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Oliver Ellsworth

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Oliver Ellsworth
Portrait by Ralph Earl, 1785.
3rd Chief Justice of the United States
In office
March 8, 1796 – December 15, 1800
Nominated byGeorge Washington
Preceded byJohn Rutledge
Succeeded byJohn Marshall
United States Senator
from Connecticut
In office
March 4, 1789 – March 8, 1796
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byJames Hillhouse
Personal details
Born(1745-04-29)April 29, 1745
Windsor, Connecticut, British America
DiedNovember 26, 1807(1807-11-26) (aged 62)
Windsor, Connecticut, U.S.
Political partyFederalist
SpouseAbigail Wolcott
Children9, including William and Henry
RelativesHenry W. Ellsworth (grandson)
Delia Lyman Porter (great-granddaughter)
EducationYale College
College of New Jersey (AB)

Oliver Ellsworth (April 29, 1745 – November 26, 1807) was a Founding Father of the United States, attorney, jurist, politician, and diplomat. Ellsworth was a framer of the United States Constitution, United States senator from Connecticut, and the third chief justice of the United States. Additionally, he received 11 electoral votes in the 1796 presidential election.

Born in Windsor, Connecticut, Ellsworth attended the College of New Jersey where he helped found the American Whig–Cliosophic Society. In 1777, he became the state attorney for Hartford County, Connecticut, and was selected as a delegate to the Continental Congress, serving during the remainder of the American Revolutionary War. He served as a state judge during the 1780s and was selected as a delegate to the 1787 Philadelphia Convention, which produced the United States Constitution. While at the convention, Ellsworth played a role in fashioning the Connecticut Compromise between the more populous states and the less populous states. He also served on the Committee of Detail, which prepared the first draft of the Constitution, but he left the convention and did not sign the document.

His influence helped ensure that Connecticut ratified the Constitution, and he was elected as one of Connecticut's inaugural pair of Senators, serving from 1789 to 1796. He was the chief author of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which shaped the federal judiciary of the United States and established the Supreme Court's power to overturn state supreme court decisions that were contrary to the United States Constitution. Ellsworth served as a key Senate ally to Alexander Hamilton and aligned with the Federalist Party. He led the Senate passage of Hamiltonian proposals such as the Funding Act of 1790 and the Bank Bill of 1791. He also advocated in favor of the United States Bill of Rights and the Jay Treaty.

In 1796, after the Senate rejected the nomination of John Rutledge to serve as Chief Justice, President George Washington nominated Ellsworth to the position. Ellsworth was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, and served until 1800, when he resigned due to poor health. Few cases came before the Ellsworth Court, and he is chiefly remembered for his discouragement of the previous practice of seriatim opinion writing. He simultaneously served as an envoy to France from 1799 to 1800, signing the Convention of 1800 to settle the hostilities of the Quasi-War. He was succeeded as chief justice by John Marshall. He subsequently served on the Connecticut Governor's Council until his death in 1807.

Youth and family life


Ellsworth was born in Windsor, Connecticut, to Capt. David and Jemima (née Leavitt) Ellsworth.[1] Ellsworth's ancestors had lived in Windsor since the middle of the 17th century.[2] He entered Yale in 1762, but transferred to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at the end of his second year. Along with William Paterson and Luther Martin (both of whom served with him at the Constitutional Convention in 1787) he founded the "Well Meaning Club," which became the Cliosophic Society—now part of Whig-Clio, the nation's oldest college debating club.[3] He received his A.B. degree in 1766, Phi Beta Kappa[4] after 2 years. Soon afterward, Ellsworth turned to the law. After four years of study, he was admitted to the bar in 1771 and later became a successful lawyer and politician.

In 1772, Ellsworth married Abigail Wolcott, the daughter of Abigail Abbot and William Wolcott, nephew of Connecticut colonial governor Roger Wolcott,[5] and granddaughter of Abiah Hawley and William Wolcott of East Windsor, Connecticut.

They had nine children including the twin brothers William Wolcott Ellsworth and Henry Leavitt Ellsworth. William married Noah Webster's daughter, served in Congress and was elected Governor of Connecticut. Henry became the first Commissioner of the United States Patent Office, the mayor of Hartford, president of Aetna Life Insurance and a major benefactor of Yale College. Henry was also instrumental in the creation of the U.S. Agriculture Department and oversaw the forced relocation of Cherokee Indians from Georgia to the Oklahoma Territory. He was a friend and backer of inventors Samuel Colt and Samuel F.B. Morse, and his daughter Annie Ellsworth proposed the first message transmitted by Morse over the telegraph, "What hath God wrought?"[citation needed]

Revolutionary War


Ellsworth built up a prosperous law practice and in 1777 he became Connecticut's state attorney for Hartford County. That same year, he was chosen as one of Connecticut's representatives in the Continental Congress. He served 1777–80 and 1781–83 on various committees, including the Marine Committee, the Board of Treasury, and the Committee of Appeals. Ellsworth was also active in his state's efforts during the Revolution, having served as a member of the Committee of the Pay Table that supervised Connecticut's war expenditures. In 1777 he joined the Committee of Appeals, which can be described as a forerunner of the Federal Supreme Court.[6] While serving on it, he participated in the Olmstead case that brought state and federal authority into conflict. In 1779, he assumed greater duties as a member of the Council of Safety, which, with the governor, controlled all military measures for the state. His first judicial service was on the Supreme Court of Errors when it was established in 1785, but he soon shifted to the Connecticut Superior Court and spent four years on its bench.

