William Paterson was a rising young lawyer who applied his legal and executive skills to the service of the country during the Revolution, the Constitutional Convention, and the formative years of the new republic. Paterson particularly concerned himself with the question of representation in the national government. He was the father of what came to be called the New Jersey Plan. He argued with considerable force that the legal jurisdiction of the Convention was limited, that the delegates were assembled not to devise a pure democratic government in which each citizen was equally represented, but a federation of independent states in which each state was equally represented. In the end, he yielded on this point for the sake of compromise and union. Commenting on his influence during the proceedings, Georgia delegate William Pierce noted that Paterson was "one of those kind of Men whose powers break in upon you, and create wonder and astonishment. He is a man of great modesty whose looks bespeak talent of no great extent, but he is a Classic and a Lawyer, and an Orator-and of a disposition so favorable to his advancement that everyone seemed ready to exalt him with their praises." A grateful New Jersey named the city of Paterson in his honor.
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Paterson was born in County Antrim, Ireland. After immigrating to America, he attended local schools and the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), where he graduated in 1763. He then studied law under Richard Stockton, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. Even as a young man, Paterson showed a strong interest in national affairs and citizens' rights. As early as 1763 he discussed the philosophy of patriotism in his commencement address to his Princeton graduating class, applying the values of the Enlightenment philosophers he had studied to the special concerns of colonial society.
When Parliament in the aftermath of the French and Indian War began to try to tax the colonies, putting aside its previous "salutary neglect;" the young lawyer quickly became a leader of the Patriot cause in New Jersey. He represented Somerset County as the secretary of New Jersey's Provincial Congress, an extralegal legislature established by the Patriots to organize the transition from Royal colony to independent state (1775-76), and at New Jersey's first constitutional convention (1776). For a year he held a seat in the state senate (177677). He also served in an executive capacity, first as a member of the legislative council, a group organized by the legislature to run the state when it was not in session (1776-77), and on the Council of Safety, the body that developed and managed New Jersey's military forces for the war (1777). Although he received a militia commission in the Somerset County battalion of Minutemen, he never saw active service.
Paterson's major interest remained the law, and in 1776 he assumed the post of attorney general of New Jersey. The responsibilities of this position grew so great that he had to decline election to the Continental Congress in 1780. He remained in office until 1783, when, independence won, he moved to New Brunswick and resumed his law practice.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Although Paterson missed the last month of the Convention's sessions, returning only in September to sign the Constitution, he nevertheless played an important role in the Convention's proceedings. He was co-author of the New Jersey (or Paterson) Plan that asserted the rights of the small states by proposing a national legislature that, ignoring differences in size and population, gave equal voice to all the states. The proposal countered the Virginia Plan introduced by Edmund Randolph, which granted special recognition to differences in population and, therefore, favored the large states.
The Constitution that emerged from the deliberations was essentially a compromise incorporating elements of both of these plans (a Senate giving equal representation to the states and a House based solely on population).
Paterson also defended the concept of states' rights at the Convention, believing that it was the will of the people to protect the powers of the states from federal encroachments. Commenting on proposals favored by the large states, he noted that "the idea of a national Government as contradistinguished from a federal one, never entered into the mind of any of them [the people], and to the public mind we must accommodate ourselves. We have no power to go beyond the federal scheme, and if we had the people are not ripe for any other."
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Paterson went on to become one of New Jersey's first US. senators (1789-90). He was a strong nationalist who supported the Federalist party. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he played an important role in drafting the Judiciary Act of 1789 that established the federal court system. The first nine sections of this very important law are in his handwriting.
He resigned from the Senate in 1790 in order to succeed fellow signer William Livingston as governor of New Jersey. As governor, he pursued his interest in legal matters by codifying the English statutes that had been in force in New Jersey before the Revolution in Laws of the State of New Jersey. He also published a revision of the rules of the chancery and common law courts in Paterson's Practice Laws, later adopted by the New Jersey legislature.
He resigned the governorship to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court (1793-1806). There he presided over the trials of individuals indicted for treason in the Whiskey Rebellion, a revolt by farmers in western Pennsylvania over the federal excise tax on whiskey, the principal product of their cash crop. Militia sent out by President Washington successfully quelled the uprising, and for the first time the courts had to interpret the provisions of the Constitution in regard to the use of troops in civil disturbances. Here, and in fact throughout his long career, Paterson extolled the primacy of law over governments, a principle embodied in the Constitution he helped write.
BIRTH: 24 December 1745, in County Antrim, Ireland
DEATH: 9 September 1806, in Albany, New York
INTERMENT: Vault at the manor house of son-in-law, Stephen Van Rensselear; later reinterred in Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, New York