William Paterson was born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1745. His family immigrated to America when William was two years old. Arriving first at New Castle, Delaware, the family settled for a short time in New London, Connecticut. At first, his father traveled around the country selling tin ware, moving the family several times. He eventually settled in Princeton, New Jersey where he became a merchant and manufacturer of tin goods.
Paterson attended local private schools and eventually the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1763 and a master’s degree in 1766. Showing an interest in law, Paterson apprenticed with Richard Stockton, who later signed the Declaration of Independence. Paterson practiced law in New Bromley, South Branch. In 1779, he settled near New Brunswick at Raritan Estate, all in New Jersey.
When the Revolutionary War began in 1775, Paterson joined the Vanguard of New Jersey Patriots and served as an officer in the Somerset County minutemen. He also served in the New Jersey Provincial Congress (1775-1776), the New Jersey Constitutional Convention (1776), New Jersey’s Legislative Council (1776-1777) and Council of Safety (1777). He also held a military commission in the New Jersey militia. From 1776 to 1783, he served as New Jersey’s attorney general. When he was elected to the Continental Congress in 1780, he had to turn down the position, probably due to so many other personal demands.
In 1779, he married Cornelia Bell and they had three children. When she died only three years later in 1782, Paterson dropped out of the public eye from 1783 until 1787, practicing law in his private firm. In 1784, he married Euphemia White and brought his personal responsibilities back under control.
In 1787, he was called back to serve his newly formed state and country when a Constitutional Convention was called in Philadelphia to draft a new Constitution creating the United States.
New Jersey sent five representatives: David Brearly, the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court; Jonathan Dayton and William C. Houston both members of the New Jersey State Assembly; Governor William Livingston (who had been born in 1723 in Albany, New York and had been Robert Yates’ law partner) and William Paterson.
On the first day of the convention, the city of Philadelphia spread a new layer of dirt over the cobblestone street in front of the Pennsylvania State House to muffle the sound of passing carriages and carts. Guards were placed at the entrances to keep away the curious. Robert Morris of Pennsylvania opened the proceedings, nominating George Washington president of the convention. The vote was unanimous and Washington modestly accepted.
From the start, the representatives were divided into various “camps.” The Federalists advocated drafting a totally new constitution granting extensive powers to the new federal government. Anti-Federalists proposed modifying the Articles of Confederation as little as possible, leaving most of the power with the states. Within both of these groups were factions representing large states who were committed to power being proportioned by population, and factions representing small states opposed to being “swallowed up” by a new Federal government dominated by the large states.
The Federalists grabbed the momentum early, proposing James Madison’s Virginia Plan, a plan calling for the creation of three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial with a series of checks and balances – and calling for a strong new central government. The Virginia Plan formed the basis of the early negotiations. Most provisions were negotiated and agreements reached but one emerging stumbling block was the large state/small state dispute on representation.
Madison’s plan called for two houses of Congress but both were to be represented according to population. That favored the large states. The small states opposed this vehemently, feeling that they would be totally dominated by the large states. They insisted on one state – one vote representation.
As the convention progressed and issues were settled and voted, it became clear that a new government would be proposed by the group. Small states became alarmed, it was clear that the large states had the votes to pass the plan.
Small state power and influence in a national government would nearly disappear. The large states could get together and agree on an issue and they could pass it without even consulting the small states. All of the votes from the small states added together might not total the vote from one large state. The arguments became very heated. On June 9, 1787, William Paterson pushed the issue on behalf of the small states, proposing that each state be allowed one vote regardless of population. His proposal was rejected. He then stood and presented New Jersey’s ultimatum:
“I therefore declare, that I will never consent to the present system, and I shall make all the interest against it in the state which I represent that I can. Myself or my state will never submit to tyranny or despotism.” Paterson threatened that if the convention passed Madison’s plan, New Jersey would not join the new government.
James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a large state with far greater population, rose and retorted, “Shall New Jersey have the same right or council in the nation with Pennsylvania? I say no! It is unjust – I never will confederate on this plan. The gentleman from New Jersey is candid in declaring his opinion. I commend him for it. I am equally so.”
Paterson requested a recess to try to work out a compromise that the small states could live with. Roger Sherman offered the Connecticut Compromise calling for proportional representation in the House of Representatives but equal voting rights for all states in the Senate. This was, at first, defeated by the large states.
