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William Paterson was an accomplished American statesman who served in Congress, on the Supreme Court and as governor of New Jersey.
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Born in Ireland in 1745, William Paterson was a delegate to the New Jersey Constitutional Convention of 1776, and from 1776 to 1783, he served as the state's attorney general. In 1787, Paterson headed the New Jersey delegation to the federal Constitutional Convention, and in 1789, was elected one of the state's first two U.S. senators. He served as governor of New Jersey until 1793, when he was named an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Paterson died in New York in 1806.
"What is a constitution? It is the form of government, delineated by the mighty hand of the people, in which certain first principles of fundamental law are established. The Constitution is certain and fixed; it contains the permanent will of the people, and is the supreme law of the land."
Born on December 24, 1745, in County Antrim, Ireland, William Paterson was an influential political and judicial figure in American history. He moved to America as a toddler. Around 1750, Paterson and his family settled in Princeton, New Jersey. There, his father found success as a merchant.
Growing up in an affluent family, Paterson was educated in private schools. He earned his bachelor's degree from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1763. Three years later, Paterson earned a master's degree from the same institution. He remained in Princeton to study law with Richard Stockton.
During the American Revolutionary War, Paterson was one of New Jersey's leading patriots. He was a member of the provincial congress from 1775 to 1776, and was part of the New Jersey Constitutional Convention of 1776. From 1776 to 1783, he served as New Jersey's attorney general.
In 1787, Paterson again worked on behalf of New Jersey as a representative to the federal Constitutional Convention. He proposed what became known as the "Paterson Plan," or the "New Jersey Plan," which sought to balance power between the larger and smaller states. Two years later, Paterson became one of the state's first senators. In 1790, he became the state's governor—a post that he would hold until he was called for national service in 1793.
President George Washington appointed Paterson to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1793. During his time with the court, he oversaw the trials of those involved in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Paterson hoped to become the court's chief justice in 1800, after Oliver Ellsworth stepped down, but President John Adams appointed John Marshall instead.
In 1803, Paterson was hurt in a carriage accident. He was never the same after the incident, but he didn't let his physical problems distract him from his judicial duty. Paterson remained on the Supreme Court until his death, on September 9, 1806, in Albany, New York.
Paterson was married twice during his lifetime. He had three children with his first wife, Cornelia Bell. The couple married in 1779 and remained together until her death in 1783. In 1785, Paterson married his second wife, Euphemia White.
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They are American icons—they're on our dollars and coins, they are the subject of our monuments, and we live our daily lives in the world their ideas helped create. America's Founding Fathers include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and, of course, Benjamin Franklin. These men, together with several other key players of their time, structured the American democracy and left a legacy that has shaped the world. But beyond their legends, these men were human beings who led complex and fascinating lives. Learning their stories helps us better understand what made them tick, as well as their influence on our world today.
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