Constitutional Convention

Oliver and Abigail Ellsworth by Ralph Earl

Ellsworth participated in the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia as a delegate from Connecticut along with Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson. More than half of the 55 delegates were lawyers, eight of whom, including both Ellsworth and Sherman, had previous experience as judges conversant with legal discourse.

Ellsworth took an active part in the proceedings beginning on June 20, when he proposed the use of "the United States" to identify the government under the authority of the Constitution. The words "United States" had already been used in the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation as well as Thomas Paine's The American Crisis. It was Ellsworth's proposal to retain the earlier wording to sustain the emphasis on a federation rather than a single national entity. Three weeks earlier, on May 30, 1787, Edmund Randolph of Virginia had moved to create a "national government" consisting of a supreme legislative, an executive, and a judiciary. Ellsworth accepted Randolph's notion of a threefold division but moved to strike the phrase "national government." Since then, the "United States" has been the official title used in the Convention to designate the government. The complete name, "the United States of America," had already been featured by Paine, and its inclusion in the Constitution was the work of Gouverneur Morris when he made the final editorial changes in the Constitution.

Ellsworth played a major role in the adoption of the Connecticut Compromise. The Convention was deadlocked over the question of representation in Congress, with the large states wanting proportional representation and the small states demanding equal representation for each state. During the debate, he joined his fellow Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman in proposing the bicameral Congress in which two members of the Senate would be elected by each state legislature, while membership in the House of Representatives would be apportioned among the states based on its share of the whole population of the states. The compromise was adopted by the Convention on July 16, 1787.

On the contentious issue of whether slaves would be counted as part of the population in determining representation of the states in Congress or would instead be considered property and so not be counted, Ellsworth voted for the eventual Three-Fifths Compromise. Later, stressing that he had no slaves, Ellsworth spoke twice before the convention, on August 21 and 22, in favor of slavery being abolished.[7] He also played an important role in keeping the concept of judicial review out of the Constitution.

Along with James Wilson, John Rutledge, Edmund Randolph, and Nathaniel Gorham, Ellsworth served on the Committee of Detail, which prepared the first draft of the Constitution, based on resolutions that had already been passed by the Convention. The Convention deliberations were interrupted from July 26 to August 6, 1787 while the committee completed its task.

Though Ellsworth left the Convention near the end of August and did not sign the complete final document, he wrote the Letters of a Landholder to promote its ratification. He also played a dominant role in Connecticut's 1788 ratification convention, when he emphasized that judicial review guaranteed federal sovereignty. It seems more than a coincidence that both he and Wilson served as members of the Committee of Detail without mentioning judicial review in the initial draft of the Constitution but then stressed its central importance at their ratifying conventions just a year preceding its inclusion by Ellsworth in the Judiciary Act of 1789.[citation needed]

United States Senate

Letter from Ellsworth to George Washington wishing former president "a most respectful and most cordial farewell," March 1797

Along with William Samuel Johnson, Ellsworth served as one of Connecticut's first two United States senators in the new federal government. He identified with the emerging Federalist Party and played a dominant role in Senate proceedings equivalent to that of Senate Majority Leaders in later decades. According to John Adams, he was "the firmest pillar of [Washington's] whole administration in the Senate." [Brown, 231] Aaron Burr complained that if Ellsworth had misspelled the name of the Deity with two D's, "it would have taken the Senate three weeks to expunge the superfluous letter." Senator William Maclay, a Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, offered a more hostile assessment: "He will absolutely say anything, nor can I believe he has a particle of principle in his composition," and "I can in truth pronounce him one of the most candid men I ever knew possessing such abilities." [Brown, 224–225] What seems to have bothered McClay the most was Ellsworth's emphasis on private negotiations and tacit agreement rather than public debate. Significantly, there was no official record of Senate proceedings for the first five years of its existence, nor was there any provision to accommodate spectators. The arrangement was essentially the same as for the 1787 Convention, in contrast to the open sessions of the House of Representatives.

