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1 Feb 2020

A Man’s A Man For A’ That

Written by David Hopes
A group of people standing in a room with a man holding a violin
Alistair McCulloch plays Burns’s A Man’s A Man in the home of Frederick Douglass, Washington DC
Frederick Douglass made a point of visiting Burns Cottage in 1846, to the birthplace of a man he described as a genius and who continued to inspire Douglass’s own thoughts on equality and justice.

Only eight years earlier, Douglass (or Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey as he was then) had escaped bondage in Maryland but spent the rest of his life campaigning to end slavery in the United States as well as campaigning for universal suffrage.

The first book he bought was The Works of Robert Burns (Philadelphia, 1841), which he passed to his eldest son (this can be seen at Rochester University). Douglass compared racial oppression in the US to Burns’s chastisement by the Kirk.

We were fortunate enough to spend time in Douglass’s last home, Cedar Hill, in Anacostia, a suburb of Washington DC, where he lived from 1877 until 1895.

On 25 January 1849, Douglass proposed a toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns, stating that ‘if any think me out of place on this occasion [pointing at a picture of Burns] I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that “a man’s a man for a’ that”.’

For this reason, during our visit, Alistair McCulloch played A Man’s A Man For A’ That on the Gregg violin in Douglass’s parlour, right beside his own violin (like Burns, he was self-taught).

Alistair McCulloch playing Star Spangled Banner

Douglass’s favourite song was the Star Spangled Banner which includes the lyric, ‘Land of the Free, Home of the Brave’. This too was played on the Gregg violin at Cedar Hill.

Still hanging on his bedroom wall is a small engraving depicting the moment Meg loses her tail at the end of Burns’s poem, Tam o’ Shanter, a favourite of Douglass. It was a poignant reminder of the closeness between the two men and how their words transcend time and place.

An old picture depicting a scene in Tam o' Shanter
Engraving of a scene in Tam o’ Shanter

Special thanks to National Parks Service staff at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site for facilitating our visit, particularly Superintendent, Vince Vaise.

Find out more about Frederick Douglass, Robert Burns and the fight to end slavery, and Frederick Douglass’s visit to Scotland.

A video showing the itinerary for the Gregg violin tour

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