Book Review

Valentine, Alan. Lord Stirling. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

“Sons of great men are seldom great; sons of men of fine character or talent often display little of either.”

From Lord Stirling by Alan Valentine, page 46.

When encountering ridiculous observations, book readers tend to turn off the entire volume as worthless. However, in this case, not finishing Valentine’s aptly titled book would be a mistake.

Descending from a Scottish family with a faint lineage to a vacant noble title, American born Patriot Maj. Gen. William Alexander laid claim to the title of Lord Stirling before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. While two other biographers briefly cover Alexander’s quest to establish family nobility, Valentine offers the most comprehensive account at almost one hundred pages. Leaving his wife and children in America, Alexander spent several years working the Scottish and British legal systems to establish a legitimate claim to the Earldom. This quest was more than the right to a title, but also could bestow ownership of Long Island which was likely his principal motivation.

After a long legal and political battle, Scottish authorities approved his claim to nobility, but the British House of Lords did not pass a peerage. A result, Alexander returned to American using the Scotish conferred Lord Stirling title and did not receive any British rights to land or crown compensation. However, emulating the life of an English Lord, Stirling built a manor house and gained wealthy friends such as George Washington.

At the outbreak of the American Rebellion, Lord Stirling, despite his noble heritage quickly sided with the Patriots. Given his social prominence, he joined the Continental Army as a high ranking officer. On the battlefields of Brooklyn and Brandywine, Lord Stirling bravely commanded newly formed units in the face of overwhelming British forces. At times, Valentine over states Lord Stirling’s battlefield exploits. However, always referring to him as Lord Stirling or my Lord, contemporaries held Lord Stirling and his military ardor in high regard. His leadership skills also extended into sensitive political issues. For example, Washington assigned Lord Stirling to conduct high profile court martials such that of Maj. Gen. Charles Lee.

Nearing the end of the war, Lord Stirling fell ill and passed away. Biographers and some contemporaries noted his excessive love of food and drink as contributing causes. No matter the reason, as an able commander, Lord Stirling garnered the respect and admiration of his fellow officers and the enemy.

While Valentine did not produce the best biography and at times offers hackneyed observations, I recommend the book as a unique window into a fascinating life.  Different from other biographers, Valentine recounts in detail William Alexander’s quest to become Lord Stirling which alone is most noteworthy among the Patriot leaders. It’s ironic that a people seeking freedom from a royalty dominated society would turn to a leader seeking entitlement in their quest for freedom. However, with Lord Stirling’s positive contributions and unwavering commitment to the Patriot cause, contemporaries saw no contradictions.