The First Federal Congress Project
Documentary History of the First Federal Congress

William Paterson, Senator from New Jersey
(portrait-128K)

William Paterson was born on 24 December 1745 in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents, Mary and Richard Paterson, probably of Scottish ancestry, emigrated to New Castle, Delaware when he was less than two years old. The family led a nomadic existence, following the career of the peddlar father, until they settled in Princeton, New Jersey. Success finally rewarded the father's real estate and merchandizing enterprises. William, the firstborn of four children, was treated to a classical preparatory education prior to entering the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), from which he graduated in 1763. The next year he began to study law under Richard Stockton, a future Signer of the Declaration of Independence. Paterson continued his studies and remained active in the social life of Princeton. During this time he helped found the Well Meaning Club, a fraternity of which future Senator Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut was also a member. In 1766 Paterson received his master of arts degree, delivering a commencement oration entitled "Patriotism." Two years later he was admitted to the bar.
Paterson began the practice of law in the small town of New Bromley, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, where, like his father, he ran a general goods store. To supplement his meager income, he began practice as a lawyer and provincial surrogate, the government's representative in actions on wills. In 1772 he relocated to Raritan, Somerset County, and joined his brother's retail firm as junior partner. Paterson continued to practice law, and his wartime legal practice became increasingly lucrative. He purchased a farm outside New Brunswick in 1779, the same year he married Cornelia Bell, of Hunterdon County. She died in November 1783, soon after the birth of their third child. Two years later he married Euphemia White.
Paterson's first elected office was as Somerset County's Representative in New Jersey's Provincial Congress which convened in May 1775. He served as its secretary when he was reelected the next year. In 1776 he was also a member of the convention that formed the state's first constitution, under which he was elected to serve in the Legislative Council from 1776 to 1777, and as attorney general from 1776 to 1783. In 1777 he was also a member of the state Council of Safety. In February 1778, the Continental Congress appointed Paterson to assist in the courtmartial of the officers who had abandoned Fort Ticonderoga during Burgoyne's 1777 campaign. He declined, citing his responsibilities as attorney general. The same burden of office prevented Paterson from accepting his appointment to Congress in 1780. Given his numerous political offices, Paterson's military contribution to the war effort was understandably modest: in 1777 he was an officer in the Somerset County battalion of minutemen.
Paterson withdrew from the political arena in 1783 to reap the fruit of his thriving law practice. The war had been generous to Paterson. Fleeing Tory lawyers bequeathed their caseloads to the increasingly popular attorney general and students---including Aaron Burr---flocked to study under him. During the next four years Paterson advocated many important cases, most notably for the East Jersey Proprietors in their successful resolution of the boundary line dispute of 1783--86.
Paterson agreed to be called out of his pseudo-retirement to serve in New Jersey's delegation to the Federal Convention. From the beginning he took the lead in insisting that the mandate for the Convention never embrace a diminution of the power and influence of the smaller states in a national legislature. As an alternative to the "Virginia Plan" for proportional representation in the national legislature, Paterson proposed a plan recommending a unicameral legislature in which the states had equal votes and an executive board elected by Congress. Among the more radical provisions in Paterson's plan were a strengthening of the national judiciary's primary jurisdiction in some limited cases and an assertion of Congress's authority to regulate interstate commerce and foreign trade for the purpose of raising a national revenue. Although Paterson was absent from the Convention for the last seven weeks of its existence, he returned to Philadelphia to sign the Constitution on 17 September 1787. He played no formal role in the state convention, but like the vast majority of New Jerseyites he must have welcomed its unanimous ratification on 18 December.
Paterson, who initially refused to be considered as a candidate for United States Senate, received all but six possible votes in joint balloting of the General Assembly and Legislative Council on 25 November 1788. Two other East Jersey candidates, Abraham Clark and Elias Boudinot, posed token challenges.
Paterson's attendance record at the First Federal Congress reveals an underlying aversion to living at the seat of government, and premonitions of his eventual resignation at the end of the second session. He did not take his seat at the first session until 19 March, two weeks after the official convening but still three weeks before a quorum assembled. On 11 April he was granted a leave of absence, from which he did not return until 13 May. On 27 July he received another leave of four days, but did not return until 7 August. His record during the second session was only slightly better. He took his seat on 7 January, the day after a quorum formed. The Senate granted him a leave on 7 May; a bout with influenza prevented him from returning until 26 May. In addition to these official leaves, Paterson occasionally made unauthorized visits home to nearby New Brunswick. Although entitled by lot to a four year term, Paterson resigned from the Senate on 13 November 1790.
During his abbreviated tenure in the First Federal Congress, Paterson served on eighteen committees, reporting only for the committee on the Enumeration Act [HR-34]. Half of the committees on which he served addressed proposed legislation, most of those bills originating in the House. His influence was felt more consistently in some of the Senate's important organizational procedures. On the Senate's first business day, 6 April, the third order of business was to appoint Paterson "teller" or counter of the electoral votes cast for president and vice president. Later that day he was appointed to help prepare the certificates of election for Washington and Adams. Apart from those assignments concerned with administrative and organizational matters, almost a third of his committees dealt with the establishment of the federal judiciary and legal code.
