Book Review of “Scotland” The Story of a Nation” by Magnus Magnusson

Each chapter in this somewhat quirky history is preceded by a summary of the events to be discussed as they were described by Walter Scott (1771- 1832) in Tales of a Grandfather. As explained by the Walter Scott Digital Archive of Edinburgh University Library:

While putting the finishing touches to his Life of Napoleon in May 1827, Scott had the idea of writing a History of Scotland addressed to his six-year-old grandchild . . . The project was partly inspired by the success of John Wilson Croker’s Stories Selected from the History as England (1822), but Scott felt that Croker underestimated the intelligence of his juvenile audience. Children, Scott believed, disliked books ‘written down’ to their level, preferring a challenge to their understanding and curiosity. He hoped to cater, moreover, for both a juvenile and a popular audience and thus to find a way ‘between what a child can comprehend and what shall not yet be absolutely uninteresting to the grown reader’ (Journal, July 8, 1827).”

It’s also a history that includes extensive detail only up until the Battle of Culloden. With the end of the Jacobite Movement, there is only one more chapter covering the period after 1746, which is mostly about the personal history of Sir Walter Scott. A short Epilogue takes us to the 1990s. But Magnusson seemed to be “finished” even before the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie; clearly the author lost heart for the story of Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707 and “the end of an auld sang.”


Thus, most of the book is focused on warriors and royalty of old. Those looking for information on the cultural advances that followed Culloden and about the great Scottish Enlightenment should look elsewhere; there is practically nothing on it in this book. On the other hand, if you want to know how punitive the English were toward the Scots throughout the history of the two countries, this is a great place to begin. You also get a large dose of how rough the austere Protestant fundamentalists were on their own people in Scotland. In fact, this is not a book at all about religious toleration or Christian mercy; religious realism, one might say, is more like it.

The author served at one time as Chair of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, and so peppers his history with tidbits about where to find markers today commemorating some of the historical events he describes. Additionally, there is a chronology at the end of the book as well as a list of Kings and Queens of Scotland.


Evaluation: This is an entertaining book, often reading more like a television history broadcast than a standard history, with elements of a travelogue. The addition of passages from Tales of a Grandfather is very illuminating. It is rather heavy on battles though, and I wish the author had added more information on what happened after Culloden. On the other hand, it already weighs in at 700 pages.

A number of maps and pictures are included.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by HarperCollins, 2000

August 21, 1858 – The First Lincoln-Douglas Debate

On this day in history, the first debate between senatorial contenders Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois. They each gave incredibly long speeches, allowing rebuttals as well as questions from the audience, and yet between 10,000 and 12,000 people stood in attendance throughout the whole afternoon. A word search reveals 57 occurrences of laughter; no doubt this was essential to the process!


In this debate, Lincoln strongly expressed his loathing of slavery:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska – and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other part of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites – causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

Lincolns arguments are subtle and astute, as when he asserts that the ostensibly neutrality of the concept of “popular sovereignty” is deceptive:

What is Popular Sovereignty? Is it the right of the people to have Slavery or not have it, as they see fit, in the territories? I will state – and I have an able man to watch me – my understanding is that Popular Sovereignty, as now applied to the question of slavery, does allow the people of a Territory to have slavery if they want to, but does not allow them not to have it if they do not want it.”

You can read the full text of the remarks of both Lincoln and Douglas here.

August 19, 1985 – Important West German Spy Defects to East Germany

On this day in history, Hans-Joachim Tiedge defected to the security services run by the infamous East German spymaster Markus Wolf. East German authorities also announced that they had arrested 168 West German agents in East Germany pursuant to information provided by Tiedge. The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, described the former spy chief’s defection as “catastrophic”.

Hans-Joachim Tiedge

Hans-Joachim Tiedge

Tiedge had been a head of West Germany’s counter-intelligence in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne. Questions were later raised as to how Tiedge managed to hold on to his position despite serious debts, family issues and a drinking problem. Herbert Hellenbroich, his immediate boss, claimed that he “was loth to fire Tiedge or move him on to less sensitive work, for fear of ‘tipping him over the edge’.” Hellenbroich resigned within weeks of the defection.

