James Alexander (lawyer)

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James Alexander
4th New Jersey Attorney General
In office
GovernorWilliam Burnet
Preceded byJeremiah Basse
Succeeded byLawrence Smyth
Member of the New Jersey Provincial Council for the Eastern Division
In office
1722 – April 2, 1756
Preceded byThomas Gordon
Succeeded byWilliam Alexander, Lord Stirling
Personal details
Born(1691-05-27)May 27, 1691
Muthill, Perthshire, Scotland
DiedApril 2, 1756(1756-04-02) (aged 64)
New York, British America
(m. 1721)
RelationsJohn Stevens III (grandson)
John Rutherfurd (grandson)
Children7, including William
ParentDavid Alexander
EducationHigh School of Stirling

James Alexander (May 27, 1691 – April 2, 1756) was a Scottish-born lawyer and politician in colonial New York. He served in the Colonial Assembly and as attorney general of the colony in 1721–23. His son William was later a major general in the Continental Army during the American revolution. Alexandria Township, New Jersey was named after James Alexander.

Early life[edit]

Alexander was born in Muthill in Perthshire, Scotland on May 27, 1691, to David Alexander ("of Muthil").[1] He was a distant relation of the Earl of Stirling and may have received his formal education at the High School of Stirling.[1]

He joined the navy, serving on HMS Arundell in 1712–13, where he learned navigation, mathematics, and astronomy.[1] But in 1714–15, he joined the uprising in support of James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender, and fled to America in 1715 when it failed.[2]

Life in America[edit]

In November 1715, he was appointed surveyor general of New Jersey.[3] He personally made surveys, using instruments he had brought from Scotland and resolved disputed titles. Alexander settled in New York, married, and in January 1721 was appointed deputy-secretary of New York.[2]

Legal career[edit]

Alexander read law in New York and was admitted to the provincial bar of New Jersey in 1720. He served as attorney general for the colony of New York from 1721 to 1723. Alexander sought membership of Gray's Inn on February 1, 1725, and returned from London with a large legal library that enabled him to cite legal precedent in court. This was a distinct advantage for a colonial lawyer.[2] James Duane, ward and later son-in-law of Robert Livingston, third Lord of Livingston Manor, read law as a clerk in Alexander's office and became proficient in the area of rights and jurisdiction in land disputes.[4] Alexander practiced law, engaged in mercantile pursuits, and built a considerable fortune.[5]

He built a large brick mansion at Broad and Beaver Streets.[1] Alexander owned six slaves over the course of his life, all of whom worked as domestic servants in his Broad Street mansion. One of his slaves escaped from bondage by forging a transit pass.[6]

Family landholdings[edit]

William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling also known as Sir William Alexander was James Alexander's ancestor. In 1621 King James I granted Stirling a royal charter appointing him mayor of a vast territory which was enlarged into a lordship and barony of Nova Scotia (meaning New Scotland); the area is now known as Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and parts of the northern United States. On 22 April 1636, King Charles told the Plymouth Colony, which had laid claim to Long Island but had not settled it, to give the island to Alexander. In October 1641 the first Earl of Stirling deeded the island of Nantucket to Thomas Mayhew of Watertown, Massachusetts.

James Alexander never laid claim to the title Earl of Stirling. He fled Britain as a young man, after his role in a failed Jacobite plot to put James “the Old Pretender” on the British throne. Through his own industry he acquired what became Island Beach State Park in New Jersey and later lost it.[citation needed] His son William Alexander, Lord Stirling, unofficially known as Lord Stirling during his life and a Patriot general during the Revolutionary War, legally sought ownership of the property in 1761 and won the rights to what became Stirling Island. James Alexander also owned large tracts of land in today's Basking Ridge area of New Jersey, which he later willed to his son.


In 1721, Alexander was appointed to the Governor's Council in New York. In 1723, he was added to the Council in New Jersey and that same year made Attorney General of New Jersey. He frequently opposed the policies of New York Governor William Cosby and in 1732, Cosby succeeded in having Alexander removed from the council.[2] In 1733, Alexander started an anti-Cosby newspaper, the New York Weekly Journal, with Peter Zenger as publisher. Alexander was the principal author of pieces critical of Governor Cosby. The following year, Zenger was arrested on sedition charges, but eventually a jury acquitted Zenger of libel in one of the first instances of jury nullification.[7] Alexander and William Smith served as Zenger's attorneys until both were disbarred after they challenged the commissions of the judges hearing the case.[8]

In 1730, Alexander was chairman of the committee to revise the New York City charter; he was given the freedom of the city the following year.[1] When Lord De La Warr was appointed governor in 1737, Alexander was reinstated to the bar[8] and reappointed to the governor's Council of New York. His removal from the Council of New Jersey was disregarded. Alexander became a vocal proponent of the emerging Whig political views, and engaged in various civic efforts as well. In 1751, he raised funds to establish King's College.[9]

