Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Melancholy Letter

Today, I want to share with you a letter written to my great-great-grandfather Dr. Robert Burns by his father, also named Robert. He was clearly a deeply troubled man by the time he wrote this letter on June 20, 1833 in Philadelphia. He was born in Ireland, married in Scotland, and then moved back to Ireland before leaving for America. Here are some excerpts:
Dear Robt, not finding myself fit to go to-day, I’ll try to give you that promised account of my parentage, and even this I’m scarcely fit for: these some days past there has been such a weight on my spirits, such a pressure of thought on my mind that I could hardly bear it: It has been painful to me to speak or lift my eyes. [...]
My grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s age, I don’t recollect, but they died without any stain on their character that ever I heard. [...]
My father moved to Kells Daid Co and commenced business, carrying on the hatting trade for twenty-two years. Here we were all born, nine children, three boys, Sampson, Richard, and Robert; and six daughters, Margaret Anne (who came to Philadelphia), Rachel, Elizabeth, Nancy, Mary and Jane. My mother died of her last confinement, when I was about seven years old. My eldest sister, Margaret, was brought home from boarding school after my mother’s death, having got a good education; she married at sixteen years of age one of my father’s journeymen; they went into business for themselves, leaving my father exposed to strangers, to conduct his household affairs; he would not marry again, and being grieved for his losses, gave up business, and wrought journey work, nearly the remainder of his days. My two younger sisters came under the guardianship of the Cox family, while I was supported and educated by my father’s industry, until I was fourteen years of age, at which time I was bound to my trade. [...]
Then I moved to Newtownards, here Elizabeth, Mary, James Jr., and two infant children who died were born. In Newtownards I carried on my trade to pretty good effect for fifteen years, when I conceived the foolish and unwise project of coming to Philadelphia; and within three years I have lost two of my children. It is useless for me to relate or comment more, I’ll leave the remainder of my life to you to conclude, trusting in that Merciful Being, who has brought me through the various scenes of the part of my life, that he will conduct me through the remainder in such a way as my fathers were, viz: that no stain will blot my character, as to my duty towards God, and as to my duty towards my neighbors. As to my duty towards God, it is so blotted that nothing but the all-atoning merits of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ can wipe away my sins.
Unfortunately, I don't know when  he died so I can't tell you whether this was shortly before his death or not. It does seem that he believed his death was imminent. My best estimate is that he was born in 1786, making him about 47 years old when he wrote this.