On this day (Dec. 24) in 1745, the distinguished jurist and politician, William Paterson, was born in Antrim, Ireland.
In 1747, his family migrated to America, finally ending up in 1750 in Princeton, N.J. After taking a rigorous pre-college preparatory course at local private schools, the precocious William, in 1759, entered, at age 14, the local college (present-day Princeton), where he soon was exposed to, if not indoctrinated with, the stern Calvinistic and “liberal” political doctrines of the college’s distinguished President John Witherspoon.
Graduations (BA in 1763 and MA in 1766) were followed by a legal apprenticeship with Princeton lawyer Richard Stockton (later a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and admission to the bar in 1768.
The British Parliament’s passage, in 1773, of the hated Tea Act led him into a political career as a “rebel.” William embraced the radical Patriot cause, serving during the Revolutionary War on numerous councils and committees, in the state senate, as one of the framers of the New Jersey state constitution, and as New Jersey’s first attorney general (1776-1783). He resigned this position following the untimely death of his first wife (Cornelia Bell – with whom he had three children) in 1783, and moved to New Brunswick to resume his legal practice. In 1785, he took a new bride, Euphemia White.
It is, however, as a delegate from New Jersey to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 that William Paterson is best remembered. His appointment, in November 1786 as a delegate to the “Grand Convention” was indicative of the high standing he enjoyed as a dedicated public servant.
Fellow delegate William Pierce described the mild-mannered, well-spoken Paterson as “a man of great modesty” who “is a lawyer, and an orator...” His main contribution at the Convention was his June 15 presentation, on behalf of the small states, of the so-called New Jersey Plan, which was offered to counter James Madison’s nationalistic Virginia (big state) Plan, which had been presented to the convention on May 29 by Virginia Gov. Edmund Randolph.
The New Jersey Plan (often referred to as the Paterson Plan) called for an essential retention of the Articles of Confederation, which greatly favored small states. The June 19, 7-3, vote in favor of Randolph’s big state Virginia Plan over Paterson’s small state New Jersey Plan was a temporary setback to Paterson and his small state colleagues. However, with the July 16 passage of the “Connecticut Compromise” that gave all states an equal vote in the Senate, Paterson felt that the small states had achieved all they could.
Paterson and his small state cohorts thereafter worked with Madison, James Wilson and their “big state” colleagues to complete the drafting of the Constitution. Along with his three New Jersey colleagues, Paterson signed the final draft on Sept. 17 and worked diligently to get the document ratified, which New Jersey did unanimously, 38-0, on Dec. 18, 1787.
With the establishment of the new American republic, Paterson became a steadfast supporter of the Washington administration. He won election as a Federalist to the U.S. Senate in 1789, election in 1790 as New Jersey governor, and appointment in 1793 as an associate justice of the Supreme Court – a position he held until his death on Sept. 9, 1806 at the age of 60.
William Paterson should be remembered and honored today for his masterful co-authorship of the “Connecticut Compromise” and his articulate presentation of the New Jersey (small state) Plan at the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.