James Alexander, 1691-1756

Ellen Maria Russell, Fordham University


James Alexander (1691-1756) was a native of Scotland who, coming to America in 1715, became a prominent lawyer, landowner, and politician in New York and New Jersey. He was also active in trade and journalism, and did much to promote civic improvements and cultural institutions. Although frequently mentioned in the public records of his day, and in the few major secondary works on New York and New Jersey in his time, Alexander has never been the subject of a full-length, scholarly biography. The dissertation seeks to lay the foundation for such a study, by providing an organized narrative of his life and career, based primarily on the extremely rich collection of Alexander's manuscripts in the New-York Historical Society. Alexander's life is well worth studying. As an individual, he made a number of contributions with far-reaching effects, of which three are particularly important. First, he played a great role in the development of certain sophisticated political practices in New York. Secondly, in the course of a serious conflict between his party and a royal governor, William Cosby, Alexander made a major contribution to the theory and practice of freedom of expression in what would become the United States. Thirdly, as Surveyor General of New Jersey, and a member of and chief legal adviser to the proprietors of that colony, Alexander was in the forefront of two struggles: to defend the proprietary system against dissatisfied settlers, and to defend the colony as a whole from a major landgrabbing attempt by New York. He was also part of a network of scientific-minded gentlemen throughout the colonies who corresponded with each other. (At the invitation of his friend, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander became a founding member of the American Philosophical Society.) He was no American Revolutionary before his time. But Alexander's problems and irritations with the British bureaucracy and the officeholders they sent to the colonies suggests that, for at least some colonists, the emotional ties to the mother country may have begun to fray a little earlier than previously thought. Alexander's life therefore affords a glimpse not just of a maker of America, but of an American in the making. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Subject Area

American history|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Russell, Ellen Maria, "James Alexander, 1691-1756" (1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9530040.