pat Scots based in Philadelphia: Peter Stewart, a printer and bookseller, and George Hyde, a bookbinder. Copies of the Kilmarnock, or, more likely, the 1787 Edinburgh edition of Poems chiefly in the Scottish dialect must have crossed the Atlantic soon after publication. As there were no copyright laws restricting the publication of the works of British authors in the new republic, it was a relatively simple matter to print an American edition without having to worry about prosecution or payment of royalties to the author. Rather than issue a prospectus for their work, Stewart and Hyde chose the tried and tested 18th-century method of having individual poems printed in a newspaper before publishing a full edition.
Philadelphia PacketThe Philadelphia-printed Pennsylvania Packet was America’s first successful daily newspaper. At the time Philadephia was the financial and cultural centre of the USA, and therefore an obvious choice to showcase the poems. 25 poems were published at regular intervals in the newspaper from 24 July 1787 to 14 June 1788. The poems selected for publication which are best known today are probably “The cotter’s Saturday night” and “To a louse”.
Stewart and Hyde’s aim was to portray Burns as a sentimental, God-fearing ploughman, at one with nature and sympathetic to the American colonists who had recently freed themselves from British control. They could also count on Scottish settlers’ feelings of nostalgia for their homeland. To further promote the forthcoming edition, the newspaper also printed Henry Mackenzie’s positive review of Burns’s work, which first appeared in The Lounger in Edinburgh in December 1786 and then in The London Chronicle, which did much to publicise Burns to a wider readership in Britain.
The 1788 Philadelphia edition of Burns’s poems was followed by a New York edition printed in December of the same year. It was also published by ex-pat Scots, J. and A. Maclean, formerly of Glasgow.

The collection in the National Library

The collection of Pennsylvania Packet issues acquired by the Library contains all of the poems by Burns to have been printed in that newspaper except for one: “Scotch Drink”. It also includes two issues (7 July and 16 July 1788) containing the original publisher’s advertisement for the first American edition, and an issue ( 28 August 1787) advertising “A select collection of the most favourite Scots tunes, with variations for the piano forte or harpsichord [sic]“, composed by Alexander Reinagle.
The newspaper issues were offered to the Library by Frank Amari Jnr., a collector and dealer of early American printing and manuscripts. Mr Amari has his own particular connection to Scotland, since his mother was born and raised in Edinburgh. Two of the issues have been donated by his mother in memory of her parents, the rest were purchased from Mr Amari.

You can read more about Robert Burns in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (accessible through NLS Licensed Digital Collections), and in our webpage about Burns.