According to the UK Telegraph, Tiedge was supposed to have been leading the hunt for East German and Soviet spies in West Germany. It seemed that instead, he was protecting them. The Telegraph reports: “In the weeks before he defected, for example, three women thought to have been East German spies fled to the safety of the GDR.”

After his defection Tiedge lived in East Berlin under the name Helmut Fischer, taking a degree at the Humboldt University (where his dissertation was on West German intelligence). On August 23 1990, with German reunification underway, he moved to Moscow.

It was then the plot thickened. With the oncoming reunificaiton, Tiedge’s deputy, Klaus Kuron, confessed that he too had been a double agent, having received almost half a million dollars from Markus Wolf.

Markus Wolf, regarded by many intelligence experts as one of the greatest spymasters of all time

Markus Wolf, regarded by many intelligence experts as one of the greatest spymasters of all time

Tiedge’s defection allowed Kuron to remain undetected by leading West Germany to think that its intelligence leak had been plugged. In fact, the Telegraph reports, Kuron was the real source of information. It is still not clear who was working for whom.

Tiedge died in Moscow in 2011 at age 73.

August 17, 1960 Eleanor Roosevelt Endorses John Kennedy for President

On this day in history, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a favorable opinion of Kennedy in an installment of her newspaper column “My Day”:

I think Senator Kennedy is anxious to learn. I think he is hospitable to new ideas. He is hard-headed. He calculates the political effect of every move. I left my conversation with him with the feeling that here is a man who wants to leave a record of not only having helped his countrymen, but having helped humanity as a whole.”

She concludes:

I had withheld my decision on joining Herbert Lehman as honorary chairman of the Democratic Citizens Committee of New York until I had a chance to see and talk with our Democratic candidate. After Senator Kennedy’s visit, I telephoned my acceptance to serve with Mr. Lehman, and I told Senator Kennedy that I would discuss what help in the campaign I could give, for I have come to the conclusion that the people will have in John F. Kennedy, if he is elected, a good President.”

The endorsement was important to Kennedy. Roosevelt was a powerful figure within the Democratic Party, and had initially supported Adlai Stevenson for the party’s 1960 presidential nomination, as she had supported him in 1952 and 1956. Kennedy set out to woo her to his side, and Roosevelt proved as susceptible to his legendary charm as everyone else.

Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kennedy, March 1961

Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kennedy, March 1961

August 15, 1786 – George Washington Expresses His Frustration Over the Weak American Government

On this day in history, George Washington wrote a letter to John Jay, expressing his discontent about the pre-United States lack of federal power. He opined:

I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will pervade the whole Union, in as energetic a manner as the authority of the different State governments extends over the several States.”

John Jay

John Jay

Washington claimed it was absurd to be fearful of vesting Congress with more authority for national purpose and laments:

…what a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious! Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.”

(Little did he realize that vesting Congress with more power would not necessarily result in increased efficacy.)

Nevertheless, Washington was excoriated by other Founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who thought Washington, Hamilton, and Adams expressed monarchist proclivities.

George Washington

George Washington

August 13, 1788 – Hamilton Reiterates Washington’s Importance to the American Cause

On this day in history, Alexander Hamilton wrote to George Washington on a variety of matters, but appended a reminder about how essential Washington was to the success of the American experiment, observing:

You will permit me to say that it is indispensable you should lend yourself to its first operations—It is to little purpose to have introduced a system, if the weightiest influence is not given to its firm establishment, in the outset.” (emphasis in original)

You can read the entire letter here.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Review of “Grant’s Final Victory” by Charles Bracelen Flood

This book is not about Grant’s military campaigns; rather, it concerns his struggle to finish his still-celebrated memoirs before cancer killed him, in order that his wife and children would have an income after he died. It is also a love story: about how so many people adored Grant for his goodness and unwavering trust in them. This made him, tragically, an easy mark for the many who would exploit that trust, but provided enduring inspiration for those who deserved it. At the end of the book, when the author describes how a bugler playing taps at Grant’s tomb caused General William Tecumseh Sherman to begin sobbing, I was sobbing right there with him.

