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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Saturday, June 9, 1787

June 09, 2020 - 4 minute read

Founding Father William Paterson

Yesterday, the Committee of the Whole was unable to decide on whether the national legislature should be authorized to veto acts of the State legislatures, but the debate widened the gulf between the large and small States. Calls for national unity were met with accusations that the large States were seeking to destroy the smaller ones. At times, the debate bordered on becoming personal. “It seems,” Gunning Bedford charged, “as if Pennsylvania and Virginia by the conduct of their deputies wished to provide a system in which they would have an enormous and monstrous influence.”

Today’s debate continued to swirl around the role of the States in the new government and was no less heated. But first the Committee voted 0 – 9 – 1 to dispose of Elbridge Gerry’s motion to have the national executive elected by the State executives.  That decided, William Paterson was recognized by Chairman Nathaniel Gorham.

The Committee has already agreed that the first house of the national legislature should be elected by the people and the second house by the state legislatures, but should the number in each house be based on equality of States or a form of proportional representation as proposed in the Virginia Plan? 

Paterson rose to propose that the Committee “resume the clause relating to the role of suffrage in the National Legislature.”  His motion was seconded by his colleague from New Jersey, David Brearley. Brearley was “sorry that any question on this point was brought into view.” This issue had been “much agitated” when the Articles of Confederation were drafted and “rightly settled by allowing to each sovereign State an equal vote. Otherwise the smaller States must have been destroyed instead of being saved.” In his own State, New Jersey, “where large and small counties were united into a district for electing representatives for the district, the large counties always carried their point, and consequently that the large States would do so.”

But this day Paterson, following Gunning Bedford’s example of yesterday, took the lead in making the case for the small States. Born in County Antrim, Ireland, in 1745, he immigrated as a toddler to America with his parents. His father was what we would call a “traveling salesman,” peddling pots and pans and other tin ware. Settling in Princeton, New Jersey he became merchant and manufacturer, specializing in tin goods. The Paterson home was located across the street from the new College of New Jersey and Paterson was able to afford a quality education for William, who graduated with a B.A. and M.A. At the same time, William studied law under Richard Stockton who later signed the Declaration of Independence. Paterson himself joined the patriot caused and served on New Jersey’s provincial Congress, its constitutional convention and the safety commission as well as serving in the militia. From 1776 to 1783 he was attorney general of New Jersey. 

William Pierce said Paterson “is one of those kind of men whose powers break in on you and create wonder and astonishment. He is a man of great modesty, with looks that bespeak talents of no great extent – but he is a classic, a lawyer, and an orator – and of a disposition so favorable to his advancement that everyone seems ready to exalt him with their praises.” Importantly, he “never speaks but when he understands his subject well.”

Today, he knows his subject well.  “The proposition for a proportional representation” strikes at the existence of the lesser States,” he began. The Convention was called by an act of the Confederation Congress to “amend the confederacy” and most of the State resolutions supporting it included that limitation. He then demanded that the Massachusetts resolution be read. “We ought to keep within the limits” prescribed, he insisted, “or we should be charged by our constituents with usurpation…The idea of a national government, as contradistinguished from a federal one, never entered into the mind of any of them…We must follow the people; the people will not follow us.”

Paterson, slight of build and of a very low stature, persisted in a very lengthy speech. “A confederacy supposed sovereignty in the members composing it,” he continued. “and sovereignty supposes equality.” He alluded to an earlier remark by James Wilson that, if necessary, the large States “might be reduced to confederating by themselves by a refusal of the others to concur.” Go head, Paterson retorted, “let them unite if they please, but let them remember that they have no authority to compel the others to unite. New Jersey will never confederate on any plan before the Committee!”  He would not only oppose the plan here, but on his return home he would do everything in his power to defeat it there.

Wilson was compelled to respond, hoping that “if the Confederacy should be dissolved, that a majority, that a minority of the States would unite for their safety.” Then he launched into an elaborate of proportional representation. All authority is derived from the people, therefore ”equal numbers of people ought to have an equal number of representatives, and different number of people different numbers of representatives.” This should have been the case with the Confederation, but it was not, “owing to the urgent circumstances at the time.” Are not the citizens of Pennsylvania equal to those of New Jersey? “If the small States will not confederate on this plan,” he cautioned, “Pennsylvania and some other States [he presumed] would not confederate on any other…If New Jersey will not part with her sovereignty it is in vain to talk of government.”

“The gentleman from New Jersey is candid in declaring his opinion,” Wilson acknowledged, “I commend him for it – I am equally so…The State who has five times the number of inhabitants ought, nay, must have the same proportion of weight in the representation. If there was a probability of equalizing the States, I would be for it. But we have no such power.”  Paterson thought it “might be best to postpone the decision till tomorrow,” which was done by consent.

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