William Paterson – one of the future signers of the United States Constitution – was born on Christmas Eve – December 24, 1745 – in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland. He moved to Colonial America at two years of age; he entered the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University when he was fourteen years old. He studied law after his graduation and was admitted to the bar in 1768 at age twenty-three. He stayed in contact with his alma mater and, along with Aaron Burr, helped to found the Cliosophic Society.
Paterson became a politician when he was selected to represent Somerset County, New Jersey, as a delegate at the first three provincial congresses of New Jersey; he held the position as secretary and recorded the 1776 New Jersey State Constitution. After the Revolutionary War was over and independence had been secured, he was appointed to be the first Attorney General of New Jersey. He served from 1776 until 1783 and established himself as “one of the state’s most prominent lawyers.” He represented his state at the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1787. He “proposed the New Jersey Plan for a unicameral legislative body with equal representation from each state. After the Great Compromise (for two legislative bodies: a Senate with equal representation for each state, and a House of Representatives with representation based on population), the Constitution was signed.”
Paterson became one of New Jersey’s first U.S. Senators and served from 1789 to 1790. In the Senate 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.”
Senator Paterson resigned from his seat in Congress to accept the office of Governor of New Jersey in 1790. He succeeded William Livingston, a fellow signer, in that office. “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, later adopted by the New Jersey Legislature.”
President George Washington nominated Governor Paterson for the Supreme Court on February 27, 1793, but he withdrew the nomination the following day. President Washington “realized that since the law creating the Supreme Court had been passed during Paterson’s current term as a Senator, the nomination was a violation of Article I, Section 6 of the Constitution. After Paterson’s term as Senator had expired, President Washington re-nominated him to the Court on March 4, 1793. He was immediately confirmed by the Senate and received his commission.
When he became an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (1793-1806), Paterson resigned from the office of governor. “On circuit 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 George 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.”
Justice Paterson was still serving on the Supreme Court when he passed away on September 9, 1806, at age 60. His death was the result of the “lingering effects of a coach accident suffered in 1803 while on circuit court duty in New Jersey.” He was enroute to Ballston Springs, New York, to “take the waters” when he died at the Albany, New York, home of his daughter and Van Renssalaer, son-in-law. He was buried in the Van Renssalaer family vault in 1806, and his remains stayed there until the city acquired the property. His remains were relocated to Albany Rural Cemetery, Menands, Albany County, New York. Associate Justice Rufus W. Peckham and President Chester A. Arthur are both buried in this cemetery.
William Paterson was a New Jersey statesman, a signer of the U.S. Constitution, the second governor of New Jersey, and Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He has the honor of having Paterson, New Jersey, and William Paterson University named after him.