By the fourteenth of June, Madison’s Virginia Plan had rolled over its opposition and was poised for a final vote. Paterson rose and stated that “it was the wish of several deputations, particularly that of New Jersey, that further time might be allowed them to contemplate the plan reported from the Committee of the Whole.” He said that they wished to have time to propose an alternative. He said that they hoped to have “such a plan ready by tomorrow to be laid before the convention.” Paterson was granted an adjournment until the next day.
Paterson called a meeting of the small states (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland and his own state of New Jersey) but also included New York’s John Lansing and Robert Yates. Yates was becoming an acknowledged leader of the group opposing strong federal powers. A second compromise document called the New Jersey Plan was introduced. The plan called for one house of Congress in which all states were equally represented but also showed Yates and Lansing’s hands as the plan substantially weakened the federal government.
The next day both plans were read. Then Albany’s John Lansing rose and said “Mr. Paterson’s plan sustains the sovereignty of the respective states, that of Mr. Randolph destroys it.” [Randolph had been the one to read the Virginia Plan.] Lansing said that the convention had no authority to even consider the Virginia Plan because it was so contrary to the understanding they had when they came to the convention. Lansing continued that the Virginia Plan stood little chance of adoption by the individual states.
Lansing said that “The scheme is itself totally novel. There is no parallel to it to be found. … The states will never sacrifice their essential rights to a national government. Had New York suspected a consolidation of the states and the formation of a national government she would never have sent delegates to this Convention.”
The plan was debated for three days. On the final day, James Madison summarized the problem: “the great difficulty lies in the affair of representation; and if this could be adjusted, all others would be surmountable.” Madison said that it was admitted by the gentlemen from New Jersey that it was not fair for Virginia which was 16 times as large as New Jersey, to have the same single vote but the safety of New Jersey demanded that they not allow Virginia 16 times more votes.
Paterson’s New Jersey Plan was voted down. The stage was then set for adoption of the revised Virginia Plan. Madison pushed his Virginia Plan. Paterson countered with a proposal that if Madison’s plan was adopted, slaves could not be counted for determining a state’s representation since slaves could not vote. This would substantially reduce Virginia’s population and subsequently their number of congressional representatives.
This angered the representatives from Virginia including Madison, and all of the representatives from southern states, because if slaves were not counted when determining congressional representation the northern states would have overwhelming control in Congress. At this point the convention was very contentious and on the verge of collapse. The situation was so bad that Benjamin Franklin rose and proposed that a minister be brought in to lead the members in a prayer for harmony and spiritual guidance. Franklin’s motion was voted down.
At this point, the big states had the votes to require proportional representation but that would have meant that the small states would abandon the convention. Cooler heads prevailed and a new committee was appointed to study the question. Paterson, Robert Yates and others who were sympathetic to the small state problem were appointed to the committee.
The committee basically proposed what had been the Connecticut Compromise (two houses – one proportional, one equal representation). In order for a bill to become law it must pass both houses and then be signed by the President The President was to be elected by an electoral college with each state having a number of electoral votes equal to its number of congressmen plus its two senators. Slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a free man, a proportional distribution which gave the south 47% of the congressmen and almost 50% of the Presidential electors.
This recommendation was adopted and the convention was saved. (In later years, every time there was a close election, one political figure or another would call for a direct popular election, apparently ignorant of the fact that this would be a violation of the Constitution and a violation of one of the most important compromises required to create the United States of America.)
After Yates’ committee reported its recommendations on July 4th, he and Lansing departed the convention because they felt that it was exceeding its authority. They felt that the delegates’ authority was limited to modifying the Articles of Confederation and what the convention was doing far exceeded this. They so reported to Governor George Clinton.
During the convention Robert Yates and Lansing had been in constant communication but had rarely included Alexander Hamilton in any of their discussions. They controlled New York’s vote. Hamilton would not forget this and subsequently became one of the most intense and effective supporters of the adoption of the Constitution.
During his stay at the convention, Yates kept copious notes on every speaker and every action. As it turned out, only he and James Madison had kept such detailed notes. Since Madison was a federalist, Yates’ notes provide a second view of the proceedings that have become historically important and are routinely studied by scholars to better understand the thinking of the drafters and the meaning of the words of the Constitution.
