Tuesday, 6th April, will mark the annual Tartan Day celebrations in America. Sadly, for the second year in a row, the festivities will be muted by the pandemic. Normally, there is a massive parade of pipe bands marching down 6th Avenue in New York, cheered on by thousands of ex-pat Scots. The parade of over 1500 people is traditionally led by an honorary Grand Marshall and includes pipers, drummers, highland dancers, Scottish clans and even Scottie dugs. Over the years, the Grand Marshalls have included Sean Connery, Brian Cox, Billy Connolly, Sam Heughan and even some of the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officers such as George Reid, Alex Fergusson and Tricia Marwick. The Tartan Day parade is now the main focus of a week of events that highlight and promote the best of Scotland. But how many people ever stop to consider its historical relevance and revolutionary heritage?

There are more than 6 million Americans who claim Scottish descent and they come out in force on 6th April, bedecked in their kilts and sporrans, determined to upstage St Patrick’s Day, when the Irish ex-pats turn the whole of America green. The US Senate officially recognised Tartan Day in 1998 and the first parade was a relatively minor affair, with only two pipe bands and a handful of enthusiastic supporters, who marched down the sidewalk from the British Consulate to the United Nations HQ. Since then it has become a global event, with ex-pat Scots, Scottish tourists and pipe bands pouring into New York from all across America and the wider world for a week of celebrations.

The 6th of April was chosen by the US Senate to commemorate the day the Declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320. Some say the American Declaration of Independence was based on the Declaration of Arbroath, having been written by the founding fathers, half of whom were of Scottish ancestry. Certainly, both documents are a cry for freedom and have great similarities. The Declaration of Arbroath famously states: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself." While the American Declaration of Independence, written more than four and a half centuries later in July 1776,  states: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration of Arbroath is perhaps unequalled in history for its eloquent plea for the liberty of man and for the way in which it set the will and the wishes of the people above that of the King. It was a clarion call for freedom, justice and democracy. Speaking at the launch of Tartan Day in April 2008, President George W Bush, spoke of the great debt of honour that Americans held for those of Scottish descent who have “made enduring contributions to our Nation with their hard work, faith and values”. He went on to acknowledge the role that the Declaration of Arbroath played in forming the American constitution citing the “Scots’ strong dedication to liberty” and their “tradition of freedom” that they brought with them to the New World.

The link to the American Declaration of Independence is interesting. It was composed by a committee of five men: Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, with most of the drafting entrusted to Jefferson, who claimed Scottish descent, tracing his lineage back to Malcolm III of Scotland and Robert the Bruce, through his mother, Jane Randolph. Jefferson’s father was a planter and surveyor who had emigrated from Wales. Thomas Jefferson was the third of ten children born and raised in Virginia, where he later became wartime Governor. As a child, he was strongly influenced by the teachings of his tutor, the Reverend William Douglas, a Scottish clergyman. 

A talented linguist, Jefferson spent five years as US Minister to France, witnessing the start of the French Revolution, which he supported. In Paris he befriended the Marquis de Lafayette, a staunch republican and French hero of the American Revolutionary War. Lafayette went on to draft ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’. Indeed, Jefferson allowed his Paris residence the Hôtel de Langeac, to be used by Lafayette and other republicans for clandestine meetings as the French Revolution escalated. Lafayette kept a framed copy of the American Declaration of independence in his library in the Rue de Bourbon in Paris, next to which hung an empty frame of similar size. When asked what the empty frame was for, Lafayette stated that it would one day hold the “French Declaration of Rights.” Following the fall of the Bastille in 1789, Lafayette sent the key of the prison to George Washington, in tribute to the revolutionary role model the Americans had provided. Lafayette was  one of the great iconic heroes of the American War of Independence and even named his son Georges Washington de la Fayette.

Jefferson was recalled to America by President George Washington to become Secretary of State in September 1789, ultimately succeeding John Adams to become the third US President from 1801 to 1809. In that role he would have watched with interest the rise to power in Europe of Napoleon Bonaparte whose path to glory had been forged by the French Revolution. So, the intriguing thought remains that when the Declaration of Arbroath was composed in Latin by Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland on 6th April 1320 and fastened with the seals of 8 Scottish earls and 45 Barons, it quite possibly laid the foundations for the American War of Independence and for the French Revolution. As Scots celebrate Tartan Day in America, they may pause to consider the historical significance of the most famous document in Scottish history.