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Paterson, William

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Birth: December 24, 1745, County Antrim, Ireland.

Education: Graduated from College of New Jersey (Princeton), 1763; M.A., 1766; studied law under Richard Stockton; admitted to the bar, 1769.

Official Positions: Member, New Jersey Provincial Congress, 1775–1776; delegate, New Jersey State Constitutional Convention, 1776; New Jersey attorney general, 1776–1783; delegate, U.S. Constitutional Convention, 1787; U.S. senator, 1789–1790; governor, New Jersey, 1790–1793.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated associate justice by President George Washington, March 4, 1793, to replace Thomas Johnson, who had resigned; confirmed by the Senate, March 4, 1793, by a voice vote; took judicial oath March 11, 1793; served until September 9, 1806; replaced by Henry B. Livingston, nominated by President Thomas Jefferson.

Death: September 9, 1806, Albany, New York.

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William Paterson
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William Paterson

William Paterson left a major imprint on the United States judiciary, but it was based largely on his achievements before he was appointed to the Supreme Court. Paterson supported an independent judiciary at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. His New Jersey Plan of Union proposed to amend the ineffective Articles of Confederation by adding “a federal Judiciary …. to consist of a supreme Tribunal” and providing that acts and treaties established under the new Constitution “shall be the supreme law of the respective States …. and that the Judiciary of the several States shall be bound thereby.” Much of the rest of his life was devoted to implementing the “supreme law” clause he had introduced.

Two years later, as a member of the first U.S. Senate, Paterson was second only to Oliver Ellsworth as the principal author of the Judiciary Act of 1789, legislation that for a century provided the framework of the federal judiciary, and much of which is still determinative. The first nine sections of the manuscript, those that establish the structure of the federal courts, are in Paterson's hand. He argued strenuously in the Senate for lower federal courts, rather than leaving local jurisdiction entirely to state courts. Ironically, President George Washington attempted to withdraw Paterson's nomination the day after he had submitted it, because of the Judiciary Act. On February 28, the president wrote the to Senate: “It has since occurred that he was a member of the Senate when the Law creating that office was passed, and that the time for which he was elected is not yet expired. I think it my duty therefore, to declare that I deem the nomination to have been null by the Constitution.” Paterson was, nevertheless, confirmed four days later.

Although Paterson had never previously been on the bench, he brought a wealth of courtroom experience to the Supreme Court. As attorney general for New Jersey from 1776 to 1783, he was accustomed to long horseback rides from court to court. This may have been the best possible preparation for the arduous circuit court duties that seemed to consume the lives of the justices; in 1800 Paterson complained of riding “over stones and rocks and mountains” to get to court in New Hampshire.

Paterson had compiled the Laws of the State of New Jersey and “Paterson's Practice Laws,” a compendium of New Jersey procedures and practices in common law and chancery courts. Even though he did not take his seat until 1794, Paterson was the first holder of the second seat (intended to be that of the senior associate justice) to give substantive service. And he declined the opportunity for an early exit when Washington wished to appoint him as secretary of state in 1796.

Paterson's devotion to the integral part the judiciary would play in preserving the Constitution can be found in a lengthy charge to the federal grand jury in the Pennsylvania circuit court in 1795. There he offered one of the finest and most extensive justifications for judicial review prior to Marbury v. Madison (1803). The superiority of the Pennsylvania Constitution to state legislation was at stake in Van Horne's Lessee v. Dorrance (1795), but Paterson's powerful argument would extend as well to federal legislation. “I take it to be a clear proposition,” he declared, “that if a legislative act oppugns a constitutional principle the former must give way, and be rejected on the score of repugnance. I hold it to be a position equally clear and sound that in such a case, it will be the duty of the court to adhere to the constitution and to declare the act null and void.” He showed little concern for the tender feelings of legislatures. They are merely “creatures of the constitution; they owe their existence to the constitution, it is their commission and, therefore, all their acts must be conformable to it, or else they will be void.” Lest the jury remain in doubt, he admonished that “there can be no doubt that every act of the legislature repugnant to the constitution is absolutely void.” This powerful charge soon gained wide attention in pamphlet form. In United States v. Lyon (1799), Paterson informed the jury that the constitutionality of the Sedition Act was a matter for judges to determine, not juries.