The final vote on adopting the proposed Constitution was taken on September 15, 1787 and was unanimous in favor of adoption. The Constitution was formally signed by all but three of the remaining delegates. Hamilton and New Jersey’s Paterson signed the document along with Washington, Benjamin Franklin, William Livingston and others. The delegates ratified the document but the enormous effort to get the states to ratify it had not yet begun. The “war of words” and “power of the press” would swing into action to both inform the people of the contents of the document and also to fight out the opposing viewpoints.
In the effort to ratify the Constitution, the political leadership divided into two camps, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, creating the first two national political parties in the United States.
As happened at the convention, the Federalists seized the momentum early, publishing the first of the Federalist Papers. Alexander Hamilton had come up with the idea, developed the outline and wrote the first installment on a Hudson River sloop as he and his wife and family sailed up the Hudson to the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. The Federalist Papers (85 essays) took the main issues of the Constitution and addressed them one-by-one attempting to give a clear explanation and urge support on an issue-by-issue basis. Each paper addressed a separate issue.
Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison, writing jointly as “Publius,” were the authors, with Hamilton the accepted leader and most prolific writer. The Federalist Papers were published in New York but quickly disseminated to the other states. Thomas Jefferson later called the Federalist Papers “the best commentary on the principles of government ever written.”
The Anti-Federalist effort was more diverse and less organized. Many authors, most using various nom de plume’s published papers on many subjects. The author recognized as both the leader of the Anti-Federalist effort and their most brilliant writer was Robert Yates. Yates, writing as “Brutus,” authored all or parts of at least 14 of the 85 Anti-Federalist papers. Writing as “Sydney,” he authored a 15th. George Clinton donated several papers writing as “Cato.” John Lansing and Abraham Yates, Jr. (writing as “Rough Hewer”) also authored papers.
“Brutus” presented Anti-Federalist positions on federal power subverting state authority (since, he assumed, all taxes would be federal taxes, the states would have little power], objections to a standing army [the army would overthrow the elected government), and objecting to apportionment and slavery (each slave was to be counted as three-fifths of a free person until the year 1808 for purposes of representation) and others.
“The Constitution proposed … is designed … for generations yet unborn. The principles … upon which the … compact is founded ought to have been clearly and precisely stated, and [include] … a full declaration of rights … But on this subject there is almost an entire silence … the sentiments of the people of America … hold this truth as self evident, that all men are by nature free. No man, therefore, or any class of men have a right, by the laws of nature, or of God, to assume or exercise authority over their fellows.”
Yates continues: “… the government is committed, to establish laws for promoting the happiness of the community, and to carry those laws into effect. But it is not necessary for this purpose, that individuals should relinquish all their natural rights … the foundation should be laid … by expressly reserving to the people such of their essential rights as are not necessary to be parted with.
“The powers … granted to the general government by this constitution … reaches to every thing which concerns human happiness – life, liberty and property are under its control.
“For the security of life … no man shall be held to answer for a crime until he is made fully acquainted with the charge brought against him; he shall not be compelled to accuse, or furnish evidence against himself – the witness against him shall be brought face-to-face, and he shall be fully heard by himself or counsel.
“That is essential to the security of life and liberty … excessive bail should not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel or unusual punishments inflicted. That all warrants … to search suspected places, or seize any person, his papers or property, are grievous and oppressive … the ancient mode of trial by jury is one of the best securities of the rights of the people, and ought to remain sacred and inviolable … elections should be free … the liberty of the press should be held sacred … Ought not a government, vested with such extensive and indefinite authority, to have been restricted by a declaration of rights? It certainly ought. – Brutus”
The thorough analysis caused by the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers and the resulting discussions were absolutely necessary because the colonists were creating a new national government that was totally novel; they were creating a totally unique form of government.
By January 9, 1788, five states of the nine necessary for ratification had approved the Constitution: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut, but the outcome was far from decided with the large pivotal states of New York, Virginia and Massachusetts still undecided. Each of these states had strong and influential Anti-Federalist forces. Chances of Constitutional ratification were questionable.
