Renaissance man

James Alexander.

EAST New Jersey’s seat of government was, in the earliest records, referred to as the Town of Perth, New Perth, Perth Town or Perth tout court before it acquired the surname Ambo or Amboy, from an indigenous word for the locality.1 The first element of the combination linked the settlement to Scotland, a country then still politically distinct from the rest of Britain and having no small part in the founding of the colony.

The Earl of Perth’s statue at Perth Amboy City Hall.

The name Perth honored James 4th Earl of Perth, one of the original investors in the East Jersey project. Attended by tenants and indentured servants and equipped with capital, other highborn Scots introduced their lineage to the province in the persons of Lord Neil Campbell, brother of the 9th Earl of Argyll, and Thomas Gordon, who traced his descent, as his gravestone in St. Peter’s churchyard relates, “from an ancient family of Pitlochie.”2

Enticed by the Laird of Pitlochie, George Scot, who issued at Edinburgh in 1685 a weighty prospectus for the colony entitled The model of the government of the province of East-New-Jersey, nearly two hundred people refusing allegiance to the Catholic monarch chose exile over possible imprisonment or death, and set sail with Scot that year for Perth Amboy aboard the Henry and Francis, a voyage on which upwards of seventy passengers (including the Laird and his Lady) died from fever or famine.

William Whitehead, in chronicling early Perth Amboy, pieced together the stories of these immigrants and others who gave the town its strong Scottish imprint: missionary and surveyor George Keith, a native of Aberdeen; David Mudie from Montrose, builder of Amboy’s first mill and perhaps its first stone house; Doctor John Johnstone of Edinburgh, who survived the Henry and Francis to become a leader much beloved for “his charity and estimable character”; and many unnamed denizens of the town “who had the improvement of their ‘New Perth’ much at heart.”3

But the son of Scotland who most occupied and even awed Whitehead came to Perth Amboy’s shores some years after these men. Twenty-four year-old James Alexander had his own claim to noble title, but decided for political reasons that preferment, if not safety, was to be had more easily overseas. The details of the young man’s education in mathematics, engineering and law aren’t clearly known, nor could Whitehead pinpoint those in America “to whose influence he was indebted for his advancement.” It was evident early on, however, that he brought with him considerable talent: in the words of one contemporary, “He was bred to the law, and tho’ no speaker, at the head of his profession for sagacity and penetration; and in application to business, no man could surpass him.”4

Seal of the Eastern Board of Proprietors.

Not long after he arrived in the colonies Alexander was admitted to the bar, penetrated the inner circle of Governor Robert Hunter, a fellow Scot, and was appointed Surveyor General of both the eastern and western divisions of New Jersey. In the latter role he undertook to solve the knotty question of the province’s northernmost point, which would settle both the disputed northern boundary with New York and a contested dividing line between the proprieties of East and West Jersey. The northern border went unfixed in Alexander’s lifetime, though not for want of effort on his part. He accumulated substantial wealth in land, married to advantage a capable New York businesswoman, defended the printer Zenger in a landmark case for the rights of an independent press, and stood at the cutting edge of learning in British America, corresponding with Franklin on electrical experiments, Halley on astronomy, and other men of science both sides of the Atlantic. Whitehead lamented the absence of a biography of Alexander, but surely knew what a tall order that would be.

While he maintained a residence in New York and served that colony’s government as well, Alexander took a hand in every significant New Jersey matter. Besides his pivotal role on the Eastern Board of Proprietors, attending 255 meetings over 30 years,5 Alexander was allied, through his daughters’ marriages, with other families prominent in politics, land tenure and commerce, notably the Parkers and Stevenses of Perth Amboy. These activities and affiliations ensured that Alexander’s voluminous correspondence, plus the bounty of reports, memoranda, accounts, warrants and surveys written in his hand or over his signature, would constitute a bottomless treasure for the historian of early New Jersey.

Printed title page of the Elizabethtown Bill in Chancery (1747).

One of the achievements that deeply impressed Whitehead–he pronounced the result “remarkable”–was Alexander’s compilation, after years of painstaking study of provincial land records, of the famous (notorious, to some) Bill in Chancery: a suit filed in New Jersey’s Chancery Court to enforce, once for all, the quasi-feudal payment of quit rents to the proprietors by their grantees. Alexander superintended not only the engrossing of the Bill onto hundreds of sheets of parchment, but its transformation into a printed folio volume that came off the press in 1747.