Paterson had been a confirmed nationalist from the time during the Constitutional Convention that he had succeeded in establishing a secure place for New Jersey (and other small states) within the Union. His nationalism was shown in his first Supreme Court decision, Talbot v. Janson (1795), in which he ruled that state law could not affect U.S. citizenship: “Allegiance to a particular state is one thing; allegiance to the United States is another.… The sovereignties are different.” A system of “sovereignties moving within a sovereignty” requires great care lest “a slight collision may disturb the harmony of the parts and endanger the machinery of the whole.”

He went a huge step further in Penhallow v. Doane's Administrators (1795), declaring that the states had never been recognized as sovereign. He ridiculed the idea that the states could have any power of war and peace. He saw the United States as one great political body, with Congress “the directing principle and soul.” Some in the gallery must have marveled at this imaginative paean to the repudiated Continental Congress: “Congress was the general, supreme, and controlling council of the nation, the centre of the nation, the centre of the union, the centre of force, and the sun of the political system.”

As one of four Supreme Court justices who had participated in the writing of the Constitution, Paterson twice took advantage of his status as a Founding Father. He argued persuasively in Hylton v. United States (1796) that the direct tax clause of the Constitution was intended to apply only to a capitation tax and a land tax. He asserted that it was “obviously the intention of the framers of the Constitution, that Congress should possess full power over every species of taxable property, except exports,” because they had been painfully aware of the failings of the requisition system under the Articles of Confederation. He took a further step in Calder v. Bull (1798). After remarking that the Constitutional Convention had intended that the ex post facto clause apply only to criminal cases, not to civil cases, he added that he, personally, felt differently, implying that this was an issue on which he had lost in the secrecy of the last few days of the 1787 convention. In the same session as Hylton v. United States, Paterson also participated in the vitally important Ware v. Hylton, but he added little to Justice Samuel Chase's masterful exposition.

As with most of the other Founding Fathers, Paterson strongly disapproved of political parties. Yet like so many of his peers, he too became extremely partisan. His intense respect for authority and stability, his aristocratic view of society, made him a natural ally of the Hamiltonian Federalists. He quickly displayed blatant federalism in circuit trials of several participants in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. Trials under the Sedition Act of 1798 brought out the worst in him. Even his admiring biographer describes him as an unjust “hanging judge” who merited the abuse of his Republican critics in 1799 and 1800. Following the prosecution of Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont for sedition in 1799, Paterson proceeded to rule before Lyon's counsel could present a defense. When the defendant's lawyer protested, he “politely sat down.” But Paterson's instructions demolished Lyon's defense, and he was convicted within an hour, the first conviction under the Sedition Act. Paterson sentenced him to four months in jail and fined him $1,000. He likewise undermined the defense of Anthony Haswell, who had defended Lyon so strenuously that he, too, was convicted of sedition.

Paterson became a special hero to the high Federalists with a charge to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, grand jury in May 1800. He branded the Jeffersonian Republicans as Jacobins who were “the disorganizers of our happy country, and the only instruments of introducing discontent and dissatisfaction among the well-meaning part of the Community.” His admirers hoped to reward him by persuading or coercing President John Adams to appoint Paterson as Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth's successor. The Federalist-dominated Senate briefly held up Marshall's confirmation in hopes that Adams would relent, but the president had no desire to reward someone who was so popular among those Federalists who had so persistently undermined his administration. Federalist friends sent Paterson spiteful remarks about Adams and his refusal to appoint him as chief justice. Such remarks would have merited prosecution for sedition if they had been supporters of Jefferson rather than of Hamilton.

“I will not nominate him,” Adams declared. After offering the position again to John Jay and unsuccessfully sounding out other nominees, Adams finally turned to Secretary of State John Marshall, shortly before the position would have fallen to President Jefferson to fill. This decision was a dramatic turning point in American judicial history. If Paterson had been appointed, Thomas Jefferson would have been able to appoint a new chief justice in 1806, when Paterson died. Marshall, on the other hand, outlasted the Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams administrations, and most of the Jackson administration as well. Paterson sent a warm letter of congratulations to Marshall and was a valued ally in the short time that they served together on the bench.

