Alexander, James (1691-1756)

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James Alexander (1691-1756)

New york lawyer


Arrival in America. James Alexander was born in the village of Muthill in Pertshire, Scotland, the son of David Alexander, sixth Earl of Stirling. (After his fathers death he never claimed the title of seventh earl.) He studied science and mathematics at Edinburgh. Alexanders family was politically active and sided with the Jacobites in the rebellion against the British Crown in 1715. Alexander served as an engineering officer with the Scottish forces, and following their defeat he fled to America.

Government Positions. Alexanders connections and talents landed him an appointment as surveyor-general of New Jersey. He began studying law in 1718 and the next year surveyed the boundary between New Jersey and New York. During the 1720s he served on the governors council and as the attorney general for both colonies. (Until 1738 New Jersey and New York shared the same governor and administrative offices.)

Political Opposition. Alexanders dislike for and opposition to Gov. William Cosby of New York helps explain his support of John Peter Zenger. In 1733 Alexander launched the New-York Weekly Journal, a newspaper printed by Zenger. Alexander wrote editorials on freedom of the press as well as pieces criticizing Cosbys administration. When Zenger was arrested for seditious libel in 1734, Alexander and William Smith volunteered to represent the printer in trial. But Alexander was to be denied his chance to appear in court. The government clearly was against Zenger, and his bail was set at £800, at least ten times his personal assets. When Alexander and Smith challenged the commissions of the judges hearing the case, the court responded by disbarring both men. Cosby also removed Alexander from his position on the governors council. Andrew Hamilton of Philadelphia had to be called to represent Zenger in what became one of the most famous American trials of the century.

Political Rehabilitation. The death of Governor Cosby in March 1736 reversed New Yorks political climate, and Alexander was readmitted to the bar. He also returned to his position on the governors council, although he still met with opposition from royal authorities. In 1744 he helped found the American Philosophical Society, and in 1751 he raised funds to establish Kings College (now Columbia University). Alexander also sponsored several unsuccessful efforts to secure religious freedom for disfranchised Catholics, Jews, and Quakers. As one of the best-known lawyers of his day he had a large and lucrative practice, and his various appointed positions also brought him wealth. His obituary in 1756 called him eminent in his profession of the law; and equally distinguished in public affairs.


James Alexander, A Brief Narrative of the Trial of John Peter Zenger, edited by Stanley Nider Katz (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1972);

Leonard W. Levy, ed., Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

John Peter Zenger Case

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John Peter Zenger Case


Seditious Libel . Freedom of the press as a legal protection did not exist in the colonial period. Under English and colonial law, to criticize the government in a way that lessened the publics esteem of it was to commit the crime of seditious libel. Under this practice the truth of the criticisms was unimportant; all that mattered was that they undermined public confidence in the government. Judges generally made the decision whether or not printed material was seditious.

Critics . In the 1600s several noted figures argued for greater freedom in printing, among them the poet John Milton and the philosopher John Locke. The most significant criticisms of the doctrine of seditious libel for colonial America were found in Catos Letters (1733), written by the Englishmen John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. These letters included defenses of the freedom of speech and criticisms of existing libel laws.


The following is part of defense lawyer Andrew Hamiltons comments to the jury in the John Peter Zenger trial in 1735:

And may I not be allowed, after all this, to say, That by a little Countenance, almost any Thing which a Man writes, may, with the Help of that useful Term of Art, called an Innuendo, be construed to be a Libel according to Mr. Attorneys Definition of it.... If a Libel is to be understood in the large and unlimited Sense urged by Mr. Attorney, there is scarce a Writing I know that may not be called a Libel, or scarce any Person safe from being called to an Account as a Libeller.

Source: Leonard W. Levy, ed., Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

Alexander . An avid reader of Catos Letters was James Alexander, a New York lawyer who wrote articles on free speech for John Peter Zengers New-York Weekly Journal. Alexander also was a political foe of New Yorks royal governor, William Cosby. When Zenger ran articles criticizing Cosbys government, the governor had Zenger

jailed for seditious libel and ordered copies of the newspaper burned.

Defense . James Alexander and a colleague planned to defend Zenger, but when the attorney general managed to get them disbarred, they turned to Andrew Hamilton, a noted Philadelphia attorney and then speaker of the house of Pennsylvania. In the trial Hamilton admitted that Zenger had written the pieces in question but argued that their truthfulness should excuse the violation. The chief justice ruled that Hamilton could not attempt to prove their truthfulness since that was not in question. Hamilton then appealed to the jury, noting that the facts which were offered to prove were not committed in a corner; they are notoriously known to be true: and therefore in your justices lie our safety. The jurors did not like Governor Cosby any more than did Alexander and Zenger, and they were only too happy to find in Zengers favor.

Consequences . The verdict in the Zenger case did not change the law but rather was an exception to the law that prevailed throughout much of the eighteenth century. Alexander wrote and published a narrative account of the case, and thus the story was handed down to later generations who wrote freedom of the press into the Constitution of the United States itself. The significance of the Zenger case lies not in its immediate impact, which was small, but rather as an early example of a principle that would become law only much later.


Leonard W. Levy, ed., Freedom of the Press from Zenger to Jefferson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966).

Alexander, James

views updated May 23 2018


James Alexander, born in 1691 in Scotland, was an eminent lawyer who became famous for his support of freedom of the press.

In 1715, Alexander immigrated to America, and began a career of public service to New York and New Jersey. He performed the duties of surveyor general for the Province of New Jersey in 1715, and three years later served as recorder of Perth Amboy.

" …I think it absolutely necessary that some person be here to defend Zenger."
James Alexander

Alexander participated in the Council of New York from 1721 to 1732 but continued to be active in New Jersey. He was admitted to the New Jersey Provincial bar in 1723, and joined the Council of New Jersey in that same year, serving until 1735. From 1723 to 1727 Alexander performed the duties of New Jersey attorney general.

In 1735, journalist john peter zenger was on trial, accused of libelous attacks on the administration of New York Governor William Cosby. Alexander served as codefense lawyer at this trial, and alexander hamilton pleaded the case. Zenger was acquitted, and the success of this defense was a triumph for the principles of a free press.

Alexander died in Albany, New York, on April 12, 1756.

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