It’s not surprising, in view of his own past endeavors in cartography, that Whitehead took a special interest in three large maps to be inserted in the printed Bill. He found, outside Newark in the library of “the Misses Rutherfurd,” two unmarried sisters with family ties to the Alexanders, letters from James Turner, the Boston engraver to whom Alexander, on Benjamin Franklin’s advice, had entrusted the laborious job of engraving the maps. On 30 October 1747, Turner sent 40 copies of the third map, writing to Alexander that he was “really very much ashamed” for the slowness of the work, but pleading “many unavoidable Hindrances.” Furthermore, Turner said, the maps’ urgency had not originally been made clear to him: “I tho’t they related to a cause already Concluded Instead of one still depending.” Whitehead transcribed and published this poignant letter in full.6

The wheels of Jersey justice turned slowly, and five years from the printed Bill‘s appearance the defendants published a detailed Answer using the same printer and format. Few copies of it now survive. The Chancery suit remained unresolved a quarter-century later, when the mechanisms of British governance were swept away by the Revolution. But the Bill and its Answer, replete with detail about the history of the province, would repay “considerable study,” Whitehead insisted, “to relieve the truths they embody from the obscurity thrown around them by legal technicalities,” as well as the “peculiar presentation of facts” that lawyerly skill “rendered necessary or advisable.”7

With no formal training in the law, Whitehead was probably not the one to untangle the juridical intricacies of these publications. But confident in the promise of the Bill‘s title page that it would cast “a better Light into the History and Constitution of New Jersey,” he undertook a comparison of the two works, adding in a copy of the one cross-references in red ink to the relevant pages of the other. This copy of the Bill, with further notes by Whitehead and his transcript of the engraver Turner’s repentant letter, is preserved at Princeton University.

Did Whitehead satisfy himself that he had mastered the Suit in Chancery? It’s hard to determine. But he did succeed in drawing from his close study of James Alexander’s work, and that of his adversaries, a conclusion and a lesson. He concluded, despite what he called the anti-proprietary party’s “potent influence,” that right was on the side of the proprietors, a determination, from which he did not waver, made in light of “the laws and customs of the times.” To decide otherwise was to ignore history. Although it seemed to him axiomatic, he felt he must point out the error of contemporaries who judged seventeenth-century behaviors by the more liberal standards of the post-Revolutionary nineteenth. It would be no less unjust, if historians of the twenty-first century evaluating his own–for much of which slavery, for example, existed as a lawful institution–were to use as their measure “the state of things which we may safely conclude will then have resulted from progressive civilization.”8

It seems worthwhile to ponder whether Whitehead, with this insight, followed the example of a far-seeing James Alexander.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Whitehead says, in Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 6, that “the title of Amboy was, in a measure, dropped for some time, excepting when applied to the point.” His index calls Perth “the first name of Amboy.” Contributions 425.

[2] “Familia prisca de Pitlurg in Scotia ortus,” in the Latin of Gordon’s epitaph.

[3] Contributions 49, 71.

[4] “James Alexander” in William A. Whitehead, ed. Archives of the State of New Jersey. First series. Documents relating to the colonial history of the State of New Jersey (Newark 1882) 4:399-400n. Samuel Smith, The history of the colony of Nova-Cæsarea, or New-Jersey: containing, an account of its first settlement, progressive improvements, the original and present constitution, and other events, to the year 1721, with some particulars since; and a short view of its present state (Burlington, N.J. 1765) 436.

[5] See George J. Miller, ed. The Minutes of the Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey (Perth Amboy, N.J. 1960) 3:445.

[6] W. A. W., “James Turner, engraver,” The historical magazine, and notes and queries concerning the antiquities, history and biography of America 2:10 (October 1858) 310-311. The details of the maps’ production are laid out in New Jersey books 1698-1800. The Joseph J. Felcone collection (Princeton 1992) 31-32. For Turner’s letters in the Rutherfurd Collection see William A. Whitehead, ed. An analytical index to the colonial documents of New Jersey, in the State Paper Offices of England. Compiled by Henry Stevens, (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, no. 5. New York 1858) 215.

[7] W. A. Whitehead, “A review of some of the circumstances connected with the settlement of Elizabeth, N.J.” Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society ser. 2, 1:3 (1869) 156.

[8] “A review” 158, 174.

Images: 1) Unattributed portrait of James Alexander: Livingston Rutherfurd, Family records and events compiled principally from the original manuscripts in the Rutherfurd collection (New York 1894), frontispiece. 2) Statue of Earl of Perth, Perth Amboy: Photograph by the author. 3) Seal of the Eastern Board of Proprietors: William A. Whitehead, East Jersey under the proprietary governments: A narrative of events connected with the settlement and progress of the province, until the surrender of the government to the crown in 1702 [1703]. Drawn principally from original sources (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 1. New York 1846) 128, (Second edition revised and enlarged. Newark 1875) 181. 4) Title page, Elizabethtown Bill in Chancery : New Jersey State Archives, Proprietors & adventurers. A rediscovery of colonial New Jersey. Images of selected documents.

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