Peterson was born in Danish Slesvig, the son of a shoemaker. After his father died, he lived under a strict regime. It may well be that his later ardent commitment to freedom and his loathing of all things related to despotism can be traced back to this strict upbringing.
In 1782 he travelled by ship to Trondheim, where he remained the rest of his life. He first worked as a clerk in various merchant businesses in his new home town. Peterson did not obtain his own merchant licence until 1818. But before this he was already established as a family man, and married into a solid family.
Through his trading activities Peterson took the initiative to establish a stock exchange in Trondheim, the first to attempt this, and he had a key position in the administration of Norges Bank [Bank of Norway] when this was established in 1816. But it is for his press work, writing and commitment to fighting for freedom that he is remembered best. In 1790 he had already made his first contributions to Adresseavisen [Trondheim daily, today’s largest], and in 1795 he became the editor of this newspaper. Later he was involved in all aspects of the various newspaper activities in the town. Peterson wrote in an unreserved colloquial style, and his work contributed to renewal of the prevailing version of newspaper language. Most of all he was a defender of the freedom of the press, as expressed in Article 100 of the Norwegian Constitution from 1814. When Royal decrees tightened the provisions governing this field Peterson was indicted for writing too critically in his attacks on King Carl Johan. In its harshest form, the penalty for this could have been expulsion from the country, but after two years the case ended with full acquittal in the Supreme Court.
Peterson is given the credit for launching 17 May as a general mobilisation day for freedom and independence. Traditionally Constitution Day had been celebrated as a day for partying in some circles. Matthias Conrad Peterson was very eager to defend and fight for Norwegian independence. In 1826 he took the initiative to arrange the first Norwegian citizens' parade on 17 May. The day of freedom was marked by cannon salutes and a parade, ending at Ilevolden. In 1997 a memorial stone was erected in Ilaparken, commemorating this event.
Peterson was involved in many matters, large and small. He advocated a public swimming pool, he strongly wanted a separate Norwegian university, and in Trondheim he helped do away with the prejudices against the "nattmann" [night sanitation worker].
He died in 1833, survived by his wife and a daughter. With a large crowd attending, he was buried in the old cemetery at Vår Frue [Our Lady] Church.
Recommended reading: Øyvin Davidsen: Matthias Conrad Peterson. Cammermeyer, 1950.