Ellsworth's first project was the Judiciary Act, described as Senate Bill No. 1, which effectively supplemented Article III in the Constitution by establishing a hierarchical arrangement among state and federal courts. Years later Madison stated, "It may be taken for certain that the bill organizing the judicial department originated in his [Ellsworth's] draft, and that it was not materially changed in its passage into law."[Brown, 185] Ellsworth himself probably wrote Section 25, the most important component of the Judiciary Act. This gave the Federal Supreme Court the power to veto state supreme court decisions supportive of state laws in conflict with the U.S. Constitution. All state and local laws accepted by state supreme courts could be appealed to the federal Supreme Court, which was given the authority, if it chose, to deny them for being unconstitutional. State and local laws rejected by state supreme courts could not be appealed in this manner; only the laws accepted by these courts could be appealed. This seemingly modest specification provided the federal government with its only effective authority over state government at the time. In effect, judicial review supplanted Congressional Review, which Madison had unsuccessfully proposed four times at the Convention to guarantee federal sovereignty. Granting the federal government this much authority was apparently rejected because its potential misuse could later be used to reject the Constitution at State Ratifying Conventions. Upon the completion of these conventions the previous year, Ellsworth was in the position to render the sovereignty of the federal government defensible, but through judicial review instead of congressional review.

Once the Judiciary Act was adopted by the Senate, Ellsworth sponsored the Senate's acceptance of the Bill of Rights promoted by Madison in the House of Representatives. Significantly, Madison sponsored the Judiciary Act in the House at the same time. Combined, the Judiciary Act and Bill of Rights gave the Constitution the "teeth" that had been missing in the Articles of Confederation. Judicial Review guaranteed the federal government's sovereignty, whereas the Bill of Rights guaranteed the protection of states and citizens from the misuse of this sovereignty by the federal government. The Judiciary Act and Bill of Rights thus counterbalanced each other, each guaranteeing respite from the excesses of the other. However, with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1865, seventy-five years later, the Bill of Rights could be brought to bear at all levels of government as interpreted by the judiciary with final appeal to the Supreme Court. Needless to say, this had not been the original intention of either Madison or Ellsworth.

Ellsworth was the principal supporter in the Senate of Hamilton's economic program, having served on at least four committees dealing with budgetary issues. These issues included the passage of Hamilton's plan for funding the national debt, the incorporation of the First Bank of the United States, and the bargain whereby state debts were assumed in return for locating the capital to the south (today the District of Columbia). Ellsworth's other achievements included framing the measure that admitted North Carolina to the Union, devising the non-intercourse act that forced Rhode Island to join the union, and drawing up the bill to regulate the consular service. He also played a major role in convincing President Washington to send John Jay to England to negotiate the 1794 Jay Treaty that prevented warfare with England, settled debts between the two nations, and gave American settlers better access to the Midwest.

Supreme Court and later life

An engraving depicting Ellsworth

Ellsworth Court


On March 3, 1796, Ellsworth was nominated by President George Washington to be Chief Justice of the United States, the seat having been vacated by John Jay. (Jay's replacement, John Rutledge, had been rejected by the Senate the previous December, and Washington's next nominee, William Cushing, had declined the office in February.). He quickly was confirmed by the United States Senate (21–1), and took the prescribed judicial oath on March 8, 1796.[8][9]

No major cases came before the Supreme Court during Ellsworth's brief tenure as chief justice. However, four cases the Court issued rulings on were of lasting importance in American jurisprudence: Hylton v. United States (1796) implicitly addressed the Supreme Court's power of judicial review in upholding a federal carriage tax; Hollingsworth v. Virginia (1798) affirmed that the president had no official role in the constitutional amendment process; Calder v. Bull (1798) held that the Constitution's Ex post facto clause applied only to criminal, not civil, cases; and New York v. Connecticut (1799) which was the first use by the Court of its original jurisdiction under Article III of the United States Constitution to hear controversies between two states.

Ellsworth's chief legacy as Chief Justice is his discouragement of the previous practice of seriatim opinion writing, in which each Justice wrote a separate opinion in the case and delivered that opinion from the bench. Ellsworth instead encouraged the consensus of the Court to be represented in a single written opinion, a practice which continues to the present day.[10]

Ellsworth received 11 electoral college votes from three states in the 1796 presidential election. Those votes came at the expense of Thomas Pinckney, who as a result, lost the vice presidency to Thomas Jefferson.[11]

President Adams appointed Ellsworth United States Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of France in 1799, and tasked with settling differences with Napoleon's government regarding restrictions on U.S. shipping that might otherwise have led to military conflict between the two nations. The agreement accepted by Ellsworth provoked indignation among Americans for being too generous to Napoleon. Moreover, Ellsworth came down with a severe illness resulting from his travel across the Atlantic, prompting him to resign from the Court in late 1800, while still in Europe. He resigned after just four years due to his "constant, and at times excruciating pains," sufferings made worse by his Europe travels, as special envoy to France.[12]

