Statesman, judge and signer of the U.S. Constitution
Born: December 24, 1745, County Antrim, Ireland
Died: September 9, 1806, Albany, New York
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Public Service
Few individuals did as much to shape the legal framework of both the nation and the state of New Jersey as William Paterson.
Born in Ireland, Paterson was just 2 when he immigrated to colonial America with his parents. His family landed in New Castle, Delaware, and moved around quite a bit before settling in Princeton, where his father manufactured and sold tin goods. Thanks to his father’s success, Paterson was able to attend the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). By age 18, he had earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.
Paterson studied law under Richard Stockton, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence. He began practicing law in 1769 in New Bromley (Hunterdon County), later moving the practice to Raritan and ultimately New Brunswick.
When the American Revolution broke out, Paterson served in New Jersey’s provincial congress, where as secretary he recorded the state’s first constitution. He was New Jersey’s first attorney general from 1776 to 1783, when he returned to private practice in New Brunswick.
In 1787, New Jersey sent Paterson to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he played a pivotal role. Coming from a small state, he advocated for and co-wrote a plan that called for a single national representative body with equal representation from all states, regardless of population. This so-called New Jersey Plan (also known as the Paterson Plan) spurred the convention toward a compromise plan with two houses of Congress, one with equal representation for all states (the Senate) and one with the number of delegates based on population (the House of Representatives). Once the Constitution was hammered out, Paterson had the distinction of being one of seven immigrants to sign the historic document.
In 1789, Paterson was elected to the U.S. Senate. As a member of the Judiciary Committee he helped draft the Judiciary Act, which established the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system. He left the Senate in 1791 to become the third governor of New Jersey. During his tenure, he worked to codify the state’s laws and revise the rules of the court system.
Paterson served as New Jersey’s governor until 1793, when President George Washington nominated him as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He served on the High Court for 13 years, until his death in 1806.
The Passaic County city of Paterson and William Paterson University are both named for this New Jersey patriot.