Left: James Currie. Right: a portrait of Burns by Archibald Skirving, published in The Works of Robert Burns, by Blackie and Son, Glasgow, 1854.
Date : 29-11-1802
Correspondent : James AndersonCorrespondent Location : Isleworth
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : Anderson discusses Burns in the context of his farming community and says that Currie’s second edition is ‘considerably improved’.

Dear Sir
      I embrace an opportunity of writing under cover of a frank, to thank you for the pleasure I derived, a long while ago, from the perusal of your life of Burns, and the writings that accompany it. Poor fellow! he was born to experience pleasure and pains greatly beyond the common boundaries of human nature. It is impossible not to pity the man; but requires a greater share of sagacity than I possess to be able to perceive, were he even still in life, how the evil could have been mitigated. I see nothing that requires correction from you when a new edition shall be called for, but what you say respecting the Scottish farmers. I can see you have formed your opinions from those of Dumfries shire, and Anandale. Had you done so from those of Berwickshire, the Lothians and that neighbourho[MS torn] it necessary to say, that [MS torn] of knowledge, skill <[?]> energy of enterprise and independence of mind, [MS torn] do not equal only, but far exceed any farmers that are to be found in England. This, I have no hesitation to say; and you will find Burns himself hinting at their affluence in terms of astonishment in his tour to Tweed side.
      I have lately glanced over your second edition, which is considerably improved. In no one of your observations do I more cordially acquiesce than as to the general unhappiness that literary men, ↑experience↓ those especially who are endowed with a moderate share of taste and feeling, when they have no object that can so much fix their mind as to induce a continuance of active exertions in one way or other; for, to such persons it is idle to say that every one can be active if he will. Simple volition is too weak to call forth the energies of such persons. It was this consideration chiefly that induced me, some time ago, to engage in the literary recreations, which the nonchalance of a provoking printer obliged me to abandon. Since that time I feel the weight of idleness press heavy upon me. Excluded as I am, in this place, from the conversation of congenial spirits, I feel my mind sink into a state of debility that is extremely unpleasing. Day passes after day in a listless inactivity, that tends only to excite a distaste for every kind of exertion. Life becomes then not a sleep, but a dreary dream of which no recollection remains but a sensation of disgust. In my sober moments I am as sensible as any one can be of the impropriety of indulging in this propensity – yet, like one labouring under the oppression of the night mare I know not how to overcome it. Some friends, in pity, have tried to rouse me: but they propose an exertion of such arduous interprise as makes me shrink back from it in despair. From some accidental discussions we have had on the subject of Mary Queen of scots they have urged me to enter upon the serious investigation of that subject, with a view to publication. Were nothing expected but the investigation alone, I could enter upon it, con amore; for altho’ much has been written on that subject of late years, yet there can be no doubt that it never yet has been put under that point of view which is capable of rendering it even intelligible to persons of ordinary understanding. I should like therefore, very much to be a humble [coadjutor?] and assistant to one who was able and willing to put into proper language the facts that I should collect and arrange on that subject. But where such a person is to be found I know not. As to myself, tho’ my friends have pressed me upon that head, I dare not so much as think [MS torn] tho’ it be true that [MS torn] pub[MS torn] my writings at all times [MS torn] a partiality that must surprise every literary person who reads them, yet, it is no difficult matter to perceive that this proceeds chiefly from a [insert] ↑general↓ conviction of the purity of my intentions, and the care that I have taken never to write on a subject where the elegance of stile could be deemed an essential requisite. This, however, could not be admitted in any kind of historical disquisition. Altho’ I have become, by accident, a very voluminous writer, yet it is a truth, which those alone will have difficulty to believe who have not read any of mine, that I never once in my life bestowed a thought on the formation of my own stile or the corruption of language; but, as I ↑or from a conviction of being useful to the reader, and↓ wrote for amusement only, [insert] from the impulse of the moment, it has always been done current calamo; nor do I believe that I ever transcribed two ↑For the purpose of being printed↓ lines together in my life [insert]. It cannot be expected then, that having got into such a careless habit, it would be possible, at my time of life, to form and polish a stile, even if I were to attempt it.
      Conscious as I am of this sovereign defect, no consideration could induce me to attempt it, in this fastidious age, any thing that could bear the name, or assume the appearance of a history. I would not even dignify any thing that could fall from my pen with the name of Memoirs: but, could I devise some mongrel kind of epithet by which information<[?]> might be conveyed to the public without seeming to imply that the language constituted any part of its excellence, I think I should find pleasure in the disquisition, because I am perswaded I might be able to bring forward information that is much wanted by the public. Can you help me to any such names? If so, I will thank you to suggest it. I would fain ask another favour, which is, that if you oblige me as above, you would have the additional goodness <[?]> to condescend, in case I should proceed in the undertaking, to look over the MS, and give me your candid opinion of its defects, with a view to diminish them a little. I should not presume, like the K of Prussia, to require you to clean my dirty sheets, for that would be a task greatly too severe – but merely to point out glaring absurdities only – I know your goodness too well to think that farther apologies should be made
      This is not the only [MS torn]ver, [MS torn]guard me, from er[MS torn:ror] should it not be deemed expedient, I have one or two small works[MS torn] agriculture in view. These will be useful - but as they will be, to me, so very easy, they will scarcely be sufficient to keep me awake for a short while.
      I have thought of another capital work, which would be admirably adapted to the talents and dispositions of our friend M?r? Roscoe, could he be induced to engage in it. I have brooded over it for a long time; but never till yesterday could I think of a person who seemed to be capable of executing it. It is a remarkable fact that antient nations were much more populous than those of modern times. There is scarcely a country in Europe – our own small spot ↑and some other inconsiderable patches↓ [insert] perhaps excepted, that contains [insert] ↑now↓ so many people as it did in antient times – And doubtless it does not upon the whole contain one half of what it once did – This is still more remarkably the case with africa and Asia: nor is there upon the whole world a government which has [?] for two thousand years, but that of China [insert] ↑alone↓ – whose populations is equal that all the rest of the globe nearly – The armies of Semyramis – [Ninus?] Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus and Solomon, indicate a population that is utterly incomprehensible to those who look into the present state of those countries where they reigned. The great increase of populations at those periods, and its decrease since that time must have had some cause – I want to know what was the cause. It is an important enquiry to ascertain this. What I aim at is to elucidate this question – and the plan by which it might be done, I should think might be as follows.
      There can be little doubt, if the facts above stated be admitted, that the change must have been produced by something respecting government – We all know that the governments of the antient Empires of Asia were extremely different from those of modern Europe; andthat the Chinese empire is the only one known which has adhered to the original model of Asiatic governments. This gives a strong presumption that the departure from that model has proved, one way or another, extremely baneful to the human species. [MS torn] this conviction that induced me to enter upon the investigation [MS torn] question respecting the influence [MS torn: of]agriiculture and manufactures on the happiness of the people, and the ↑stability↓ of states, which was first begun in the Bee, and continued and extended in the Recreations I am myself convinced that it was the patriarchal ↑form↓ of government so necessarily connected with the simplicity of agricultural manners, which secured the happiness, ↑of the people↓ and augmented the population of antient states – and that the misery of modern states originated in Greece, where the people first came to interfere in affairs of government, which gave rise to perpetual disputes – never ceasing wars, and revolutions without end, which have curtailed the happiness of individuals – disturbed the tranquillity of states, and diminished the human species to an astonishing degree. These evils have been greatly augmented by the change that then took place in the conditions of slaves, and other collateral causes that I must not even hint at. An investigation of these circumstances might, I think, be brought forward with infinite propriety under this form. When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he set himself to rectify every institution of government at that period then, with a view to obtain information respecting the government and manners of other ↑states↓ we may suppose him to have sent out one of those fifty nobles who had been trained up as his companions from his infancy, and who had shared in all the glorious enterprises he had atchieved till that hour, to make a tour through all the remarkable places on the globe at that time – The travels of the young [Anacharsis?] is but a feeble hint of a model for these travels – Let this be called the travels of Artabanes He should go under the disguise of a merchant, and should trans ↑and receive others in return from↓ mit his remarks to [insert] Cyrus, and others in letters<[insert]>, after the manner of the Turkish Spy. This gives room for a pleasing variety of remarks and manner that might be[MS torn]ree of much e[MS torn] to add still to that diversity – Artabanes, now about the 50th year of his age, might be accompanied by his son – a young man of great talents and vivacity, turned twenty (what a wonderful acquisition it would have been to have had Burns to personate this character) To his share would fall an infinity of particulars respecting manners, dress, amusements, as fitted his years. The route should be to Tyre – Gerusalem – Egypt – Carthage] with an episode respecting Iberia and the western parts [MS torn] Europe – Sicily – to Rome – Greece – particularly Lacedemon and Athens – Macedon – and home through Asia Minor. In this course there would be room to investigate every peculiarity of moment in the antient regimen – An[MS torn] at Rome and Athens might be traced the seeds of those changes which have produced such an abundant harvest in later times.
      It would be idle to enter into farther particulars for you and Mr Roscoe, if he shall read this, will see what an ample scope he would thus be afforded for the exertion of genius, and display of wisdom.
      Begging pardon for the enormous length of this letter – I remain – with respectful Compts to Mrs Currie and all enquiring friends D↑r↓ Sir

