Who Was William Paterson?

William Paterson,
Patriot and Statesman
William Paterson (the man himself)


"The education of children is a matter of vast importance and highly deserving of our most serious attention. The prosperity of our country is intimately connected with it; for without morals, there can be no order, and without knowledge, no genuine liberty."

From "On Education," an essay by William Paterson, c. 1793-95

William Paterson was born in Antrim in northern Ireland on December 24, 1745. His father, Richard Paterson, brought the family to British America two years later, landing in Delaware. By 1750, the elder Paterson, a traveling peddler of household goods, was able to purchase a general store in Princeton, which was along the main road from New York to Philadelphia and across from Nassau Hall, which became the site of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1756.

Paterson entered Princeton in 1759, at age 14, where he studied the classics, history, political theory and moral philosophy. He viewed college as the place to develop and perfect his character and to gain proficiency in eloquence and oratorial skill.

Following his graduation in 1763, Paterson began the study of law in the office of Richard Stockton, a prominent local attorney. In 1768 he was admitted to the bar, and opened a law practice at New Bromley in Hunterdon County and later at Raritan in Somerset County.

Though not an early participant in the politics of the day, Paterson became an outspoken supporter of American independence following the outbreak of hostilities in Lexington and Concord. In 1775 he was selected as a delegate from Somerset County to the First Provincial Congress of New Jersey, where he was named secretary. He later attended the Second Provincial Congress and the Third Provincial Congress, where as secretary he officially recorded New Jersey's first constitution in 1776.

Soon after independence was declared, Paterson was appointed New Jersey's first attorney general by Governor William Livingston. For the rest of the war he struggled successfully with the monumental task of maintaining law and order in the midst of a revolutionary war. In 1779, he married Cornelia Bell, daughter of the wealthy Somerset County landowner John Bell; their first child, Cornelia Bell Paterson, was born in 1780.

Contemporary practice permitted Paterson to maintain private legal clients while he served as the state's chief prosecutor, and by the time he left office in 1783 he had established himself as one of the most successful attorneys in the state. Eager to spend time with his family, which now included a second daughter, Frances, born in 1782, he instead met with personal tragedy. Frances Paterson fell ill and died in June, 1783. His wife, expecting their third child, also became ill. On November 9, 1783, Paterson's only son, William Bell Paterson, was born. Cornelia Paterson, weakened by the strain of childbirth, died four days later.

Paterson immersed himself in his law practice and in 1784 married Euphemia White. His long experience in state politics and administration earned him a seat on the five-person delegation sent by New Jersey to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he played a pivotal role. By a narrow margin, delegates approved the Virginia Plan, which provided for proportional representation, based on population, in two houses of government. Paterson introduced the New Jersey Plan, which called for a unicameral body with equal representation from each state. In the debate that followed, the delegates hammered out the Great Compromise, with proportional representation in the house of Representatives and equal representation in the Senate. Paterson signed the Constitution in September 1787.

Elected to serve in the first Senate of the United States, Paterson worked with the group which wrote the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established a federal judiciary. In 1791, he resigned from the Senate to succeed William Livingston as Governor of New Jersey. While governor, Paterson oversaw the codification and revision of the state's entire legal system. He also supported a proposal by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and a group of investors to incorporate them as the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM). In 1792 he signed the charter incorporating SUM as well as a municipal charter covering 36 square miles for the Corporation of the Town of Paterson at the site of the Great Falls of the Passaic River.

Chosen by President George Washington in 1793 to sit as associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, Paterson spent the last 13 years of his life devoted to building a stable and powerful federal judiciary. Among the cases he decided were several which laid important foundations for the doctrine of judicial review.

Paterson died on September 9, 1806 at the home of his daughter, Cornelia Paterson Van Rensselaer, in Albany, New York, where he was buried. He was 61.