By Frank R. Stockton
Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003
AMONG the principal men of colonial days and of Revolutionary times, there were many whose social positions were much the same as the station of the ordinary European aristocrat. From their ancestors the colonists had inherited the disposition to recognize differences in rank ; and men of wealth and high position in the colonial government were regarded to a certain extent as members of the nobility are regarded in England. Before the Declaration of Independence, it was not even assumed in this country that all men are born equal.
But, although there were native-born personages in the Colonies who might well be termed aristocrats, their titles were political or military ; and an American lord was, as he would be now, something entirely out of the common.
But in those days there was an American lord ; and a very good American he was, in spite of his being a lord. This was William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling. He was born in New York, of Scotch parents. When he was quite a young man, he went into military life, and served in the British colonial army in the French War. In the campaigns in which he served, he gained the military education which was afterwards of the greatest advantage, not only to him, but to the country.
There was no British heir to the earldom of Stirling, a Scotch peerage; and, as he believed that he was a direct descendant of the last Lord Stirling, the young man went to England, and laid claim to the estate and title. He was successful in proving his direct descent from the earls of Stirling; but the House of Lords, who gave the final decision in the case, would not allow his claim. Even if the law had permitted his claim, it is not likely that the British House of Lords would have been anxious to welcome into the peerage an American-born person.
But although he got nothing more, he really obtained his title, and he was known then, as he is known in history, as Lord Stirling. He was a man of wealth, and must have had a very good time in England, for he studied well the manners and customs of the nobility ; and as his own habits and tastes were those which he observed in the great houses of England, he here received a social education which had a great effect upon his future career.
He was also the means of educating some of the inhabitants of Great Britain, and the way in which he did it is shown by a little incident which occurred when he was visiting Scotland. He was invited to dine at the house of a gentleman, who informed his wife that an American was coming to take dinner with them. It is to be presumed that this announcement had about the same effect upon her as would now be produced if an American gentleman should inform his family that a chief from Madagascar was to dine with them.
The Scotch lady, no doubt, expected to see a copper-colored brave, in war paint and feathers, with tomahawk, and bows and arrows, and perhaps a few scalps hanging from his belt. Probably she had busied herself devising a dinner which would suit a savage who was a native of that far-away land of America, and hoped she might give him something which would compensate him for the loss of a cannibal repast; but when she beheld the handsome young gentleman who came into the house with her husband, she could not repress her astonishment, and exclaimed, "Bless my soul! The animal is white." Ignorance of foreign countries was at that time not uncommon in Great Britain.
Although born in New York, Lord Stirling established himself in New Jersey, and it was in connection with this State that he was afterwards generally known. His father had owned a large tract of land at Basking Ridge, a beautifully situated town not far from Morristown; and here Lord Stirling built himself a stately mansion with fine gardens, and a great park in which were herds of deer. It was built in the fashion of the lordly country seats of England, around a courtyard paved with flagstones, and contained grand halls and stately apartments beautifully ornamented and furnished. The barns and outbuildings were grand, like the mansion itself, with cupolas and gilded vanes, and altogether the establishment was imposing and beautiful.
This young man had brought with him from England servants, butlers, valets, hairdressers, and a great many fine horses, and carriages with arms emblazoned upon their panels. He lived in grand state, and his house was generally filled with guests; for the best people of the country were glad to visit this beautiful home, where the best of company and the freest hospitality were always to be found. The lord of the manor was an affable and courteous gentleman, and the writers of those days have given glowing accounts of the gracious Lady Stirling and their charming daughter, Lady Kitty.
But notwithstanding the fact that he felt as a lord and lived as a lord, this grand gentleman never forgo that he was not only a lord, but an American; and when the Colonies began to assert their claim to independence, Lord Stirling promptly showed his colors on the patriotic side. He commanded the first body of troops raised in New Jersey in the colonial days, and he very soon became one of the most prominent officers in the Revolutionary army.
After he was made general, he distinguished himself at the battle of Long Island, where he performed some daring feats. The odds were greatly against the Americans on that occasion, and, in order to secure the retreat of the main part of his command, Lord Stirling took four hundred men, and made a bold attack upon a house that was occupied by the British general, Cornwallis. During the desperate fight which followed, in which his little force was far outnumbered by the enemy, his command made a successful retreat, but he himself was captured, and afterwards imprisoned on a war ship.