On this day in 1806, William Paterson passes away. If you’ve heard of Paterson, then you probably know him for his work at the Constitutional Convention or on the United States Supreme Court.
But he did far more than that.
As a young man, Paterson surely never thought that he would serve his country in a Revolution?! He once wrote a friend that he wanted to “live at ease and pass through life without much noise and bustle.” Paterson attended New Jersey College (now Princeton), and he studied law under the tutelage of a future signer of the Declaration of Independence.
From there, any pretense of a life of “ease” quickly evaporated.
As the Revolution began, Paterson soon jumped into the Patriot cause. He served in New Jersey’s Provincial Congress, and he helped to write the state’s constitution. He served on the state’s legislative council and its Council of Safety. As if all that were not enough, he was also the state’s Attorney General. He was elected to the Continental Congress, but he had too many duties at home and had to decline the seat.
After the war, Paterson returned to his private law practice for a time, but he was soon asked to serve as a delegate at both the Annapolis and Constitutional Conventions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was made during his time at the Constitutional Convention.
Paterson was a co-author of the New Jersey plan, an outline of government that was presented early in the Convention to counter the Virginia plan. The Virginia plan was the large state proposal, which placed a heavier emphasis on population. The New Jersey plan gave each state a more equal voice in the government. Ultimately, of course, our Constitution effectively blends these ideas.
After the Convention, Paterson supported ratification in New Jersey. He was a U.S. Senator and helped to draft the Judiciary Act of 1789. That Act provided the outlines of our federal judiciary system. Later, he served as New Jersey Governor.
Finally, in 1793, George Washington appointed Paterson as a Supreme Court Justice. Paterson would spend the remainder of his life as an associate Justice on the Supreme Court. Perhaps one of his most memorable lines as a judge came in a 1795 case. He wrote:
“What is a Constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental laws are established. The Constitution is certain and fixed; it contains the permanent will of the people, and is the supreme law of the land; it is paramount to the power of the Legislature, and can be revoked or altered only by the authority that made it.”
Ten years into his tenure as a judge, Paterson was injured in a carriage accident. He continued to serve on the bench, but he never fully regained his health and ultimately passed away on September 9, 1806.
A contemporary once said 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.”
Yet another unsung hero from our country’s early years.
Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion (1978)
Carol Berkin, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (2002)
Catherine Drinker Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention May to September 1787 (1986 reprint)
Daniel A. Degnan, S.J., William Paterson: Small States' Nationalist, in Seriatim: The Supreme Court before John Marshall (Scott Douglas Gerber ed. 1998)
Papers of William Paterson on the Federal Convention, 1787 (American Historical Review; 1904) Vanhorne's Lessee v. Dorrance, 2 U.S. 304 (1795)
William Paterson: New Jersey (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
William Paterson, Glimpses of Colonial Society and the Life at Princeton College, 1766-1773 (1903)