Oliver Ellsworth (1745-1807) was the second chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He also served as a senator in the newly formed Congress. Ellsworth is primarily remembered for his contribution to the formation of the Constitution and for drafting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided for a strong federal judiciary system and created the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in Windsor, Connecticut, on April 29, 1745, Ellsworth was the second son of Captain David Ellsworth, a prosperous farmer, and Jemima (Levitt) Ellsworth. Little is known of Ellsworth's childhood except that he grew up on a farm in Windsor and that his father wanted him to enter the ministry. When Ellsworth reached his teens, he was sent to a boarding school run by Minister Joseph Bellamy. In 1762, at the age of 17, Ellsworth entered Yale University. However, due to some disciplinary problems, he left Yale at the end of his sophomore year at the request of his parents and enrolled in the College of New Jersey, later known as Princeton University. During his time at Princeton, Ellsworth was exposed to the many controversial issues facing the American colonies, including the Stamp Act, which was the British parliament's first attempt at direct taxation of colonies in order to support British troops stationed in the colonies. It was a time of stirring patriotism and loud debates, and young Ellsworth was caught up in the excitement.
Ellsworth returned to Windsor after graduating in 1766 to pursue his theological studies with another leading minister, John Smalley. A year later he abandoned the ministry to pursue his growing interest in the law. He passed the bar in 1771 at the age of 27. The following year he married sixteen-year-old Abigail Wolcott, the daughter of a wealthy and influential Connecticut family from East Windsor.
Ellsworth's law career got off to a slow start. According to history records, he collected a total of three pounds in legal fees during the first three years of his law practice. Because his father's financial support was apparently linked to his career in the ministry, the young lawyer struggled to provide for his family and repay debts incurred during his college days. To supplement his income, he worked as a farmer and woodcutter. When his presence was required at court in Hartford, Ellsworth, too poor to own a horse, walked the twenty-mile round trip. Considered an honest and reputable man, and no doubt helped by connections developed through his marriage, Ellsworth was elected as a representative of the Connecticut General Assembly in 1773. This began Ellsworth's life-long political career and helped his law practice, which began to flourish.
Relinquishing his seat in the Connecticut General Assembly in 1775, Ellsworth moved to Hartford where his reputation and business grew rapidly. By the late 1770s, he had over one thousand cases on his list, of which he provided successful representation in the large majority. During the days of the American Revolution, Ellsworth held numerous, progressively more important, offices. In 1775 he was appointed to the Connecticut Committee of the Pay Table, a commission of five that was responsible for overseeing state expenditures related to the war with England. Two years later he was appointed state's attorney for Hartford County. In 1779 he began to serve as a member of the Council of Safety, an important body that acted with the governor in the practical control of all military actions. In 1777 he was selected to represent Connecticut as a member of the Continental Congress, a position he held for six years.
A now accomplished and well-respected lawyer, Ellsworth was soon appointed to numerous committees created by the Continental Congress, including the Board of Treasury, which addressed issues regarding international treaties, and the Committee of Appeals, a body that dealt with marine affairs by hearing appeals from the Admiralty courts of various states. The Committee of Appeals was an important step toward the formation of the Supreme Court because it was the first time a federal court was convened. However, its effectiveness and judicial authority were soon tested by the noted case of Gideon Olmstead and the British vessel Active. The case came before the Committee of Appeals only two weeks after Ellsworth's appointment to the committee. The matter involved the acquisition of the British ship. A group of men from Connecticut overpowered the British captain and his crew as they sailed toward New York. As the Connecticut men approached the coastline, the captain of another vessel commandeered the ship and, upon entering the harbor in Philadelphia, claimed the ship and its cargo. The men from Connecticut took the captain, who was from Pennsylvania, to court, insisting that the ship belonged to them. Subsequently a Pennsylvania court ruled in favor of the captain, allotting him three-quarters of the value and giving the Connecticut men one-quarter. Refusing to accept the verdict as fair and just, the Connecticut men turned to the Court of Appeals, which overturned the Pennsylvania court's decision and remitted the prize to the Connecticut men. However, Pennsylvania refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Court of Appeal's decision and would not carry out its instructions. The experience helped shape Ellsworth's understanding of the need for a recognized federal judicial authority.
Few details exist regarding Ellsworth's service as a congressional representative. He appeared to have been a hardworking, diligent, and respected member, serving on several important committees. Retiring from the Congress in 1783, Ellsworth returned to Hartford and his private legal practice. He continued to serve on the Governor's Council, a position he held from 1780 to 1785. Declining an appointment as Commissioner of the Treasury offered by the Continental Congress in 1784, the following year he accepted his first judicial appointment as a member of the newly formed Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors. Two years later he was appointed to Connecticut's Superior Court.
