Essay on William Paterson

William Paterson: New Jersey's Nation-Maker (1745-1806)

By Leonard B. Rosenberg. Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Political Science

William Paterson was undoubtedly New Jersey’s leading national figure during the early years of the Republic. Yet little is known about his family background or pre-college years. However, it is now generally accepted that he was born in Northern Ireland, probably Antrim, on December 24, 1745 and that two years later he was brought to British America by his father, Richard Paterson. By 1750 the elder Paterson had established a successful general store on the main thoroughfare of "Princetown," directly opposite the future Nassau Hall, the main building of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).

Although Paterson’s formative years are a matter of conjecture, his later services to nation and state are well documented. As state attorney-general during the American Revolution, constitution-maker, U.S. Senator, New Jersey Governor, and Supreme Court Justice, Paterson played a significant and respected role in the events that brought the United States into existence and that early work gave shape to its institutions. At times he was a serious candidate for Secretary of State and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Valuable and lasting contributions were made to the basic American concepts of constitutionalism, federalism and judicial review.

Paterson was very definitely a product of his class and times. Educated at Princeton along the same lines as Jefferson, Madison and John Adams, he shared with them a firm conviction in God’s laws of nature and the inalienable rights of man. He accepted as working principles the validity of the social contract and the sovereignty of the people. Although his ideas were typical of those held by men of property and position, his conservatism was balanced by a liberal respect for liberty and justice. When the revolutionary struggle reached New Jersey, he unhesitatingly supported the cause of independence. However, once the war for independence had been won and the principles of popular sovereignty and limited government had been achieved, his efforts, along with other leading Federalists, concentrated on establishing and maintaining a government that would at the same time secure the rights of man and the rights of property.

For Paterson the post war factionalism and apparent disrespect for tradition and law would lead to unchecked liberty, legislative tyranny, and a threat to property. Liberty for him meant "rational liberty" - liberty within the confines of law, order, and peaceful progress. "Order is Heaven’s first Law" is the single, most constant theme in his political thinking.

William Paterson’s most important contributions to the development of American political institutions were made at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and during his service as a member of the nation’s High Tribunal. Though the New Jersey Plan, which he introduced at the Convention to counter the more nationalistic Virginia Plan, championed the cause of state sovereignty, it recognized the need for enlarged and independent powers for the central government. The insistence on states’ rights by New Jersey and the other small states made possible - or necessary - the federalism which became one of the distinctive features of the American constitutional system. However, once state equality in the Senate became a fact he gave full support to the finished product of the Convention, including an independent federal judiciary and the supremacy of acts of Congress and of treaties. Thus the new national government was given the means of self-preservation and, in the long run, the power of political dominance.

With the ratification of the Federal Constitution, Paterson became one of the strongest supporters of constitutional and national supremacy. The Judiciary Act of 1789, which as New Jersey’s first U.S. Senator he helped frame, laid the foundations for the authority of the federal courts, and in its appellate provisions, implied judicial power over state legislation. In effect, the national government was empowered to define its own scope of constitutional authority.

But it was as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice for thirteen years that he arguably made his greatest impact on the nation’s political institutions. In the VanHorne case (1795) Paterson insisted that the new constitution "is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental laws are established. . . .it contains the permanent will of the people and is the supreme law of the land." Thus the Constitution was paramount to legislative acts and amendable or revokable only by the sovereign power that created it (the people). All acts not in harmony with this permanent and fixed fundamental law were consequently unconstitutional and void. Here eight years before John Marshall’s famous Marbury v. Madison opinion was a clear and unequivocal enunciation of the doctrine of judicial review. In other opinions Justice Paterson upheld the Hamilton view of federal taxing powers and the idea of national supremacy in the area of foreign affairs.

Paterson always maintained strong ties with New Jersey and the college at Princeton. Even while sitting on the nation’s highest tribunal, he accepted the challenge of codifying the state’s entire legal system, including provisions that made it easier for masters to free their slaves (however, it must be mentioned that Paterson was no fiery or even enthusiastic abolitionist). His was always a voice for tradition and continuity, respect for government and its leaders, and law.

What may be said of William Paterson as a political leader? Although not an especially original thinker, he was still an able and conscientious representative of his class and party. If on occasion he displayed a fear of unchecked popular government, he, nevertheless, gave full and constant support - and in times of danger - to those ideals on which the American republic is founded: that government emanates from the hands of the people and remains continually responsible to and limited by the constitution as established by the people. His sometimes distrust of democracy came from a fear of the potential tyranny of the majority and the resultant threat to those cherished conservative concepts of stability, order, and property rights. To Paterson these ideals were intertwined with those essential liberties that formed the foundation on which the American nation had been erected. For Paterson the struggle was not for liberty or law, but, rather, for liberty under law. As his state’s leading political figure, William Paterson was indeed New Jersey’s nation-maker.