The first of these states to consider the question was Massachusetts. Federalist forces converged on the Massachusetts State House to push for ratification. After serious consideration, ratification was going to be denied. This would place the entire ratification in jeopardy and would be a major setback for the Federalists.
Meetings and negotiations were held and a compromise was worked out: a Bill of Rights bearing many similarities to Yates’ paper #84, would be included in the Constitution. On February 6, with Federalists agreeing to a recommended list of personal rights, Massachusetts ratified by a vote of 187 to 168. Rhode Island voted against adoption. Maryland, South Carolina and New Hampshire adopted, all with the provision that a Bill of Rights would be included.
The New York Congress met in June 1788. John Lansing, on behalf of the Anti-Federalists presented their demanded amendments. John Lansing broke the amendments down into three groups: conditional, explanatory and recommendatory. A sub-committee was appointed to study the proposed amendments.
By the end of June, they were greeted with word that New Hampshire had adopted, meeting the required nine states. New York and Virginia were thus faced with the question of whether to join the new United States; defeat of the ratification process was now impossible.
Adoption was still not easy though, and when a pro-Federalist rally was held in Albany on July 4, 1788, a riot ensued. A copy of the Constitution was burned, one person died and 18 were wounded.
In the committee, John Jay pointed out that since ten other states had already adopted the Constitution any New York qualifications would really be a rejection of the Constitution since the other states had adopted without qualifications. The sub-committee disbanded without reaching any agreement. By small margins and with the provision that a Bill of Rights would be adopted, the remaining states confirmed the Constitution. Both Robert Yates and John Lansing were members of the adopting convention, as was Philip Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton.
According to the newly adopted Constitution, two senators from each state were elected by the state’s legislature. New Jersey picked Jonathan Elmer, the president of the New Jersey Medical Society, and William Paterson. New York selected Philip Schuyler as one of the first two senators from New York. Rufus King was the other. Albany’s Jeremiah Van Rensselaer was elected a member of the first House of Representatives.
The First United States Congress met in the city of New York, the temporary capital. On September 25, 1789, the First Congress adopted, and the states ratified, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution known as the Bill of Rights. Although the Federalists and their leaders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, were successful in adopting and ratifying the Constitution, the United States would not have a Bill of Rights if it were not for the Anti-Federalists and their recognized leader, Robert Yates.
Although a supporter of Governor George Clinton and an opponent of the adoption of the Constitution, Yates was a strong supporter of the Constitution once it was adopted. By 1789, Yates split with Clinton and was supporting the Federalists.
On February 11, 1789, a Federalist meeting was held at Bardin’s Tavern on Broad Street in the city of New York. Alexander Hamilton presided. At the meeting Robert Yates was nominated as the Federalist’s candidate for governor to oppose George Clinton at the following election.
There were vicious attacks by both sides in the campaign. One writer, writing anonymously, wrote that the real issue in the election was that an “obscure Plebeian” (Clinton) had dared to oppose the boundless ambition of the “Patrician Families” (Schuylers/Van Rensselaers/Livingstons). He predicted that if Yates was elected, Yates would be thrust aside after the election so that the “Father and Son” (Schuyler and Hamilton) could “divide the fishes and loaves.” Clinton was successfully re-elected.
In 1795, Yates ran again, this time against John Jay, a leading Federalist. The election was very close with Jay winning with 13,000 votes to Yates’ 12,000. While Jay was governor, legislation was passed making Albany the permanent capitol of New York. John Jay moved to 60 State Street in Albany.
Robert Yates continued as chief justice of New York’s Supreme Court until 1798. He died on September 9, 1801 and is buried along with his other family members and his uncle, Senator Abraham Yates, Jr. in Albany Rural Cemetery.
William Paterson came to be known as the “Father of the U.S. Senate,” as it was felt that it was his influence and the New Jersey Plan that caused the Senate to be created. Paterson served in the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1790, during which time he played a pivotal role in drafting the Judiciary Act of 1789.
In 1790, Paterson was elected governor of New Jersey and served until 1793. During this time he began writing the book Laws of the State of New Jersey, which was published in 1800. He worked to revise the practices of chancery and common law courts in New Jersey.
Also during this time, Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, proposed the construction of America’s first planned industrial community at the great falls of the Passaic River in New Jersey. The new city was named Paterson, New Jersey, in honor of its governor. Soon the Paterson Mills were turning out some of the finest silk in the world.
