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William Paterson


Paterson, William (1745-1806), one of the principal founders of the governments of New Jersey and the United States, was brought up in the village of Princeton, where his father, a Scotch-Irish immigrant tinsmith and shopkeeper, settled when William was five years old. As a boy of ten he watched the local mason, William Worth, erect Nassau Hall and when he was fourteen he went there to live as a student in the College.

For four years he followed the classical curriculum of that day, excelling in the monthly orations then required of every student, and graduated near the top of his class in 1763. While reading law with Richard Stockton 1748, the leading attorney in Princeton, he kept in touch with the College and helped found the Well Meaning Club, forerunner of the Cliosophic Society. At Commencement in 1766 he received the degree of Master of Arts and delivered an eloquent and widely admired oration on ``Patriotism.''

In 1769, shortly after he had begun the practice of law (supplementing his meagre income by keeping a general store), he wrote a college friend that ``to live at ease and pass through life without much noise and bustle'' was all he wished for. Six years later, however, when he was thirty, he embarked on one of the most active public careers of his generation, serving successively as secretary of the New Jersey Provincial Congress, member of the convention that drafted the state constitution, first attorney general of New Jersey, head of the New Jersey delegation to the federal Constitutional Convention, one of the first two United States senators from New Jersey, governor of New Jersey, and finally, for the last thirteen years of his life, associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. From 1787 to 1802 he was also a trustee of the College.

At the federal Constitutional Convention Paterson offered the New Jersey ``small states'' plan in opposition to the Virginia ``large states'' plan drafted by James Madison 1771, but then accepted the Connecticut compromise supported by Oliver Ellsworth 1766, which was adopted. Paterson was short, modest, and unassuming in appearance, but he was one of those men, William Pierce, a delegate from Georgia, noted in his journal, ``whose powers break in upon you, and create wonder and astonishment.''

While senator, he helped Oliver Ellsworth draft the Judiciary Act of 1789. While governor he undertook the codification of all existing New Jersey laws -- the English statutes which by the state constitution remained in force, as well as acts adopted by the legislature since the Revolution. He continued this monumental task after his elevation to the Supreme Court, and the results of his labors, the first published Laws of the State of New Jersey, appeared in 1800.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).