William Paterson was a distinguished public servant during the early years of the Republic of the United States, serving as governor of New Jersey, a Framer of the U.S. Constitution, a U.S. senator, and associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In recognition of his service to New Jersey, the city of Paterson was named for him.
Paterson was born on December 24, 1745, in County Antrim, Ireland. He emigrated with his family to New Jersey in 1747 and graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1763. He was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1768, establishing a law practice in New Bromley, New Jersey.
He entered government in 1775, serving in the New Jersey Provincial Congress. He became attorney general of New Jersey in 1776, holding the position for seven years. During this period he briefly served in the New Jersey Senate. He also participated in the New Jersey State Constitutional Convention in 1776.
Paterson played a key role in the U.S. Constitutional Convention, which was held in Philadelphia in 1787. As a delegate from New Jersey, Paterson sought to protect his and other small states from demands by larger states that representation be based on population. Paterson offered an alternative to the large-state proposition, or Virginia Plan. His New Jersey Plan went to the other extreme. He proposed that each state have one vote in Congress. Out of this conflict came the compromise that created two houses of Congress, with the House of Representatives based on population and the Senate on equal representation (two votes per state). The compromise also led to the creation of the Supreme Court in Article III of the U.S. Constitution. Paterson, who signed the Constitution, was a strong supporter of the document and campaigned for its adoption in New Jersey.
He was elected to the Senate in 1789 and was one of the authors of the judiciary act of 1789, which created the federal legal structure of Supreme Court, circuit court, and district court. The act created the office of attorney general and gave the Supreme Court the appellate jurisdiction to review state court decisions that involved the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties.
Paterson resigned in 1790 to run for governor of New Jersey. Easily elected, he left the governorship in 1793 when President george washington appointed him an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. His tenure on the Court revealed him to be a strong supporter of the federal government and an independent judiciary. His role as a Framer lent credibility to his conclusions as to what was the "original intent" of the drafters of the Constitution.
As a circuit judge (in that period Supreme Court justices also rode circuit), he conducted the treason trials of the participants in the
whiskey rebellion, a revolt in 1794 against the excise tax on whiskey imposed by Secretary of the Treasury alexander hamilton. He later presided over the trials of prominent Democratic-Republicans who were charged with sedition for criticizing President john adams.
Paterson died on September 9, 1806, in Albany, New York.
William Paterson (1745-1806) was a leading advocate of the interests of the small states at the American Constitutional Convention of 1787. As a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, he sought to strengthen the Federal government.
Brought by his parents from County Antrim, Ireland, to New Jersey at the age of 2, William Paterson grew up in Princeton, where his father kept a store. He entered the new College of New Jersey (Princeton University), receiving a bachelor of arts degree in 1763 and a master of arts in 1766. He earned a reputation as a classical scholar, orator, and village gallant. In 1764 he began studying law, was admitted to the bar in 1768, and for 8 years had a moderately successful country practice.
The American Revolution provided Paterson virtually full-time public employment. A member of various New Jersey Revolutionary conventions, he helped draft the state's first constitution in 1776. Briefly a state legislator and militia officer, Paterson spent most of the war as attorney general, attending sessions of criminal court all over the state. When he returned to private practice in 1783, he had become one of the half-dozen leading public figures in New Jersey.
Paterson's best-known public service came during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he upheld the right of the states to equal representation in the Federal legislature. He proposed many measures to strengthen the general government, including the power to lay and collect taxes, establishment of executive and judicial branches, and the making of acts and treaties "supreme law." But in heated debate in June 1787, Paterson eloquently and defiantly led the small states in resisting those who held that representation according to population was the only just basis. The result was the famous "Great Compromise," giving the states equality in the Senate.
Paterson served briefly in the U.S. Senate and was governor of New Jersey before George Washington appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1793. He was an able, energetic judge, upholding Federal power. He further displayed his legal learning in making a digest, Laws of the State of New Jersey (1800), and in devising rules for common law and chancery courts there.
Paterson's speeches are in Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols., 1937), and his court decisions are in the appropriate volumes of United States Reports. The best sketches of Paterson's life are Gertrude S. Wood, William Paterson of New Jersey, 1745-1806 (1933), and Julian P. Boyd, "William Paterson," in Willard Thorp, ed., The Lives of Eighteen from Princeton (1946). W. J. Mills, ed., Glimpses of Colonial Society and the Life of Princeton College, 1766-1773, by One of the Class of 1763 (1903), depicts Paterson's early life from his own letters and literary productions.
O'Connor, John E., William Paterson, lawyer and statesman, 1745-1806, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1979. □
J. A. Cannon