Oliver Ellsworth was born April 29, 1745 in Windsor, Connecticut.
He was admitted to the bar as a lawyer in 1771.
Then in 1777, Ellsworth was chosen as one of Connecticut’s representatives in the Continental Congress.
He served on the Committee of Appeals, the forerunner of the Federal Supreme Court.
Work on the “United States” Constitution
On May 28, 1787, Ellsworth joined the 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 20,1787 when he proposed the use of the name “United States” to identify the nation 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. However, 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.”
From this day forward the “United States” became the official title used in the Convention to designate the government, and this usage has remained in effect ever since.
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.
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 already passed by the Convention.
All Convention deliberations were interrupted from July 26 to August 6, 1787, while the Committee of Detail completed its task.
The two preliminary drafts that survive as well as the text of the Constitution submitted to the Convention were in the handwriting of Wilson or Randolph. However, Ellsworth’s role is made clear by his 53 contributions to the Convention as a whole from August 6 to 23, when he left for business reasons.
Though Ellsworth left the Convention near the end of August and didn’t sign the final document as a Founding Father, he wrote the Letters of a Landholder to promote its ratification.
Then 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.)
The following day, Ellsworth was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission.
He served until poor health forced him to resign on September 30, 1800.
Ellsworth’s chief legacy as Chief Justice, however, was 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.
As a result, Oliver Ellsworth retired from national public life in early 1801. He was nevertheless able to serve again on the Connecticut Governor’s Council until he died in Windsor in November 26, 1807.
His remains are in the cemetery behind the First Congregational Church of Windsor overlooking the Farmington River.
In retrospect, Ellsworth’s role in helping to establish the United States as a viable sovereign nation was important but could be easily overlooked. A good part of the reason for this was that he did not distinguish himself as an orator but worked as much as possible behind the scenes. He was said to have been dominant in his eloquence at the January, 1788, Connecticut Ratifying Convention, but later as the de facto Senate majority leader he seems to have kept his arguments relatively short and to the point. His written prose could on occasion be tortuous, as best illustrated by the operative sentence in Section 25 of the Judiciary Act (the first of only two sentences). Over three hundred words long, this sentence is almost impossible to decipher as an explanation how state courts were answerable to federal authority. But perhaps this opacity was intentional, since the expansion of federal power specified by Section 25 was mostly overlooked in debate both in the Senate and House of Representatives despite having been the most important and potentially controversial portion of the Judiciary Act.
That Ellsworth promoted the federal government as a unified confederacy without the limitations imposed by the Articles of Confederation enhanced his popularity during the first several decades of America’s history, especially in the South preceding the Civil War. In 1847, thirteen years before the Civil War, John Calhoun praised Ellsworth as the first of three Founding Fathers (including Sherman and Paterson) who gave the United States “the best government instead of the worst and most intolerable on the earth.” However, rapid industrialization and the centralization of our national government since the Civil War have led to the almost complete neglect of Ellsworth’s pivotal contribution at the inception of our government. Few today know much of anything about him. The one full-length biography by William Garrott Brown, published in 1905 and reprinted in 1970, is excellent but difficult to obtain.
In 1800, Ellsworth, Maine was named in his honor.
John F. Kennedy authored the Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on Ellsworth. This was Kennedy’s only contribution to the Encyclopedia.
Now WE know em