Most people associate the 18th century Scottish poet with singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve or Burns Supper events marking his birthday on 25 January.
At such events, we’re presented with a sentimental and romanticised portrayal of Burns.
But Burns’ poems, songs and letters reveal a revolutionary, who was unapologetically on the side of the poor and oppressed.
He was born into a family of tenant farmers in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1759.
It was a period of revolutionary upheaval and new ideas—which would have a lasting effect on his work.
As capitalist development transformed feudal agriculture, most farmers were pushed into a life of brutal, grinding poverty.
This is brilliantly captured in Burns’ poem The Vision, where he describes himself as “half mad, half fed and half sarket” (clothed).
But the development of capitalism also gave birth to the “Scottish Enlightenment”.
This great intellectual flowering—and Burn’s Presbyterian religious upbringing—had a big impact on his work.
At the time two groups—the “New Lichts” (new lights) and “Auld Lichts” (old lights)—were waging a war for the soul of Scottish Presbyterianism.
Burns supported the New Lichts, who were influenced by the Enlightenment’s egalitarian ideas.
His satirical monologue Holy Willies Prayer is a scathing attack on the religious hypocrisy of the conservative Auld Lichts.
But Burns wasn’t just an idle bystander during this tumultuous period.
He wrote poems, songs and letters to radical newspapers, such as The Edinburgh Gazetteer, in support of the 1765 American Revolution and 1789 French Revolution.
His song Ballad on the American War (1784) was one of his first openly political songs.
It expresses support for the American Revolution, and the disarray it caused William Pitt the Younger’s Tory government.
After reading it, prominent Scottish clergyman Hugh Blair allegedly remarked “Burns’ politics always smell of the smithy”.
This radical politics ran throughout his work. But by far the biggest influence on Burns was the French Revolution.
He uses Ca Ira, the French revolutionary song, in some of his poems and songs such as his The Rights of Women in 1792.
This poem also shows that Burns was limited by the dominant beliefs of his time, but supported much greater freedoms for women.
Part of one version of Ca Ira translates as, “It shall be so, liberty will be established, despite the tyrant everyone will rise up.”
Burns was accused of singing Ca Ira in a Dumfries Theatre and disrespecting the king by keeping his hat on during the national anthem.
One of Burns’ most famous poems, Scots Wha Hae from 1793, is sometimes wrongly characterised as nationalist.
In fact, it concludes by invoking the Tennis Court Oath of the French revolutionaries, “Let-us-do or die!”
The last verse reads, “Lay the proud usurper low! Tyrants fall in every foe! Liberty’s in every blow! Let us do—or die!”
Burns wasn’t just a passive commentator and he tried to help the French Revolution. In his job as an excise man Burns bought four canons from the Rosamund, a ship impounded for smuggling.
He then sent them to help the new French revolutionary government.
Nor did Burns just champion revolutions abroad—he backed the movement for parliamentary reform in Britain.
Burns was a member of a number of radical clubs and associations that sprung up in the wake of the French Revolution.
These included the Edinburgh Crochallan Fencibles and the Dumfries Friends of the People.
He was also in correspondence with some of the leading radicals of the time, such as feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, anti-slavery campaigner William Roscoe and Scottish republican Maria Riddell.
Burns’ support for these radical causes influenced others. His support for Irish freedom inspired the Ulster Weaver poets, who backed the 1798 United Irish Rebellion and its Belfast Northern Star newspaper.
He believed that people in any country had the right to rebel against a government that did not rule in the interests of the people.
The organisations and causes that Burns was associating himself with were clearly radical and revolutionary.
As the French Revolution took hold and support grew in Britain, Pitt’s government launched a brutal crackdown on radicals.
But this didn’t deter Burns—in late 1794 he declared we should shed no tears for a “perjured blockhead” after the execution of King Louis XVI.
The intellectual figurehead of the reactionary backlash in Britain was the conservative Edmund Burke.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France from 1790 he argued that civilisation would be “trodden down under the hoofs of the swinish multitude”.
In this fight, Burns knew whose side he was on.The radical Tom Paine’s brilliant pamphlet The Rights of Man was a stinging response to Burke.
He embraced Paine and loathed Burke, referring to the him in his Dumfries Epigrams as a “poisonous reptile”.
Conservative groups, such as The Association for the Preservation of Liberty and the Dumfries Loyal Sons of Natives, sprang up.
They distributed right wing propaganda and attacked Burns and other radicals.
Monarchist loyalists disrupted radical meetings, burned effigies of Tom Paine at demonstrations and attacked printers who published the Rights of Man and other radical works.
Burns had been optimistic that the movement for parliamentary reform would succeed, but he was proved wrong.
In 1793-4 the notorious treason trials, presided over by the vengeful Lord Braxfield, took place in Edinburgh.
Radical Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir was convicted of “seditious practices” and “exhorting persons to purchase and peruse wicked publications and writings”. This was a reference to Paine’s Rights of Man.
Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to a penal colony in Australia.
Similarly, William Fysse Palmer, a Unitarian minister from Dundee, was sentenced to seven years.
Pitt’s government ramped up repression in 1795 with the “gagging acts”—the Seditious Meetings and Treasonable Practices Acts. These draconian laws effectively outlawed free speech.
The reform movement in Britain was driven underground, although in Ireland it continued until the defeat of the United Irish Rebellion in 1798.
It was only a matter of time before the Pitt government’s ire turned to Burns.
Soon enough he was being investigated “as a person disaffected to government”. The elaborate spy network set up by the Lord Advocate Robert Dundas was also keeping a close eye on Burns.
It was only Burns’ fame as a poet and his personal contacts that stopped him from being arrested and tried for sedition.
Some of Burns’ most radical work was written at this time. The Dagger is a superb satire advocating support for the French Revolution and parliamentary reform—and a scathing attack on Burke.
Similarly The Tree of Liberty supports both the French and American revolutions and laments the repression of the reform movement in England.
It would become a potent symbol of the Scottish reform movement.
His iconic A Man’s a Man For A’ That denounces aristocratic power and privilege and champions equality. “The rank is but the guineas stamp … The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that,” it goes.
The poem ends with perhaps one of the best known of Burns’ lines—“That Man to Man the warld o’er, Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
By 1795 Burns was seriously ill, but he did not recant his radical views as some critics have suggested.
In June 1796, an ailing Burns wrote a defiant letter to Maria Riddell shortly before he died.
“If I must write let it be Sedition or Blasphemy,” he writes.
We should celebrate Burns as a radical poet, a champion of the poor and the oppressed. He stands clearly in the tradition of revolutionary change.
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