On March 4, 1793, Paterson was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President George Washington; the Senate confirmed him the same day. During his term on the Supreme Court, the Court issued probably its most important decision concerning the court’s authority to conduct judicial review.
In the Marbury vs. Madison case in 1803, Chief Justice John Marshall and the U.S. Supreme Court decided that as “the supreme court of the land” (wording from the Constitution), the Constitution did give them the power to review state and federal laws and declare them void if they violated the U.S. Constitution. This power was not specifically designated in the U.S. Constitution but had previously been the practice in New Jersey under Paterson’s New Jersey Constitution.
In New Jersey, a law was passed during the American Revolution prohibiting the sale of food or supplies to the British. It further stated that anyone caught violating the law would be tried by a jury of 6 people and if found guilty, sentence imposed. While Paterson was the New Jersey attorney general, Elisha Walton, a major in the militia, seized goods belonging to John Holmes and Solomon Ketcham who were trading in the black market with the British. A jury of six men found Holmes and Ketcham guilty.
Their attorney subsequently appealed on the grounds that the New Jersey law was in violation of the New Jersey Constitution that guaranteed trial by a jury of 12 persons. The New Jersey Supreme Court found the Black Market Law in violation of the New Jersey Constitution and threw out the conviction.
Chief Justice Marshall was credited with being the originator of the principle of judicial review but one of his justices, William Paterson, had been one of the parties in the case deciding the same principle 24 years earlier (1779) in New Jersey.
This decision in New Jersey created quite an outcry. Gouverneur Morris, a drafter of the U.S. Constitution, in an address to the Pennsylvania Legislature, wrote, “A law was once passed in New Jersey, which the judges pronounced unconstitutional, and therefore void. Surely no good citizen can wish to see this … in … Pennsylvania. Such power in judges is dangerous.”
The danger of having judges overrule elected legislatures was widely discussed and it was felt that judges should only overrule elected legislatures in clear and specific cases such as a law calling for six jurors when the constitution clearly states 12.
Democracy was very precious to early colonists having just shed the intolerance of Europe where everything was decided by the King and his ministers. The idea that Supreme Court judges, never subject to election and appointed for life, could overrule elected officials to mandate policies conforming to their personal philosophy, religious and moral convictions was much too close to the creation of a new American royalty.
In 1801, Stephen Van Rensselaer’s wife Margarita Schuyler died. Van Rensselaer was Albany’s last Dutch patroon. Either through his father-in-law, Philip Schuyler, or his brother-in-law, Alexander Hamilton, Van Rensselaer met Paterson’s daughter Cornelia. Seventeen months later, Stephen Van Rensselaer married Cornelia Paterson.
In 1806, his health failing, William Paterson left New Jersey for Albany. When he resigned from the Supreme Court, President Thomas Jefferson replaced him with Albanian Henry Brockholst Livingston, who had fought in the Revolutionary War and served as an aide to General Philip Schuyler.
Paterson had been told that the air in upstate New York was cooler and cleaner and easier to breath. While living with his daughter in the Van Rensselaer Manor, he died. He was first interred in the Van Rensselaer family vault but later moved to Albany Rural Cemetery.
William Paterson, his daughter Cornelia and her husband Albany’s patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer and Stephen’s cousin and first Albany congressman, Jeremiah Van Rensselaer, are all buried in the Van Rensselaer family plot (Lot 1, Section 14) at Albany Rural Cemetery. Robert Yates (Lot 1, Section 8) and his family, as well as John Lansing’s wife and other family members (Lot 5, Section 77) are buried at Albany Rural.
Illustrations, from above: The Constitutional Convention of 1787; Alexander Hamilton (left) and James Madison; John Lansing portrait by Ezra Ames (1768-1836) made in 1829; collected and annotated Federalist Papers (1787); Federal Hall, the former City Hall building on Wall Street in New York where the Bill of Rights was adopted; Portrait of William Paterson (1745–1806) when he was a Supreme Court Justice (1793–1806) from a copy by Stapoko of the original by Sharples; and Paterson’s eldest daughter, Cornelia Bell Paterson Van Rensselaer (1780–1844), painted by Nathaniel Rogers, 1825.