Attorney General of New York, 1721-1723
James Alexander, a distant relative of the Earl of Sterling, was born in Scotland on May 27, 1691. As a young man, Alexander was involved in the struggle to restore James Stuart, “the old Pretender”, to the British throne and he fought in the Jacobite rising of 1715. In the aftermath of that failed rebellion, James Alexander fled Scotland for New York where his ability in mathematics and engineering quickly led to his appointment as Surveyor-General of New York and New Jersey. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Province of New York and was appointed to the New York Governor’s Council in 1721. Alexander served as New York Attorney General between 1721 and 1723.
Although already admitted to the bar of the Province of New York in 1720, Alexander sought membership of Gray’s Inn, London (Folio 1,424) on February 1, 1725. He brought back with him a large library with 130 legal titles that enabled him to cite legal precedent in court, a great advantage to a colonial lawyer. Alexander was an advocate of legal reform and he regularly opposed the policies of Governor William Cosby. The Governor finally succeeded in having him removed from the New York Council in 1732.
In 1733, Alexander and his colleague William Smith defended Rip Van Dam against claims by the Governor in the case of Cosby v. Van Dam. Lewis Morris, who for 20 years had been Chief Judge of New York, wrote and distributed a dissenting opinion in the case and the successful plaintiff, Governor Cosby, summarily removed the Chief Judge from office. This action intensified the already growing opposition to Cosby’s administration and Morris, Alexander and Smith set up the Province’s first independent newspaper, the New-York Weekly Journal, to foster public debate. They hired John Peter Zenger, one of the few skilled printers in the Province, to print it. The paper criticized and satirized Governor Cosby and his administration and although Zenger did not author any of the material published, Cosby had him arrested and charged with seditious libel. At the habeas corpus hearing, Zenger’s attorneys James Alexander and William Smith challenged the validity of the judicial commissions and when they would not withdraw their accusations, the court issued an order striking their names from the list of attorneys admitted to practice before the New York Supreme Court of Judicature. Governor William Cosby died in 1736 and shortly afterward Alexander was readmitted to practice law and reappointed to the Governor’s Council.
James Alexander was a slave-owner — a 1729 document indicates that there were at least five slaves in his household and there are reports that Governor Cosby approached one of Alexander’s slaves, promising him his freedom if he would gather evidence of the authorship of articles appearing in the New-York Weekly Journal. When the trials relating to the New York Slave Insurrection, 1741 took place, no New York attorney would act for the defense and James Alexander, with all the other lawyers of the day, was counted among the prosecutors.
Although his burgeoning practice absorbed most of his time, Alexander was also involved in civic initiatives including the founding of the American Philosophical Society and the establishment of King’s College (later Columbia University). James Alexander, who ranked as the wealthiest lawyer and the second wealthiest taxpayer in the City of New York, died in 1756.
John D. Gordan III. James Alexander, Prophet of a Free Press, in Noble Purposes: Nine Champions of the Rule of Law, Norman Gross (ed.) (2007)
Peter P. Hill. French Perceptions of the Early American Republic 1783-1793 (1988)
Paul David Nelson. William Alexander, Lord Stirling: George Washington’s Noble General.