David Brearly (1745–1790)
Born near Trenton, Brearly attended the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) and then took up a career as a lawyer. He was an avid patriot, arrested by the British for high treason but rescued by a band of Revolutionaries. He was a member of the New Jersey convention that drew up the first state constitution, and during the war he rose from the rank of captain to colonel in the New Jersey militia. He was an active member of the controversial Society of the Cincinnati, although his greatest organizational commitment appeared to be his Masonic Lodge and the Episcopal Church. When he came to the Philadelphia convention he was only forty-two but already the chief justice of his state’s supreme court. Elegantly dressed, his wig carefully coiffed, Brearly seemed content to take a backseat to the delegation’s acknowledged leader, William Paterson. He took a leadership role at the ratification convention, however, presiding over its deliberations. President Washington appointed him a federal judge in 1789, and he remained on the bench until his death.
Jonathan Dayton (1760–1824)
Only twenty-seven when he took his seat, Dayton was one of the youngest delegates at the Philadelphia convention. He was born in Elizabethtown, where his father, a local storekeeper, was active in local and state politics. Dayton graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1776 and immediately enlisted in the Continental army. During his military career he saw considerable action and apparently acquitted himself well, rising to the rank of captain by the age of nineteen. He was briefly a prisoner of war. When peace came Dayton returned to New Jersey and took up the practice of law. He sat on the New Jersey assembly for one year, from 1786 to 1787. He arrived late to the Constitutional Convention and entered into several of the debates—revealing in the process a hasty temper and a noticeable lack of political experience. Although he objected to some of its provisions, he signed the Constitution. When the new national government was established, Dayton became a leading Federalist, serving in the House of Representatives from 1791 to 1799. He proved a strong supporter of Hamilton’s fiscal policies as well as the controversial Jay Treaty with England. In 1806, however, Dayton narrowly escaped participation in Aaron Burr’s illicit expedition to conquer Spanish territory in the Southwest and establish an independent empire. Although illness kept him at home while Burr’s forces made their abortive conquest attempt, Dayton was indicted for treason. He was not prosecuted, but his national career was ruined. He remained in state politics, holding local offices and serving briefly in the assembly.
William Churchill Houston (c. 1746–1788)
A graduate of the College of New Jersey, Houston was one of the few professional educators at the Philadelphia convention. He served as master of his alma mater’s college grammar school and in 1771 was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. In 1775 Houston became deputy secretary of the Continental Congress but joined the military once independence was declared. He was a captain in the Somerset County militia and saw combat at Princeton. He served in his state assembly during the war and on its Council of Safety. By 1779 he was back in the Continental Congress. Despite his political activities, Houston found time to study law and was admitted to the bar in 1781. His legal practice ultimately led him to resign from his academic position at the College of New Jersey. Houston was a New Jersey delegate at both the Annapolis and the Philadelphia conventions. His participation at the latter convention was brief since illness forced him to go home after only a week. The following year he died of tuberculosis.
William Livingston (1723–1790)
At sixty-four, Livingston was one of the oldest men at the convention. Tall and reedlike, the son of a distinguished landholding family from New York’s Hudson Valley, Livingston was known to friends and enemies alike as the “Whipping Post.” Livingston rejected his family’s suggestion that he take up life as a fur trader or a New York City merchant, becoming a lawyer instead. Despite his aristocratic background, Livingston was a defender of popular causes in his native New York and an antiestablishment crusader during the 1750s. When the liberal faction he belonged to split over the Stamp Act in 1760, Livingston pulled up stakes and moved to New Jersey, where he built an elegant estate, Liberty Hall, and retired from public life to write poetry and live as a gentleman farmer. The Revolution ended Livingston’s seclusion. He served in both the First and the Second Continental Congresses, and when war began he became a brigadier general in the New Jersey militia. In 1776 he was elected the first governor of the state of New Jersey, a post he held for fourteen consecutive years. His duties as governor prevented him from attending every session of the Philadelphia convention, and he missed several weeks of debate in July. He was a supporter of the New Jersey Plan but worked tirelessly for ratification of the Constitution in its final form. Despite his many political commitments, Livingston managed to conduct agricultural experiments and to work in the antislavery movement.
William Paterson (1745–1806)
Paterson was born in Ireland, but his family immigrated to America when he was only two years old, settling first in Connecticut and later in Trenton, New Jersey. The family prospered and Paterson was able to attend the College of New Jersey. After receiving his master’s degree, he took up the practice of law. During the war he served in the provincial congress, the state constitutional convention, and New Jersey’s legislative council. From 1776 to 1783, he was the state attorney general. After the death of his wife in 1783, Paterson retired from politics and devoted his energies to his legal practice. His selection as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention revived his political career. The five feet two inch Paterson—fastidious in his dress, mild-mannered, and modest in his demeanor—played a central role in the Constitutional Convention as the author of the New Jersey Plan. Although he left the convention after the issue of representation in the Senate was resolved, he returned to sign the Constitution. Paterson was a member of the first U.S. Senate and later governor of his state. From 1793 to 1806, he served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.