Later life[edit]

Although he remained active in politics, his legal practice, acquired holdings, and other interests eventually absorbed most of his time and energy, and his political involvement waned. He was an founding member of the American Philosophical Society,[1] established in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and others, including Francis Hopkinson, John Bartram, Philip Syng, Jr.[10][11]

Personal life[edit]

Coat of Arms of James Alexander

On June 5, 1721, Alexander married the wealthy widow Mary Spratt Provoost (1693–1760).[12] She was the daughter of John Spratt (c. 1650–1697) and Maria de Peyster (1659–1700).[13] Her DePuyster uncles drafted the prenuptial agreements.[2] Mary was the widow of Samuel Provoost (d. 1719), the younger brother of David Proovost, the 24th mayor of New York City, with whom she had three children. Together, James and Mary had seven children:[14]

In 1756, while on a trip to Albany to confer with other Whig leaders, he suffered a flare up of his gout which led to a deterioration of his health. He returned home ill as a result and died in Albany or New York City on April 2, 1756.


Through his daughter Mary, he was the grandmother of 12 grandchildren, including Philip Peter Livingston (1740–1810).[15]

Through his son William, he was the grandfather of three, William Alexander, Mary Alexander, who married a wealthy merchant named Robert Watts of New York, and Catherine Alexander, who married Congressman William Duer (1747–1799).[17]

Through his daughter Elizabeth, he was the grandfather of John Stevens III (1749–1838), a lawyer, engineer, and inventor who constructed the first U.S. steam locomotive and first steam-powered ferry, and Mary Stevens (d. 1814), who married Chancellor Robert Livingston, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase.[18]

Through his daughter Catherine, he was the grandfather of John Rutherfurd (1760–1840), a Federalist member of the United States Senate from New Jersey who served from 1791 to 1798,[19] who married Helena Magdalena Morris (1762–1840), daughter of Congressman Lewis Morris of Morrisania.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Bell, Whitfield Jenks (1997). Patriot-improvers: 1743-1768. American Philosophical Society. pp. 87–93. ISBN 9780871692269. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e "James Alexander". www.nycourts.gov. Historical Society of the New York Courts. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  3. ^ Annual Register of the National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. National Society of Colonial Dames in the State of New York. 1913. p. 260. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  4. ^ Lamb, Martha Joanna; Harrison, Mrs Burton (2005). History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress. Cosimo, Inc. p. 701. ISBN 9781596052840. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  5. ^ Purvis, Thomas L. (2000). "Alexander, James (1691-1756), political leader". American National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0100012. ISBN 978-0-19-860669-7. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  6. ^ New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-century Manhattan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. ISBN 978-1-4000-4029-2.
  7. ^ "From Benjamin Franklin to James Alexander, 15 August 1745". founders.archives.gov. Founders Online. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  8. ^ a b Linder, Douglas O., "Key Figures in the Trial of John Peter Zenger", Famous Trials, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law
  9. ^ "John Peter Zenger trial collection". archives.nypl.org. The New York Public Library. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  10. ^ Duer, William Alexander. The life of William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, Major-General in the Army of the United States during the Revolution New York: Wiley & Putnam for the New Jersey Historical Society, 1847. p.5
  11. ^ "Philip Syng, Jr.", Philadelphia Museum of Art. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  12. ^ "Fabric Samples from an Early New York Businesswoman". www.nyhistory.org. New-York Historical Society. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  13. ^ Greene, Richard Henry; Morrison, George Austin; Forest, Louis Effingham De (1898). The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. p. 254. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d e "Guide to the Alexander Papers 1668-1818 (bulk 1717-1786) MS 8". dlib.nyu.edu. New-York Historical Society. 4 October 2013. Archived from the original on 4 October 2013. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  15. ^ a b c Livingston, Edwin Brockholst (1910). The Livingstons of Livingston Manor: Being the History of that Branch of the Scottish House of Callendar which Settled in the English Province of New York During the Reign of Charles the Second; and Also Including an Account of Robert Livingston of Albany, "The Nephew," a Settler in the Same Province and His Principal Descendants. Knickerbocker Press. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  16. ^ "Reid, John (1721-1807)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  17. ^ "Maj.Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling and Sarah Livingston". 2004. Retrieved May 14, 2012.
  18. ^ Iles, George (1912). Leading American inventors. New York: H. Holt and company. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  19. ^ a b "RUTHERFURD, John - Biographical Information". bioguide.congress.gov. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Retrieved 20 January 2017.


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