Oliver Ellsworth was born on 29 April 1745 in Windsor, Connecticut, home to four generations of Ellsworths. His parents, Jemima Leavitt and David Ellsworth, a well-to-do farmer, committed his early education to the care of a New Light (revivalist) Congregational minister, in preparation for a career in the ministry. He entered Yale in 1762, but left for unspecified reasons two years later. Graduating with Princeton's class of 1766, he dallied briefly with more theological studies before turning to law, and was admitted to the bar in 1771. His marriage to Abigail Wolcott the next year ensured access to the patronage of one of Connecticut's most politically prominent families. Six of their children survived infancy.
Ellsworth did not enjoy immediate success as a lawyer. He supplemented his meager income by working farmland he rented from his father in Windsor, which he represented for two terms in the House of Representatives beginning in 1773. In 1775 he moved to Hartford and entered upon a more lucrative legal career. When Noah Webster apprenticed with him in 1779, he recorded that Ellsworth had already become one of the state's three greatest lawyers.
Ellsworth assumed a leadership position in the revolutionary movement from the first days of the war. Beginning in 1775, he served as one of five commissioners in charge of the state's military expenditures and then as a member of the Committee of Safety that oversaw military activities in the state. He also served successively as county attorney from 1777 to 1785, Hartford's representative in the house in 1779, member of the governor's council from 1780 to 1785, and judge of the superior court from 1785 to 1789.
Ellsworth entered national politics as a delegate to Congress, serving from 1778 to 1783. His congressional experience included committee service that proved significant in the formation of his strongly nationalist perspective. He served on the committee on appeals from admiralty courts, the committee that sought protection for Congress from the state of Pennsylvania during the Philadelphia Mutiny of 1783, and the committee that subsequently considered the extent of federal jurisdiction over the future seat of government.
Ellsworth was one of Connecticut's three delegates to the Federal Convention, along with future First Congress colleagues Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson. Like Sherman, his political mentor, Ellsworth supported a strengthening of certain centralized powers, but his perspective remained that of the small states. In their interests he made the motion for equal representation in the Senate that became the prelude to the so-called Great Compromise. Georgia delegate William Pierce drew a character sketch that paid tribute to Ellsworth's considerable debating skills during the deliberations. "He is very happy in a reply, and choice in selecting such parts of his adversary's arguments as he finds make the strongest impressions, in order to take off the force of them, so as to admit the power of his own."1
Ellsworth approved of the Constitution but returned to Connecticut three weeks before it was signed.
Throughout November and December 1787, Ellsworth authored nine newspaper essays under the pseudonym "A Landholder," in which he defended the proposed Constitution and attacked local Antifederalists. Representing Windsor in the state convention, he continued to play an active role, delivering two lengthy and well-publicized speeches in support of a more "energetic" federal government in general, and Congress's taxing powers in particular. On 15 October 1788, the state House of Representatives elected Ellsworth United States Senator, and the Council of Assistants concurred the next day.
Ellsworth's record as a senator was exemplary. He appeared at the first session on the scheduled opening day, took his seat at the second session one day after a quorum had formed, and was present for the third session once again on the day the Senate convened. His only leave of absence, granted on account of some undisclosed sickness, was from 20 to 29 July 1789. His attendance record was characteristic of his extraordinary commitment. He sat on more committees than any other member of the Senate, serving on eighty and reporting for nineteen. The majority of the issues covered by his committee assignments were the judiciary, ways and means, western settlement, trade, the military, and administrative matters such as rules, journal-keeping, and adjournment. Although the committees dealing with administrative affairs were the most numerous, by far the most significant and the most closely identified with Ellsworth were those dealing with the judicial establishment. His colleagues credited him with the principal role in drafting the Judiciary Act [S-1], which he reported out of committee. His influence over the organization of the federal judiciary was not limited to this one act. He served on every Senate committee that produced a law relating to the judiciary, including two Courts Acts [S-4] and [S-9] and the Punishment of Crimes Act [S-6]. He also chaired the conference committee that wrote the final list of twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution, drafted in Ellsworth's hand.
Very few of Ellsworth's First Congress letters survive, and most of these were personal letters to his family. His politics are known primarily through his colleagues' notes and reminiscences, the most notable and bitter of which flowed copiously from the pen of William Maclay
. The Pennsylvanian, who was far from objective as a judge of character, classified Ellsworth as a "Courtier,"2
easily swayed "by conveniency or cabal,"3
and able to "varnish over villany & to give roguery effect, without avowed licence."4
's prejudices were not all politically motivated. He conceded that Ellsworth was "a Man of great Faculties. and eloquent in debate."5
But, at the same time, he appeared as "the most conceited Man in the World,"6
one of those "who cannot bear that any body should move any thing but himself."7
Maclay averred that Ellsworth frequently answered his colleagues with rudeness, and sometimes contradicted "for the sake of contradicting."8
"He hung like a Cat to Every particle"9
of legislation that he initiated, defending them in speeches so long that Maclay finally dubbed him "Endless Elsworth
Ellsworth earned Maclay
's wrath in large part because he was a prominent member of the voting bloc that promoted a strong federal government, particularly in its executive functions. He rose often on the floor to champion the president's power of removal. On one occasion, he spoke so imploringly that when he finished, he "put his hand kerchief to his face and either shed tears or affected to do so."11
Before passage of the Military Establishment Act [HR-50a], Ellsworth argued that a proposed change in the title, in order to express more clearly the intention of the bill, was an unwarranted interference in the president's war powers. Ellsworth saw prestige as a vehicle for empowering the executive and sought similar privileges for the Senate. During debate on the Salaries-Legislative Act [HR-19], he argued that a "difference in dignity"12
justified a discrimination between Representatives' and Senators' salaries, although he thought the measure ill-timed. Prior to voting to keep the Senate doors shut, he argued that Senators were independent of their state legislatures and were not obliged to follow their instructions.