In 1787 Ellsworth was chosen along with Roger Sherman and William S. Johnson to represent Connecticut as delegates to the Constitutional Convention. The formation of the Constitution was a particularly difficult and controversial process. First drafted in 1777, the Articles of Confederation were not adopted until 1781. In its original form, it created a strong federal system of government, a proposal that met with much resistance from the individual states who wished to maintain independence. Subsequently the draft that was finally adopted had been so revised that it called for almost no national government, including no president, cabinet, or federal judiciary system. Congress had no authority by which to collect funds other than voluntary gifts from states or individuals. The fact that Congress was allowed to declare war but had no power to supply forces was proof of the ineffectiveness of the ratified draft. The Constitutional Congress convened in hopes of revising the Constitution.
Ellsworth came to the Constitutional Convention as a moderate Federalist. Although he firmly believed in the rights of states to govern themselves, he had come to the conclusion that an effective federal government was a necessity. Sensitive to the desires of the states, he argued for a national government that represented state and federal interests. It is unclear to what extent Ellsworth influenced the outcome of the Convention. However, the Connecticut delegation was responsible for offering the governmental model known as the "Connecticut compromise" that created a bicameral legislature, in which the small states would have equal representation in the Senate and the House of Representatives would be filled according to state population. Whether he was the originator of this compromise is not known, but he was clearly a strong proponent of the newly written constitution. Ellsworth was also the one to suggest replacing the phrase "national government" with "government of the United States." He was a member of the five-person Committee on Detail that wrote the first draft of the constitution, and he served on the committee that developed the federal judiciary system.
Upon ratification of the new constitution, Ellsworth was elected as one of the two senators to represent Connecticut in Congress. Once again a member of numerous committees, Ellsworth used his organizational abilities to structure the U.S. Army and the U.S. Post Office and organize the census. He also reported the first set of Senate rules and drafted the measure that admitted Rhode Island and North Carolina into the United States. Ellsworth's most notable contribution as a senator, however, was the drafting of the Judiciary Act of 1789, also known as the "Ellsworth Act." The Judiciary Act created a strong federal Supreme Court, which held authority over all state courts. Commissioned with the task of interpreting the U.S. Constitution, the Judiciary Act allowed the Supreme Court to overturn any U.S. law that did not hold up under scrutiny regarding its constitutionality. The law also provided for the number of judges (one chief justice and five associates), 13 district courts, and 3 circuit courts and established the attorney general's office.
Reelected to the Senate, Ellsworth's term carried through 1777; however, he relinquished his seat to accept an appointment as the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Ellsworth was George Washington's third choice for the position. When John Jay, the first U.S. chief justice, resigned, Washington selected John Rutledge. However, the Senate, whose approval was needed to confirm the appointment, refused to accept Rutledge's nomination. Subsequently, Washington offered the position to William Cushing, a senior associate judge, who declined the appointment. On March 4, 1796, Washington selected Ellsworth, who took over the responsibilities of the second chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court four days later. During his short service of three and a half years as chief justice, Ellsworth did not tender a large number of opinions. Those he did write are marked by common sense and do not demonstrate the work of a noteworthy judge. A great lawyer and advocate, Ellsworth proved to be an adequate, but not exceptional, jurist. He did convince his associates to adopt a system of offering per curiam decisions, which provided for a majority and minority opinion to be written rather than each justice writing a personal opinion. The system was continued by Ellsworth's predecessor, the highly regarded John Marshall.
Retiring from the bench in 1799, Ellsworth was appointed by President John Adams as the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to France on February 26, 1799. Tensions were running high with France, with whom the United States was engaged in an undeclared war in the Caribbean. Adams hoped to prevent the outbreak of declared war by sending Ellsworth to negotiate with Napoleon. The decision to send Ellsworth was controversial, as many felt very hostile toward France at the time. Ellsworth accepted the commission without enthusiasm, deeming it necessary to prevent greater evils. Dreading the expedition, he postponed his trip for over six months, not departing for France until November 3, 1799. Harsh weather drove the ship off course, and Ellsworth did not reach Paris until March 2, 1800—an entire four months later. Ellsworth, whose health suffered from the hardships of the journey, negotiated with Napoleon for eight months, concluding in October 1800. The treaty did not meet the expectations or instructions of the U.S. envoy, but Ellsworth, himself disappointed, considered it adequate to prevent war. Still feeling poorly, he spent the winter in England in a futile attempt to recover his health. He finally returned to the United States in March 1801 and retired to his home in Windsor. Although he served on the Governor's Council after his return, he never regained his health and his service was ineffective. He died at his home in Windsor on November 26, 1807.
American National Biography, Volume 7, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Biographical Dictionary of the Federal Judiciary, edited by Harold Chase, Samuel Krislov, Keith O. Boyum, and Jerry N. Clark, Gale Research, 1976.
Encyclopedia of American Biography. Second edition, Edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein, HarperCollins, 1996.
Oxford Companion to American History. edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Oxford University Press, 1966.
The Supreme Court A to Z: A Ready Reference Encyclopedia. Revised edition. Edited by Elder Witt, CQ's Encyclopedia of American Government, vol. 3. Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1994.
Scholastic Update, 117 (November 30, 1984): 10-12.
"Oliver Ellsworth," Biography Resource Center Online. Gale Group, 1999. http://www.galenet.com(December 12, 2000).
"Oliver Ellsworth," Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. http://www.galenet.com(December 12, 2000).