Paterson's most significant contribution to the First Federal Congress was his role in drafting the Judiciary Act [S-1]. On 7 April 1789 he was appointed to the Grand Committee for preparing a bill for organizing the federal judiciary. He served on the drafting subcommittee of three Senators; the first nine sections of the draft bill were written in his hand. On 17 September, Paterson was one of the committee of three that considered the House's proposed amendments to the Senate's bill. Throughout the debate over the Judiciary Act, Paterson argued a balanced position in favor of expanded jurisdiction for the lower federal judiciary without supporting every component of Ellsworth's original plan. On 9 September 1789 he voted with a minority for guaranteeing trial by "an impartial Jury of the Vicinage." It was the only instance he is known to have voted against the Federalist majority on the issue of proposed amendments to the Constitution.
Notwithstanding their temporary alliance during parts of the judiciary debate, Maclay dismissed Paterson as one of Hamilton's "Gladiatorial band" devoted to the expansion of executive prerogatives. But Paterson's position in support of the president's exclusive power of removal under the Foreign Affairs Act [HR-8] was rooted in his belief that "the more the three great governmental powers are kept separate the better."1
Besides favoring a strong federal government, Paterson represented his state's majority in promoting a strong federal revenue system and a stabilized credit system. New Jersey's population was small but its proportion of certificate holders was relatively high. Reflecting this creditor state status, Paterson argued on 17 June 1790 that Congress was obligated to assign the maximum legal value to the depreciated certificates. He supported assumption of the states' war debts and voted for the Funding Act [HR-63].
On the issue of fixing the seat of government, there was no statewide consensus for Paterson to follow. Like New Jersey, its two Senators split over the issue. As an East Jerseyite, Paterson's world was oriented towards New York City. As much as he could, he defended the interests of that city over Philadelphia. He voted consistently to retain the capital at New York as long as possible and remained in the minority on the final question of removing to the Potomac with a ten year temporary residence at Philadelphia.
Less than two months after his vote against moving to Philadelphia, Paterson was in a position to escape the implications of such a move. In mid-August, he was approached about succeeding the recently deceased William Livingston as governor of New Jersey. Paterson was an eager candidate. Even before Washington's inauguration, he confessed "I am really tired of this place."2 For the most part, he kept to his room at 51 Great Dock Street, occupied with frequent affectionate letters home to his dear "Affy" and with his legal studies. By the summer of 1790 he moved to quarters in Widow McEuen's boarding house at 32 Broad Street, home also to Page, R. H. Lee, and Walker of Virginia, and Tucker and Huger of South Carolina.
The Court life that grew up around Washington's presence held little attraction for Paterson. "Gay Life has never been my Wish; my Disposition is naturally pensive, and in general I had much rather take a solitary Walk in a Grove, or among Tombs than mingle in the Festivity and Pleasure of a Ball."3 He resented "idle Ceremony and Shew,"4 and admitted to having no appreciation for the city's finer attributes. Federal Hall was "elegant," he admitted to his wife, but he forbore describing it because he had a "poor Talent for fine Things."5
Paterson's own self-analysis as a withdrawn, perhaps even aloof if not harsh man, is corroborated by the evidence of contemporaries. James Sharples's ca. 1798 portrait, now at the Supreme Court, shows a tight-lipped, expressionless man who chose to be remembered in his juridical garb. Maclay labelled him disparagingly as a "Summum Jus Man,"6 one who believes in applying the full rigor of the law without concern for justice. Where Maclay saw a "taciturn and lurking"7 personality, however, others saw merely a self-possessed demeanor, quietly confident of the intellectual powers at its command. When William Pierce of South Carolina met Paterson at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he saw "one of those kind of Men whose powers break in upon you, and create wonder and astonishment." Pierce admired him for his "choice of time and manner of engaging in a debate."8 Those oratorical skills were still in evidence during the First Congress, where Paterson made extensive notes to arrange his arguments before a major speech.
The legislature of New Jersey elected Paterson governor on 23 November 1790. His continued high standing in the legal profession was officially acknowledged with his admission to practice before the Supreme Court on 10 February 1790. Soon after assuming the governorship, he began to update the state's rules of practice and procedure in a work that came to be known as "Paterson's Practice Laws." In addition, he was independently contracted to codify all existing state statutes into the Laws of the State of New Jersey, published in 1800. The town of Paterson, New Jersey, was named in appreciation of Paterson's encouragement of manufacturing along the falls of the Passaic River. In 1793, Washington nominated Paterson as as associate justice of the Supreme Court, where he served until his death on 9 September 1806 in Albany, en route to taking the waters in upstate New York.
The most recent full length biography is John E. O'Connor's William Paterson: Lawyer and Statesman, 1745--1806 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1979). Paterson's papers were sold at a Parke-Bernet auction in 1938 and are widely scattered; important collections are at William Paterson College, Rutgers, Princeton, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress.
    1. Notes of William Paterson, Maclay Diary, p. 489.
    2. William to Euphemia Paterson, 23 Apr. 1789, William Paterson Papers, NjR.
    3. William to Euphemia Paterson, 1 May 1789, William Paterson Papers, NjR.
    4. William to Euphemia Paterson, 24 Mar. 1789, William Paterson Papers, NjR.
    5. Ibid.
    6. Maclay Diary, p. 290.
    7. Ibid.
    8. Max Farrand, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1767 (4 vols., New Haven, 1937) 3:90.

Recommended citation: Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, ed. Charlene Bickford, et al. (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2002). http://adh.sc.edu [Accessed (supply date here)]

Copyright 1999. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress Project. All rights reserved.