Ellsworth sought the same extension of federal prestige and authority through the organization of the national judicial system. He defended his draft of the Judiciary Act [S-1] "with the love of a parent. even with wrath and anger."13
His role in passing the Act was evidence of a small state, nationalist perspective, aimed at promoting the federal government at the expense of the states. A powerful example of this was his support for an ultimately unsuccessful resolution to form districts independent of state boundaries for the collection of the excises under the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110]. Another example of his extreme nationalist perspective was his advocacy of the Rhode Island Trade Bill [S-11], a controversial proposal to coerce Rhode Island into ratifying the Constitution by applying economic sanctions.
A firm supporter of Hamilton's proposed system for establishing public credit, Ellsworth took the lead in advocating the assumption of the states' war debts. The Senate's rejection of Ellsworth's initial motion for assumption was preceded by what Maclay
considered a "Curious Argument."14
Ellsworth claimed that the existence of large war debts in the states of New England and the Deep South was due to their relative distance from the seat of government. The middle states, where the Confederation government had concentrated its resources and more effectively exerted its authority, not surprisingly had smaller war debts. In addition to the Funding Act [HR-63], Ellsworth also spoke in favor of the Duties on Distilled Spirits Act [HR-110] and the Bank Act [S-15].
Ellsworth predictably spoke for New England's interests during the debate on the Impost Act [HR-2] and the Tonnage Act [HR-5]. He favored drawbacks on imported molasses as a spur to the export of New England rum. To promote American shipping, he advocated high, prohibitory duties on goods imported in foreign ships, while he attacked any attempt to discriminate in exempting or lessening the tonnage duties for those nations in commercial treaty with the United States.
In his positions on federal policy regarding the settlement of the West, Ellsworth ably defended Connecticut's interests. Being both a small and a "landless" state, Connecticut was committed to retaining its influence in the Union by checking the population growth of the West. Ellsworth pursued that objective at every opportunity. He successfully pursuaded the Senate to amend the Enumeration Act [HR-34] by extending the closing date of the census by three months, effectively preventing a reapportionment before the second federal election. During the debate on the Naturalization Act [HR-40], he clung to the doctrine that aliens could not hold land prior to their naturalization.
The same obstructionist stance appears in his speeches on the Funding Act [HR-63], when he opposed the alternative which allowed public creditors to be repaid in land equal to one-third the sum they subscribed to the national debt. He claimed that the lands should be "sacredly preserved as a sinking fund,"15
but his position may also have been motivated by a desire to maintain better control over its allocation and settlement. Fear of settling the West in a "scattered Manner"16
dictated the sense of urgency with which he pressed the passage of the North Carolina Cession Act [S-7], which he reported out of committee.
Ellsworth joined his fellow New Englanders in supporting either a Susquehannah or a Germantown capital. Before the Seat of Government Bill [HR-25] could be renewed early in the second session, Ellsworth moved the appointment of a committee to report a new Punishment of Crimes bill. This ostensibly innocuous motion was designed as a de facto death warrant for unfinished business from the first session. The strategy worked, and [HR-25] fell victim to the subsequent ruling that all postponed legislation be initiated de novo. During the second session debate on the Residence Act [S-12], Ellsworth tried to postpone debate on the grounds that a secret bargaining "ran thro' all our proceedings."17
His only other action on the bill was an unsuccessful, last minute attempt to guarantee an upriver Potomac capital, which might have been designed to kill the bill by eliminating the Georgetown, Maryland option.
Ellsworth's private life at the seat of government was punctuated by bouts of homesickness. Perhaps a sense of nervous isolation reinforced his habits of talking to himself and taking snuff in large quantities. He wrote affectionate if infrequent letters to his wife and to his eldest daughter, Abigail. His closeness to "Nabby" was borne out by a resemblance so close that, when Congress commissioned a bust of Ellsworth thirty years after his death, it was she who sat as the model for sculptor Hezekiah Augur. Ellsworth's youngest daughter was still unnamed when he took his seat in the first session. Yet "she occupies a little corner of the heart," he assured his wife, "especially when I consider her at your breast."18
The ideal of domesticity for which Ellsworth apparently strived is enshrined in Ralph Earl's famous 1792 portrait of him and his wife, now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Ellsworth holds a copy of the Constitution and through an open window can be seen his Windsor estate, Elmwood. In New York City he shared quarters with Connecticut-born Georgia representative Baldwin at 193 Water Street. During the third session, his daughter Abigail joined him in quarters he occupied at 121 Third Street.
Allotted a two year term, Ellsworth was reelected to the Senate but resigned in 1796 to become chief justice of the Supreme Court. Although he had been a great lawyer and received honorary law degrees from both Princeton and Yale, biographers unite in considering him only a mediocre jurist. An Adams partisan after the Hamiltonian schism in the Federalist party, Ellsworth accepted an appointment as envoy extraordinary to resolve the Quasi-War with France. He concluded his mission in late 1799, but his health was so impaired that he was forced to resign from the bench. In 1802 he accepted appointment to the state Council. He also remained active in his Congregational church and newspapers carried his occasional columns on agricultural improvements. Ellsworth died in Windsor on 26 November 1807.
The only full length biographical treatment of Ellsworth is William G. Brown, The Life of Oliver Ellsworth (New York, 1905.) Few of Ellsworth's papers survive. The Library of Congress, Connecticut Historical Society, and Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.. have small collections. Copies of some of his papers are in the Bancroft Collection at the New York Public Library.