      Your most [?] Servt
           Ja↑s↓. Anderson


Notes :

James Anderson (1739-1808): with degree of LL.D from Aberdeen, he brought scientific knowledge to bear on agricultural reform, publishing widely on miscellaneous topics. His ‘Essays on Planting’ appeared in Ruddiman’s Weekly Magazine for 1771. From Aberdeenshire farm, he moved to Edinburgh, 1783. Wrote on Fisheries; commissioned to survey west-coast fishing, he produced ‘ An Account of the present state of the Hebrides and Western Coasts of Scotland; being the substance of a report to the Lords of the Treasury’ (1785). From 22 Dec. 1790 to 21 Jan. 1794 he edited The Bee, a literary and scientific miscellany. Burns declined his invitation to contribute, though his first letter to the Earl of Buchan did appear, probably submitted by Buchan.

Semiramis: warrior queen, widow of Ninus; she reigned for 42 years, conquering in Persia, Libya, and Ethiopia.

Ninus: husband of Semiramis and her predecessor on the throne.

Nebuchadnezzar: usurper who seized the throne of Babylonia and waged war against Assyria around 1150B.C.

Cyrus: Cyrus the Great (d.529B.C.), founder of the Persian empire.

Solomon: second son of David and Bathsheba, king of the Israelites 1015-977B.C.

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