William Paterson emigrated with his family to New Jersey from Ireland when he was two. Paterson was educated at Princeton and then read law, opening his own practice in 1769. Paterson held political office in New Jersey and was chosen as a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadephia where he introduced the New Jersey Plan calling for equal political representation for the states. The idea merged into the Great Compromise. Paterson signed the draft Constitution and advocated its ratification in New Jersey.
The New Jersey legislature elected Paterson to the United States Senate in 1789. He resigned his seat in 1790 to become New Jersey's governor. George Washington appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1793. During his tenure, Paterson was a firm advocate of national supremacy over state government.
When Oliver Ellsworth resigned as chief justice in 1800, many senators thought that the position ought to go to Paterson. Adams shunned that counsel and nominated John Marshall as his choice.
Paterson was injured in a carriage accident in 1803 and never fully recovered. He died three years later.