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Paterson, William (1745–1806), jurist and politician in the United States of America, was born on 24 December 1745 in co. Antrim, Ireland, the son of Richard Paterson, a tin-plate worker and shopkeeper, and his wife, Mary. In 1747 the Patersons moved to New Jersey, living near the College of New Jersey. William enrolled there at the age of thirteen, receiving a BA in 1763 and an MA in 1766. He then studied law under Richard Stockton, a prominent provincial attorney, and passed the bar in 1768. He then set up his own legal practice in nearby Somerset county. In 1779 he married Cornelia Bell (d. 1783), the daughter of a wealthy landowner and the sister of Andrew Bell, a fellow attorney and active loyalist during the American War of Independence. Cornelia died in childbirth and in 1785 Paterson married Eliphemia, the daughter of Anthony White, one of Paterson's wealthiest clients.

Although already well known as an up-and-coming attorney, Paterson's public career began in earnest in 1774 during the Anglo-American political crisis. In 1775 he became a delegate to the American patriot New Jersey provincial congress. Establishing his legal credentials in that body, he was appointed the attorney-general for the state's revolutionary government in 1776. In this post and as a member of several revolutionary committees, he tried to keep the legal system running in a state ravaged by marauding armies, both American and British, and subject to a violent internal civil war conducted along religious lines. He was thus forced to deal with issues such as prisoner treatment and the seizure of American loyalist property. Paterson handled all adeptly and won praise for his work.

Paterson left the service of New Jersey's government at the end of the war, declaring: ‘It was with Reluctance that I consented to be put in Nomination the late time … I wish to wind up my official Course & return to private life.’ But he remained interested in politics and became a critic of what he thought were destructive and inflationary state policies in regard to unsupported paper currency issues. These concerns encouraged him to participate in the convention for the federal constitution.

Paterson, along with David Brearly, William Churchill Houston, and John Neilson, was elected by the New Jersey legislature to go to the convention. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Paterson quickly became a leading spokesman for the small states who had deep concerns over the consolidation of power proposed by James Madison known as the ‘Virginia Plan’. Apparently without the kind of detailed preparation that underlay Madison's plan, Paterson put forward the so-called ‘New Jersey Plan’. It would have assured small states, such as New Jersey, equal representation in the national legislature. When Madison and his supporters grafted this idea onto their own plan, giving smaller states equal representation in the legislature's upper house (the senate) but not the lower house, Paterson and the other small state representatives conceded, falling in behind the draft constitution. The New Jersey delegation became strong supporters of the document, and Paterson thereafter became an ardent ‘federalist’, or supporter of the constitution and the powers it granted to the federal government.

Paterson's role in defending the interests of the small states raised him to new heights of popularity in New Jersey, and in 1788 he was elected to the United States senate. In 1790 he became governor of his state, and in 1793 his legal career was capped with an appointment as an associate justice of the American supreme court, where he played an important role in the legal decisions that laid the foundation of the modern American judiciary. He sat as a justice until his death on 9 September 1806 in Albany, New York.

Although not recognized as part of the great pantheon of founding fathers, Paterson played a critical role in shaping the institutional parameters of both the legislative and the judicial branches of the United States government.

Brendan McConville


Selections from the correspondence of the executive of New Jersey from 1776 to 1786 (Newark, New Jersey, 1848) · R. P. McCormick, Experiment in independence (New Brunswick, 1950) · M. Marcus, ‘Patterson, William’, ANB · L. Gerlach, ed., New Jersey in the American revolution, 1763–1783: a documentary history (Trenton, New Jersey, 1975) · W. A. Whitehead and others, eds., Documents relating to the colonial, revolutionary and post-revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey, 42 vols. (1880–1949)


L. Cong., MSS · New Jersey Historical Society, Newark, MSS · Princeton University, New Jersey, MSS