Person:Oliver Ellsworth (1)

m. 8 Jul 1740
  1. David Ellsworth1742 -
  2. Martin Ellsworthabt 1744 - 1759
  3. Oliver Ellsworth1745 - 1807
  4. Jemima Ellsworth1751/2 - 1803
m. BEFORE 1774
  1. Abigail Ellsworth1774 - 1860
  2. Delia Ellsworth1789 - 1840
  3. Henry Ellsworth1791 - 1858
  4. William Wolcott Ellsworth1791 - 1868
Facts and Events
Name Oliver Ellsworth
Gender Male
Birth[1] 29 Apr 1745 Windsor, Hartford, Connecticut, United States
Marriage BEFORE 1774 to Abigail Wolcott
Death[1] 26 Nov 1807 Windsor, Hartford, Connecticut, United States
Reference Number? Q515858?

Biography of
Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth


Tradition has it that Josiah Ellsworth, the first of the Connecticut Ellsworths, came to America from Yorkshire England, settled in Windsor about 1650 and in 1654 married Elizabeth Holcombe. [2] Josiah's grandson, David, married Jemima Leavitt in 1740 and it is to this union that Oliver Ellsworth was born on 29 April 1745 in Windsor.


Very little is known about Ellsworth's early years. There are no extraordinary events in his young life to indicate the future importance that he would play in laying the foundation for a federal government. His father's desire was for him to enter into the ministry, so at an early age he was placed under the direction of Dr. Bellamy who prepared him for his college studies. In 1762, at the age of 17, Ellsworth entered Yale.

While at Yale, his interests soon leaned towards the political aspects of college life. One anecdote that is often told to exhibit his "aptness for special pleading" as a future lawyer is when he was arraigned for violating a college law that prohibited students from wearing hats. Ellsworth defended himself on the grounds that a hat is made up of two parts, a brim and a crown. Since Ellsworth's hat had no brim (which he had earlier torn off) he could not be guilty of such a violation. The argument evidently was successful as he received no punishment for the alleged misconduct. [3]

For some reason, Ellsworth stayed only two years at Yale before transferring to Princeton. According to a biographer, "there is reason to believe that either he or the authorities of the college, and not improbably both, would have been better pleased to close the connection even sooner." [4] Why he left is not completely clear. An entry from the journal of the Yale President at the time, dated July 27, 1764, simply says that "Oliver Ellsworth and Waightstill Avery, at the desire of their respective parents, were dismissed from being members of this College." Tradition among the descendants of Ellsworth has it that he inverted the college bell one winter night and filled it with water which subsequently froze, thus disabling it. This explanation, however, does not coincide with the date of Ellsworth's departure, though it may be one of a series of events which lead up to it. [5]

Unfortunately no records from Princeton during the colonial period have been preserved to give us insight into Ellsworth's career while attending school there. One thing is certain, if Ellsworth's interests were more directed towards politics than the ministry, his father had not given up the idea. Thus, after graduating from Princeton, David Ellsworth arranged for his son to spend the next year studying theology under Dr. John Smalley. By this time, however, Ellsworth had a "clear and strong bent towards the law." [6] Four years later, in 1771, he entered the Connecticut bar and began his career as a lawyer. When he entered into practice he was in debt, with the inference being that his father no longer supported his educational pursuits after he abandoned his theological studies. There are some accounts which suggest that Ellsworth spent some time teaching before entering into his law practice, but where he taught is not known. [7]

Marriage and Family

Oliver married Abigail Wolcott, daughter of William Wolcott and Abigail Abbott on 10 Dec 1772. A story is told among descendants that when Ellsworth made his first visit to the Wolcott house he called upon the elder sister, "but that the black eyes of Abigail, who sat demurely carding tow in the chimney corner, made him change his mind, and the next time he went there he called for her... [Tradition has it] that she was a beauty, and one or two anecdotes present her to posterity as an uncommonly loving and lovable woman. Unrelaxing in industry, she was given to charity, and had an unfailing kindness for all about her. That a briefless young lawyer should win, apparently without objection from her family, the daughter of so respectable a house, is evidence of the wholesome democracy in which they lived. It is evidence, too, of the sincerity of their affection for each other." [8]

The new couple began their life on a farm which belonged to Ellsworth's father. It lay in the northwest part of Windsor which is now called Bloomfield. The land needed cultivated and was unfenced, which Ellsworth did himself, being too poor to hire a servant. Twice a day when court was in session, he would walk the 10 miles or so between his farm and his office in Hartford. [9]

The father of nine children (two died at an early age), Ellsworth's domestic life was probably no different from that of his neighbors. "He took his duties to his family quite as he took his duties to the state. Provident and farsighted, he taught all his children to work, and insisted that they should earn what they had for their pleasures. But he was never stern or forbidding with them, for he kept all his life the habit of playing with children for his own relaxation, and he had the happy gift of making them companions... His own children did not stand in awe of him. He drew them pictures, talked with them, taught them, but left their mother to correct them. [10]

Ellsworth was a religious man, keeping the Sabbath and attending church without fail. He held morning prayers in his own household and would often read sermons aloud to his family. He studied the bible daily and, during his later years especially, he gave himself more and more to the study of theology. On his trip back from Europe, he brought several boxes of books home with more than half being devoted to religious topics. [11]

