The Early Years
It was about 1736 that William Paterson's two uncles, William and Edward, came to this country and settled at Berlin, a small village in Connecticut. They were tinsmiths by trade and found this country anything but alluring when they had chosen it for their home and vocation. Nevertheless in the course of two years they had accumulated sufficient capital to induce them to import some sheet tin from England. Up to that time the colonists had been compelled to depend upon importations from England for tinware of all kinds, principally household utensils. When the two Patersons carried on the manufacture of tin-ware, they used wooden mallets in beating the imported metal into the called for shapes, and then sold the products of their industry by peddling from house to house. Their occupation proved sufficiently remunerative to enable them to offer employment to their brother Richard, who had emigrated from Londonderry in 1747, arriving at Newcastle-on-the-Delaware in 1748. It was here that the future jurist first saw the sunnse in America, in October, 1748.
Richard, acting on the advice of his brothers, selected Trentown-as it was then called-as the scene of his mercantile operations, opening a small store, in which could be found the products of the Connecticut Patersons, supplemented with an assortment of cotton fabrics, manufactured in New England, and other goods in demand in every household. In 1750 Richard acquired a lease on property opposite to what is now Nassau Hall in Princeton. From this place as headquarters the paternal ancestor of William Paterson peddled goods of household utility, his travels carrying him South to Philadelphia and North to New London and Norwich. As William developed into boyhood his services were added to the work of his father; William proved an efficient salesman of tinware, combs, jewelry, pots and pans, for he dealt in a variety of merchandise. In the course of time the family circle was increased by the addition of Brothers Thomas and Edward and Sister Susan. They s ubsequenly removed to Raritan, now Somerset, and it was there that the father died in August, 1781.
William first attended school in Newark, but when the educational establishment there located removed to Princeton, where in later years it developed, first into the College of New Jersey and then into Princeton University, Paterson followed his alma mater to its new location.
The trees on the campus were only young saplings. On the main thoroughfare there reposed a tavern, a general store and several small tinkers' shops. "Among travelled gentry of the time," says Mills, "the village was quite noted for its silversmiths, over one of whose doors hung the sign of Elias Boudinot, the father of Mrs. Richard Stockton, and nearby a member of the Paterson family followed the same trade. There the students loitered during recesses, running to meet the Flying Wagons, as the great coaches from New York were called. A hundred and fifty years have worked a great transition in college life. When William Paterson was a fourteen year old Fresh-man the students were obliged to attend their classes in a style of dress prescribed by President Davies. Every youth, during his first days at college, was set to copying the long parchment of laws.
Fines were imposed for absence from church or prayers. No student was permitted to keep his head covered within ten rods of the president and five yards of the tutors."
Soon after the passage of the stamp act Paterson with his good friends, Oliver Ellsworth, Luther Martin, Benjamin Rush and Tapping Reeve, helped to form a patriotic society called the Well-Meaning Club. In 1770, due to factional differences in the organization, it was abolished by the faculty, but it was shortly afterwards reorganized under the name of the Cliosophic Society of which Aaron Burr was a charter member. In this reorganization Paterson took a very active part. The new society flourished and it is today an important part of the university.
"Often, when law and business were not pressing," says Fliegel, "he would turn from dull Black-stone to consort with Calliope. He loved to read poetry and to write some himself. His law briefs still retain some of his earlier ~ The ''internal evidence," frequently quoted in the Bacon-Shakespeare controversies, if applied to some of William Paterson's early verses, would afford abundant corroborative proof of a statement that these verses were written by a youth of twenty on some fair day in June. Even in later years, when he was practicing law in New Bromley, he would visit Princeton and go to meetings of the Cliosophic Society, where he always found an audience for his writings. His psuedonym was Lucius the Occasional, while Richard Stockton was simply Lucius.
Among his intimate friends was Aaron Burr and the latter frequently accepted Paterson's assistance in the writings of essays. The Burr exercise on dancing, published in Davis' Memoirs of Aaron Burr, was the work of Paterson, for among the letters found among Burr's effects was the following from Paterson, dated January, 1772:
"I am just ready to leave and cannot wait on you. Be pleased to accept the enclosed notes on dancing. If you pick upon it as the subject of your next discourse they may furnish you with a few hints, and enable you to compose with greater facility and despatch."
In addition to assisting his father in mercantile pursuits and attending classes at college William began the study of law in the office of Richard Stockton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
When in 1766 he had arnved at the age of twenty-one he received his degree of Master of Arts from Princeton. (In 1792 he was made an LLD. by the University of the City of New York. Similar honors were subsequently conferred upon him by Dartmouth and Harvard. In 1787 he was made a trustee of Princeton and remained such until 1803.)