Grant was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and throat in 1884. (Remarkably, considering the long hold tobacco has had on this country, Grant’s doctors quite quickly and confidently attributed the affliction to Grant’s life-long cigar habit.) At the time, Grant and his family were newly impecunious, following a huge financial swindle by his partners in an investment firm. All of Grant’s family had invested there also. It turned out Grant didn’t even own his house; one of his partner’s had offered to take care of the purchase, but had taken the money instead. Grant was furious; he had trusted these men, just as he had trusted so many in his presidential administration who also had succumbed to venality and graft. Grant, throughout his life, conducted his affairs as he had led the Union Army; he found men he thought worthy, delegated tasks to them, and then counted on them to carry out his directives. But too many men lacked Grant’s moral strength. In the end, Grant had no choice but to take care of his affairs on his own.

For the last year of his life, Grant struggled to put together a two-volume memoir that would prevent his family from financial ruin. He was in immense pain and eventually had a tumor the size of “two fists put together” on the side of his throat. He wrote that he was plagued by hemorrhaging, strangulation, and exhaustion. Nevertheless, he carried on valiantly. Three days after he was done with the book, and months after the doctors thought he couldn’t live another day, he finally let go and passed away.

Grant working on his memoirs

Grant was originally to publish his memoirs with Robert Underwood Johnson, but Mark Twain offered him better terms, and he went with Twain. Nevertheless, he remained on good terms with Johnson and prepared four articles for him that final year in addition to working on his book. Johnson came to see Grant shortly before his death, and later wrote:

I could hardly keep back the tears as I made my farewell to the great soldier who saved the Union for all its people and to the man of warm and courageous heart who had fought his last long battle for those he so tenderly loved.”

Grant had been heralded for personal bravery in the Mexican War, leading attacks at San Cosme and moving soldiers across the cholera-infested Isthmus of Panama. And of course his valor in the Civil War is more widely known. But those who watched him in his final year contend that his bravest act of all was his perseverance and shear determination to stay alive until his memoir was in place for his family’s future. As one clergyman later said, “the sight of Grant at work while in pain was the finest sermon at which he had ever been present.”

Discussion: Grant was a remarkable figure whose generosity of spirit was rivaled only by Lincoln’s. Following “his simple, gracious, generous treatment of Robert E. Lee and his men at Appomattox Court House,” for the rest of his life Lee never allowed a negative word to be said about Grant in his presence. One of Lee’s great generals, James Longstreet (who also happened to be Julia Grant’s cousin and had been Grant’s best man at his wedding to Julia), remarked at Grant’s death:

He was the truest as well as the bravest man who ever lived. … Grant was a modest man, a simple man, a man believing in the honesty of his fellows, true to his friends, faithful to traditions, and of great personal honor.”

Famous picture by Matthew Brady of Grant in the Civil War

There is a wonderful story in the book about how both former Federals and Confederates in Congress worked to get Grant’s military pension reinstated (he had to forfeit it when he became U.S. President), even physically turning back the clock in the U.S. Capitol before Congress adjourned so that the bill could be passed before Congress got dismissed.

Both Union and Confederate former generals served as pallbearers.

Evaluation: Although this is a work of nonfiction, under the able hands of the entertaining historian Charles Bracelen Flood, this book is a page-turner that has you not only reaching for the Kleenex box, but aching to get to Grant’s memoir itself, which has been lauded as one of the finest presidential memoirs ever written. (Mark Twain wrote, “General Grant’s book is a great, unique, and unapproachable literary masterpiece.”) I didn’t see this book as a hagiography; it’s really meant to be an examination of Grant’s last year, taken at face value. From historical biographies, we know that Grant was human, and a man of his times. In other words, he had his flaws as do most people. But like Lincoln, he was also a man who could transcend his times and rise above them. I don’t think you can come away from this book with many negative impressions about the last year, at any rate, of one of our greatest public figures.

Rating: 4.25/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2011


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