The Beginning of a Career

Ellsworth's law career has been described by Brown as "extraordinary in that it is doubtful any lawyer in the history of the bar of Connecticut accumulated so great a practice in such a short period of time." [12] Even so, he had no ambitious views or plans, and certainly the idea of his later importance in the role of government, his role as United States Senator or as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court never entered his imagination. When asked in his later years the secret of his intellectual power, he said in reply "that early in his career he discovered that he had no imagination; that the qualities of his mind promised so little that he became almost discouraged; that he then determined to study but one subject at a time, and not abandon it until he had mastered it." [13]

So what happened in the life of this man who had a self-described lack of imagination that he would later become one of the nation's greatest statesman? "He did not think of achieving distinction even as an advocate till one day in Court, whilst arguing a case, he heard a stranger say: 'What young man is that? He speaks well.' These last words made a deep impression on his mind." Ellsworth often repeated, especially in his old age, that it was that circumstance, those overheard words from a stranger, that became the turning point of his life. [14]

List of Appointments

Bust of Ellsworth in the Supreme Court
Bust of Ellsworth in the Supreme Court

1773-1776: member, State general assembly
1777: appointed State attorney
1778-1783: member of the Continental Congress
1780-1785: member of the Governor's council
1785-1789: judge of the Connecticut Superior Court
1787: delegate to the convention that framed the federal Constitution
1789-1796: U.S. Senator
1796-1800: Chief Justice U.S. Supreme Court
1799: appointed Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to France
1801-1807: again a member of the Governor's council 1801-1807

Constitutional Convention

So much has been written about Ellsworth's career as a lawyer and statesman, but if there is one period in of his life that stands out from all the rest it would probably be his influence at the Constitutional Convention, a body of men once referred to by Major Pierce as the "wisest council in the world," [15] and his work, along with fellow statesman Roger Sherman, on the "Great Compromise," a resolution that offered equal representation of the states in Congress. He was a "zealous advocate of the constitution as it now exists: indeed, any one at all familiar with the proceedings of that Convention ... knows very well that many of the features of this constitution owe their existence in no small degree, to his suggestions and influence." [16]

Lodge writes: "At the very outset Ellsworth moved to strike from one of the preliminary resolutions the word 'national' and insert as a proper title 'the United States.'" [17]

Ellsworth's stance on the slave issue during the Convention was on the side of the three-fifths compromise, while he also opposed the abolition of the slave trade. He saw no need to "meddle" with the old clause, probably fearful that any changes of the issue would possibly lose support of the southern states that were in already in agreement with the Great Compromise. He said, "Let every state import what it pleases...The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part, enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest." As Brown wrote in his biography of Ellsworth, "the convention lost a precious opportunity to promote the cause of freedom."[18]

Unfortunately, urgent family business, possibly due to sickness, caused Ellsworth to leave the Convention before its adjournment thus preventing him of the privilege of signing his name to the document.

The Later Years

In 1799, upon meeting Napoleon to discuss a treaty, Ellsworth was described as "tall and erect with a strong face and large penetrating blue eyes [that] looked out fearlessly upon the world from beneath heavy arched brows. His expression was pleasant and his presence commanding, instinct with the dignity of one who had presided over a great court. He was particular and very quiet in his dress, with his hair powdered in a fashion even then becoming antique, and he still wore silk stockings and silver knee-buckles after the mode of a vanishing period. Generally absorbed in meditation, often talking to himself when he walked or rode, his thoughts were nevertheless so ordered and disciplined, that when he spoke his words came rapidly and earnestly as he marshalled his arguments and stated his opinions. Altogether a stately figure..." [19]

Ellsworth had gone to France against his wishes, possibly knowing the stress it would take on his already failing body which was being wracked with disease. One writer says he suffered from "nephritic disorders" [20] and would often visit a mineral spring in Suffield, Connecticut for the health benefits. [21]

Ellsworth died on November 26, 1807 at his home in Windsor and if these words once spoken by him are any indication, he died a perfectly content man:

"I have visited several countries ... and I like my own the best. I have been in all the states of the Union, and Connecticut is the best state. Windsor is the pleasantest town in the state of Connecticut, and I have the pleasantest place in the town of Windsor. I am content, perfectly content, to die on the banks of the Connecticut." [22]



  1. 1.0 1.1 Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  2. Flanders, Henry. "The Lives and Times of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States: Second Series. William Cushing, Oliver Ellsworth, John Marshall." (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1858), 55.
  3. Bigelow, L. J. "Bench and Bar: A Complete Digest of the Wit, Humor, Asperities, and Amenities of the Law." (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1871), 118.
  4. Brown, William Garrott. "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth." (New York: Macmillan Co, 1905), 13.
  5. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 16-17.
  6. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 21.
  7. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 21.
  8. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 24.
  9. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 24-25.
  10. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 340-341.
  11. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 328.
  12. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 33.
  13. Bigelow, "Bench and Bar," 118.
  14. Perry, Benjamin Franklin. "Biographical Sketches of Eminent American Statesman with Speeches, Addresses and Letters." (Philadelphia: The Ferree Press, 1887), 406.
  15. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 120.
  16. Sprague, T. Dwight, editor. "Oliver Ellsworth." American Literary Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 4 (October, 1847). Online. Google Book Search. : accessed 23 August 2007, pg 196.
  17. Lodge, Henry Cabot. "A Fighting Frigate and Other Essays and Addresses." (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902), 78.
  18. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 156.
  19. Lodge, "A Fighting Frigate," 98-99.
  20. Sprague, "Oliver Ellsworth," 197.
  21. Bigelow, "Bench and Bar," 119.
  22. Brown, "The Life of Oliver Ellsworth," 5.

For more information, see the EN Wikipedia article Oliver Ellsworth.