Later life

Ellsworth's gravesite

Though he retired from national public life upon his return to America in early 1801, he later served once more on the Connecticut Governor's Council. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1803.[13]

Ellsworth died at his home in Windsor on November 26, 1807, at the age of 62. He is buried at the Palisado Cemetery, behind the First Church of Windsor.[14]



In 1847, John Calhoun praised Ellsworth as the first of three Founding Fathers (with Roger Sherman and William Paterson) who gave the United States "the best government instead of the worst and most intolerable on the earth."[15]

In 1800, Ellsworth, Maine, was named in his honor.[16]

John F. Kennedy authored the Encyclopædia Britannica's article on Ellsworth. This was Kennedy's only contribution to the Encyclopedia.[17][18]

See also



  1. ^ Jemima Leavitt, born at nearby Suffield, was the daughter of Lieut. Joshua Leavitt and Hannah Devotion, and the sister of Congregationalist minister Rev. Jonathan Leavitt.[1] Archived June 29, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Brown, William Garrott (1905). "The Early Life of Oliver Ellsworth". The American Historical Review. 10 (3): 534–564. doi:10.2307/1832279. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1832279.
  3. ^ "Daily Princetonian Special Class of 1991 Issue 27 July 1987 — Princeton Periodicals". Archived from the original on November 4, 2020. Retrieved May 15, 2012.
  4. ^ "Supreme Court Justices Who Are Phi Beta Kappa Members" (PDF). Phi Beta Kappa website. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 28, 2011. Retrieved February 13, 2012.
  5. ^ Abigail Wolcott was the cousin of Connecticut Governor Oliver Wolcott Jr., for whom Wolcottville, Connecticut, later renamed Torrington was named.
  6. ^ Brown, William Garrott (1905). "A Continental Congressman: Oliver Ellsworth, 1777–1783". The American Historical Review. 10 (4): 751–781. doi:10.2307/1834474. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1834474.
  7. ^ The Constitutional Convention and the Formation of the Union, Solberg, Winton ed. 1990, p. 280
  8. ^ "U.S. Senate: Supreme Court Nominations: 1789–Present". Washington D.C.: United States Senate. Archived from the original on December 9, 2020. Retrieved June 5, 2018.
  9. ^ "Justices 1789 to Present". Washington D.C.: United States Senate. Archived from the original on April 15, 2010. Retrieved June 5, 2018.
  10. ^ "Oliver Ellsworth". Oyez.org. Archived from the original on September 21, 2012. Retrieved February 13, 2012.
  11. ^ "The Electoral College". May 20, 2019. Archived from the original on June 1, 2006. Retrieved September 7, 2017.
  12. ^ Laboratory of Justice, The Supreme Court's 200 Year Struggle to Integrate Science and the Law, by David L. Faigman, First edition, 2004, p. 34; Smith, Republic of Letters, 15, 501
  13. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter E" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Archived (PDF) from the original on October 21, 2018. Retrieved July 28, 2014.
  14. ^ Christensen, George A. "Here Lies the Supreme Court: Gravesites of the Justices". Yearbook 1983 Supreme Court Historical Society (1983). Washington, D.C.: Supreme Court Historical Society: 17–30. Archived from the original on September 3, 2005. Retrieved June 5, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  15. ^ Brown, 164–165
  16. ^ Gannett, Henry (1905). The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Govt. Print. Off. pp. 118.
  17. ^ Kennedy, John F.; Casto, William R. "Oliver Ellsworth, chief justice of United States". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the original on June 11, 2008. Retrieved February 16, 2016.
  18. ^ "John F. Kennedy". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the original on March 10, 2016. Retrieved February 16, 2016. (Not the entry on him, but the contributor profile.)

Books cited

  • The Life of Oliver Ellsworth, William Garrott Brown, 1905 – repr. by Da Capo Press, 1970
  • The Supreme Court in the Early Republic: The Chief Justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth, William R. Casto, University of South Carolina Press, 1995
  • Oliver Ellsworth and the Creation of the Federal Republic, William R. Casto, Second Circuit Committee on History and Commemorative Events, 1997
  • The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, ed. by Max Farrand, 4 vols., Yale University Press, 1911, 1966
  • James Madison's Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, James Brown Scott, Oxford University Press, 1918
  • The United States of America: A study in International Organization, James Brown Scott, Oxford University Press, 1920.
  • 1787 Constitutional Convention: The First Senate of the United States 1789–1795, Richard Streb, Bronx Historical Society, 1996
  • Connecticut Families of the Revolution, American Forebears from Burr to Wolcott, Mark Allen Baker, The History Press, 2014

Further reading

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
New seat
U.S. senator (Class 1) from Connecticut
Served alongside: William Johnson, Roger Sherman, Stephen Mitchell, Jonathan Trumbull
Succeeded by
Legal offices
Preceded by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
Succeeded by