|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
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).