Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101

A McAlister Governor (or, the Right Man for the Job)

On this day in 1959, Harry Hill McAlister died at the age of 84. McAlister, who was born in Nashville in 1875, served as Tennessee’s governor from 1933 to 1937. He began his political career as the city attorney for Nashville, and in the 1920s he served as state treasurer before being elected for two terms in the state senate. During this decade, he warned repeatedly that the state was facing a financial crisis – and this was before the stock market crashed in 1929. 

When Governor McAlister took office, the country was in the grips of the Great Depression and Tennessee had an operating deficit of $6 million. Many banks and businesses had failed. McAlister sharply cut back expenditures, reducing state spending by $7 million, and worked to restore trust in the banks. In his first term, he managed to balance the state budget.[1] He also worked closely with the federal government to implement many of Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes in Tennessee,  putting people back to work and developing the state’s infrastructure. In 1934, he was reelected by a significant majority.

During his second term, Governor McAlister fell out with Ed H. Crump, a Memphis political ‘boss’ who had been his primary supporter to that point. The former allies disagreed on the repeal of prohibition (McAlister was reluctant to follow the federal government’s example and overturn the law) and on a sales tax that the governor hoped to introduce as a means of reducing debt and helping underfunded public schools. Crump’s associates in the state legislature defeated the sales tax, and with Crump now in opposition, McAlister decided not to run for a third term.[2] He retired from political life after only four years as governor. But he had accomplished a lot in those four years. McAlister had managed to turn Tennessee’s disastrous finances around, and he left the state in better shape economically than it had been in when he took office – no small feat in the midst of the century’s worst economic crisis.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013


[1] Pierce, Dan, “Hill McAlister”, in Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, accessed 29 October 2013.
[2] National Governors Association, Tennessee Governor Harry Hill McAlister, accessed 29 October 2013.

Germany’s ‘Conservative in a Kilt’

On this day in 2010, David McAllister became the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony in Germany. McAllister was born in West Berlin, one of an increasingly visible group in modern Germany: The children of British soldiers who have settled in Germany and married local women. His father James, a Glaswegian, was stationed in West Berlin from 1969 with the Royal Corps of Signals. David McAllister, who still has relatives in Glasgow, holds dual citizenship and is bilingual.

McAllister took a traditional route to politics by training as a lawyer. He joined the Christian Democratic Union while still a teen and is so well regarded in that party that Chancellor Angela Merkel once asked him to serve as its general secretary. McAllister declined, preferring to remain for a while at the state level, and two years ago he became the youngest person ever to hold the premiership of a German state.

Like members of the Scottish diaspora everywhere, McAllister’s loyalties are with the land of his birth but Scotland is unmistakably part of his identity: He is known as ‘Mac’, supports Rangers Football Club and, after proposing to his future wife at Loch Ness, he was married wearing a kilt. It is, he explained, a family tradition.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012

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Note: ‘Conservative in a Kilt’ is the name given McAllister by the Guardian in an article that appeared 4 June 2010; it is available here.