Paterson, William (1745–1806), lawyer, attorney general and governor of New Jersey, and US supreme court judge, was born 24 December 1745, probably in Antrim town, Co. Antrim (though some sources say he was born at sea), the eldest son among three sons and two daughters of Richard Paterson and his wife Mary. Nothing is known of his mother except her name and the year of her death (1772), probably in Princeton, New Jersey. The Patersons emigrated (1747) to New Castle, Delaware, and, after living in New York and Connecticut, settled (1750) in Princeton, New Jersey. They were most probably related to a Paterson family from Ireland, who founded an important tin manufactory in Berlin, Connecticut, in 1740, said to have been the first in America. It is known that Richard Paterson worked in tinplate manufacture and peddled tin wares; he later established a general store in Princeton, in which his son worked for a time. Princeton offered young William the opportunity for an excellent education: first at local schools, including the Latin school founded by Aaron Burr, and then at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he enrolled (1759) and took his BA (1763) and MA (1766). He was a keen student of history and moral philosophy. Paterson helped found the Well Meaning Club in the college c.1765, and in 1770 reestablished it as the Cliosophic Society, the country's oldest political, literary, and debating society. In the year after the enactment of the stamp act (1765), Paterson delivered the commencement speech, entitled ‘Patriotism’, at his MA conferring. He served as trustee of Princeton (1787–1802). While Paterson pursued his graduate degree, he studied law with Richard Stockton, a leading Princeton attorney who later signed the declaration of independence. Admitted to the New Jersey bar (1769), Paterson started to practise law in Hunterdon and Somerset counties, but had to supplement his modest income by keeping a shop. Though he wrote to a college friend that he wished to live an easy life without much bustle, he was to become a principal player in state and national government. Conservative and cautious by nature, he appears to have been hesitant to join the revolutionary cause. When he did, his actions were informed by his interest in moral philosophy.
Paterson was a delegate from Somerset county to the first provincial congress (1775–6), and became its secretary. He continued as secretary in the second and third congresses, attending to all the correspondence between the provincial congress and the continental congress, as well as recording the congressional deliberations. He twice turned down the opportunity to be a member of the continental congress (1778, 1781). Paterson was attorney general of New Jersey 1776–83 and was elected to the New Jersey legislative council (1776–7) and to the council of safety (1777), under whose authority he prosecuted loyalists and war profiteers. In his work with the legislative council, as in his later roles, he recognised the importance of maintaining existing local governance, particularly the county court system.
Paterson returned to his increasingly successful law practice in 1783, but led the New Jersey delegation to the constitutional convention in 1787. He emerged as an important player in the proceedings because of the New Jersey (or ‘Paterson’) plan that he co-authored, which was designed to protect the rights of small states. It prevailed against the ‘Virginia plan’, developed by James Madison, which gave the advantage to the larger states. He worked with tact and tenacity for the ‘great compromise’ that recognised the larger states’ claim for representation based on population in the house of representatives, while it protected the interests of smaller states by establishing an upper house, the senate, with two delegates from each state. Given his work creating the shape of the congress, it was appropriate that Paterson was elected in 1789 to represent New Jersey in the US senate; he served from 4 March 1789 until 13 November 1790. He helped his friend Senator Oliver Ellsworth, later first chief justice of the supreme court, to draft the judiciary act of 1789 which established the federal court system, an early test of the balance of power between states and the federal government.
Paterson was twice elected governor of New Jersey. He succeeded William Livingston in 1791 and served until 1793, when he was appointed to the federal bench. While governor, he codified the state's laws, some of which were based on English common law and some passed by the New Jersey legislature after independence; his codification was published as Laws of the state of New Jersey (1800). He also revised the rules and practices of the chancery and common law courts.
George Washington appointed Paterson associate justice of the US supreme court in March 1793; he served until 1806. As well as sitting in court in New York, he had to go on circuit, travelling thousands of miles in often difficult conditions. Among the cases he heard were those of the whiskey rebels in 1794 and Vanhorne's Lessee v. Dorrance (1795), a case involving the principle of judicial review that anticipated the landmark Marbury v. Madison (1803), with which he was also involved. He presided at the trial for sedition of Matthew Lyon (qv). In the course of his judicial career Paterson had the unusual opportunity to put to the test the judiciary act of 1789, which he had himself drafted. He was a strong constitutionalist, and supported Alexander Hamilton, the federalist secretary of the treasury.
In his last years his contribution to government and the law were recognised with honorary degrees from his alma mater, the College of New Jersey, and from Dartmouth College (1805); Harvard gave him an honorary degree in 1806. By the end of his career, Paterson was a wealthy man, with large landholdings. In 1803 a carriage accident seriously affected his health, and in 1806 he set off to take the waters at Ballston Spa, New York. He stopped en route near Albany, New York, to visit his daughter Cornelia Van Rensselaer, married into one of the wealthiest families in the country, and died 9 September 1806 at her home. He was buried first in the Van Rensselaer family grave in the grounds of their estate; his body was later reinterred in the rural cemetery at Menands, near Albany.
Paterson married (apparently on 9 February 1779) Cornelia, daughter of a wealthy landowner, John Bell of Somerset county; they had a son and two daughters, one of whom died as an infant, before Cornelia's death in childbirth in October 1783. Two years later he married Euphemia White, who had been his first wife's best friend; there is no record of any children from the second marriage. The town of Paterson, New Jersey, founded in 1791 as an industrial site on the Great Falls of the Passaic River by the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures, was named in honour of William Paterson. A college in Paterson was renamed William Paterson College in 1967, and became William Paterson University in 1997. There is an unsigned portrait that depicts a delicate-looking Paterson in profile, wearing his judicial robe, in the supreme court collection in Washington, DC. Paterson's papers are held in the Princeton University Library, the Library of Congress, the Rutgers University Library, and the William Paterson University Library.