One of the biggest advocates for the “small states” during the Constitutional Convention, William Paterson is most remembered for his stern opposition of Edmund Randolph’s proposed Virginia Plan which called for proportional representation in the “national” legislature. Born in Ireland, Paterson’s family immigrated to America and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. While his father was a moderately successful storekeeper, Paterson displayed his natural intelligence at an early age entering the College of Princeton when he was fourteen. Paterson pursued his master’s degree and studied law following his graduation. From the beginning of the American Revolution, Paterson was a staunch Patriot. He lived by a strict moral code that was displayed in most aspects of his political and private life. Paterson saw his reputation and prestige ascend to new heights at the outbreak of war. His law practice became incredibly sought out after his appointment as Attorney General of New Jersey in 1776.
Appointed as one of New Jersey’s delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Paterson remained relatively quiet during the first couple weeks except for his cryptic and sometimes animated note taking, especially during Edmund Randolph’s proposed Virginia Plan on May 29th. Paterson strongly believed that proportional representation in this new legislature would undermine the sovereign power of the states and the Articles of Confederation as a whole. On June 9th, Paterson spoke passionately in opposition, reminding the delegates not to overstep the boundaries that had brought them to the convention, to revise and enlarge the Articles of Confederation, not to completely scrap the document in its entirety. While Paterson supported a stronger central government, he felt that upholding the Articles of Confederation was the safest and maybe only way to ensure the equality of representation among the states. His proposed New Jersey plan protected the interests of the smaller states and directly countered the sweeping changes of the national government articulated in the Virginia Plan.