In the early days of 1775 William Paterson was elected secretary of the Somerset County Committee, an organization formed to extend aid to the movement which fostered an attempt at revolution. He declined the proffered honor, giving as his reason that he was desirous of taking an active part in the county military. His brother Edward had been appointed Lieutenant of the Third Battalion and his other brother, Thomas, was an officer in the same regiment.
The course he pursued gave him more opportunity for devoting his energy to the work of this same committee. On May 1, 1775, the committee appointed two deputies to the Provincial Congress; one of these was Paterson, the other was Frederick Frelinghuysen. The deputies were instructed to use all possible means towards furthering the revolutionary movement, including the raising and supporting of a military force.
A Council of Public Safety, of which Paterson was secretary, had been formed, one of whose principal duties was the providing of uniforms for the enlisted patriots. As such secretary on August 31, Paterson published a letter warning the public to watch the doings of all persons suspected of disloyalty to the confederacy and to make reports thereon to the proper authorities, and also urging the adoption of what he called a "hunting frock," in order to be equipped similarly to the Continental Riflemen.
The Provincial Congress met on October 5 and appointed Paterson as secretary, an appointment which Paterson declined, giving as his reason the great pressure of business in a different direction in aiding the revolution.
In 1776 he was back again in military uniform, serving as an officer of the Somerset County Battalion of Minute Men. In this same year he was appointed on a committee of four to arrest and depose the royalist Governor Franklin. It was in 1776 that the Provincial Congress, of which Paterson was a member, adopted the first constitution of New Jersey. The last article of this constitution left open a way for a reconciliation with the mother country; to this Paterson expressed his disapproval in strong terms, but his vote was one of a minority.
Paterson was unanimously elected secretary of the Provincial Congress, which met on June 10, 1776. He appended his name as secretary to a warning to the public not to heed Governor Franklin's proclamation calling for a meeting of the New Jersey legislature. He also issued a notice informing the public of the suspension of the payment of the governor's salary, and a few days after voted for the immediate apprehension of Governor Franklin who had "discovered himself to be an enemy to the liberties of the country."
At the organization of the state government in 1776, Paterson, then a man of thirty-one years, was selected for a five year term to the important office of Attorney-General, the first to serve in that office under the new constitution. "His duties in this office were difficult and arduous," says Judge Elmer. "It became necessary for him to attend the criminal courts in the different counties at a time when the armies of a hostile power were invading the state and the only means of communication were by long and painful journeys, mostly on horseback."
Mrs. Wood says:
"When his term expired he was reappointed, September 28, 1781, acting till his resignation in 1783, at the conclusion of the war. Not only was it the function of his office to prosecute ordinary offenders, but it also included the investigation of alleged traitors, certain of whom were from Somerset, Middlesex and Hunterdon counties, and must have been known to the Attorney-General as friends, clients or at least acquaintances."
In August, 1777, he became aroused at reports circulated concerning the treatment of patriots by the British and he wrote a letter to Governor Livingston in which he says:
"I am amazed that Congress does not act agreeably to their resolution and push into exercise the law of retaliation. We deserve to be insulted because we bear it. If we were to treat the soldiers of the enemy, who are prisoners with us, in the same manner in which they treat our soldiers who are prisoners with them, it would soon produce a mild and human course of conduct. All the Jersey officers who have been taken by the enemy are now in Provost, and treated in the most severe and barbarous manner. Perhaps a letter from your excellency and the council, addressed to Congress, might be productive of the happiest effect."
On November 29, 1878, the New Jersey legislature elected Paterson one of five delegates to the Continental Congress. On December 4 he sent the following letter to the speaker of the assembly:
"On my return from Sussex court I met with your letter which notified of my being on the delegation to Congress. The appointment was unexpected, especially as some of the gentlemen of the legislature were fully possessed of my sentiments on the occasion. From the commencement of the contest I held myself bound to serve the public in any station which my fellow citizens might place me and it is therefor with regret that I find myself under the necessity to decline the present appointment. I look upon it, however, as an act of justice to myself, as well as of respect to your honorable body, to declare that my non-acceptance of the delegacy is owing to its interference with my official duties in another line. The business of a criminal nature in this state is at present intricate and extensive; it unavoidably occupies the far greater part of my time. I feel its weight and have more than once been ready to sink under it. Of the business of Congress, its variety, extent and importance I shall forbear to speak. Viewing these offices as I do, I am convinced that no one man can execute them both at the same time. If he can acquit himself well in one of them at once it is fully as much as can be reasonably expected. I am sure I shall account it one of the happiest circumstances of my life, if, in the execution of the present trust alone I can give satisfaction to the public under which I act."
In 1785 he was a member of a convention of delegates of five states and was the father of a resolution prohibiting the reading of English practice in public, the penalty prescribed being the cancellation of the license to the practice of law. Although the resolution was supported by Delaware, Maryland and New York, it was laid aside. The record refers to New York as one of the "smaller states."