Ironically, nonpartisan statesmanship became the hallmark of Paterson's last few years on the Supreme Court. His last significant decision proved also to be his most important. In Stuart v. Laird (1803), he upheld the constitutionality of the Circuit Court Act of 1802. The seeming partisanship of the Judiciary Act of 1801, by which the lame-duck Congress attempted to create lifetime judicial sinecures for “deserving Federalists,” while seeking the more worthy goal of relieving Supreme Court justices from their arduous circuit duties, caused President Jefferson to respond in kind. In addition to withholding some commissions from lesser lights such as William Marbury and others, the Republicans took the more important step of deleting the new circuit courts and, with them, the new circuit judges. The Supreme Court justices, all Federalists, received two concessions from the Republican Congress following the repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801. Only one justice would be required in each circuit court, and the Supreme Court would meet for one four-week session each year, rather than for two sessions of two weeks each. These changes had the politically beneficial impact, from the Republican standpoint, of keeping the Court from convening until February 1803. Ironically, it was probably also fortunate timing for the justices. It gave them time to discuss the judicial reforms before ruling on whether Congress had acted constitutionally in removing judges who had theoretically been appointed for a lifetime tenure. Only Justice Chase insisted that the members should refuse to continue riding circuits.

Paterson ruled in Stuart v. Laird because Marshall had already ruled on the question on circuit. Paterson's four brief paragraphs agreed essentially with Marshall's findings. Paterson conceded that Congress could assign Supreme Court justices to circuit duty. They had performed such duties from the beginning, and this practice had “fixed the construction” so that it is “too strong and obstinate to be shaken or controlled.” The question is at rest, he admonished, and it ought not now to be revived. Congress has the “constitutional authority to establish from time to time such inferior tribunals as they may think proper; and to transfer a cause from one tribunal to another.” Paterson did not add, if he even knew it, that Chief Justice Jay had questioned the constitutionality of circuit riding in September 1790. The justices' wisdom in accepting a setback in their politics and in their personal comfort, rather than challenging the dominant Republicans, has been described as the ultimate “example of the nonpartisanship of the American judiciary.” Just the week before, the Court had chosen a much less dangerous case, Marbury v. Madison (1803), through which to challenge Congress and the Jefferson administration.

Justice William Johnson, whose term overlapped with Paterson's for barely two years, unjustly described Paterson in 1822 as “a slow man” who “willingly declined the Trouble” of writing opinions—this despite the fact that Paterson, not Johnson, was the first to write a dissent from a Marshall opinion, in Simms v. Slacum (1805). Paterson was seriously injured in a carriage accident in 1804, was nearly immobile for weeks, and he missed both Court and circuit assignments. Severe illness forced him to leave the New York circuit in August 1806, where he was contending that the court should subpoena President Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, to answer allegations of defendants being prosecuted for participation in Francisco Miranda's attack on Venezuela. His departure left the field to district judge Matthias Tallmadge, who opposed this affront to the executive. Justice Paterson died shortly afterward at the home of his daughter in Albany, New York. Justice Johnson could scarcely have known the colleague whom he criticized for partisan reasons sixteen years later.


John E. O'Connor, William Paterson, Lawyer and Statesman, 1745–1806 (1979), is admiring of Paterson's career, yet properly critical of his partisan decisions. His life is ably and briefly profiled in Michael Kraus's essay in Friedman and Israel, Justices, vol. 1, 163. Gertrude S. Wood's doctoral dissertation, “William Paterson of New Jersey, 1745–1806,” (Columbia, 1933), was privately published in condensed form in 1940. Julian P. Boyd in Willard Thorpe, ed., The Lives of Eighteen from Princeton (1946), uses the Van Horne case to justify entitling his essay on Paterson, “Forerunner of John Marshall.” Leonard B. Rosenberg's unpublished doctoral dissertation, “The Political Thought of William Paterson” (New School for Social Research, 1967) helps us understand his judicial career. For another look at the Sedition Act cases, see Williamjames Hull Hoffer, “William Paterson and the National Jurisprudence: Two Draft Opinions on the Sedition Law of 1798 and the Federal Common Law,” Journal of Supreme Court History 36 (1997).

Noteworthy Opinions

Penhallow v. Doane's Administrators, 3 U.S. 54 (1795)

Talbot v. Janson, 3 U.S. 133 (1795)

Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S 171 (1796)

Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798)

Stuart v. Laird, 5 U.S. 299 (1803)


Document Citation
Paterson, William, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 390 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18168-979446
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