James Alexander (lawyer)

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James Alexander
James Alexander New York lawyer.jpg
4th New Jersey Attorney General
In office
Governor William Burnet
Preceded by Jeremiah Basse
Succeeded by Lawrence Smyth
Member of the New Jersey Provincial Council for the Eastern Division
In office
1722 – April 2, 1756
Preceded by Thomas Gordon
Succeeded by William Alexander, Lord Stirling
Personal details
Born c1691
Muthill, Perthshire, Scotland
Died April 2, 1756
New York City or Albany
Spouse(s) Mary Spratt Provoost Alexander
Children William Alexander, Lord Stirling
Occupation Lawyer

James Alexander (May 27, 1691 – 1756) was a lawyer and statesman 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"). He joined the navy, serving on the HMS Arundell in 1712–13, where he learned navigation, mathematics, and astronomy.[1] But in 1714–15 he joined the uprising in support of the James Francis Edward Stuart, and fled to America in 1715 when it failed. In November 1715 he was appointed surveyor general of New Jersey. He personally made surveys, using instruments he had brought from Scotland and resolved disputed titles.

He settled in New York, and in January 1721 married wealthy widow, Mary Provoost. Her DePuyster uncles drafted the prenuptial agreements. Shortly after he 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 in 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.[3] Alexander practiced law, engaged in mercantile pursuits, and built a considerable fortune. He lived in a brick mansion at Broad and Beaver Streets.


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 in one of the first instances of jury nullification. Alexander and William Smith served as Zenger's attorneys until both were disbarred after they challenged the commissions of the judges hearing the case.[4]

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[4] 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 1743 he joined Franklin and others in founding to American Philosophical Society.[1] In 1751 he raised funds to establish King's College.

Although he remained active in politics, his legal practice eventually absorbed most of his time and energy, and his political involvement waned. However, in 1756 he traveled to Albany to confer with other Whig leaders and to oppose a measure that would have proven onerous to the people of New York. He suffered a flare up of his gout which led to a deterioration of his health. He came home ill as a result and died in Albany or New York City on April 2, 1756.

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