Rediscovering Americans: Oliver Ellsworth

Written by Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning

Despite being one of the most politically active Founding Fathers, Oliver Ellsworth has not come down in history as one of the most remembered founding fathers. There are a variety of reasons why Ellsworth is not remembered: first, although he contributed greatly to the debates over the Constitution he did not sign it, second, he was the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court but the court had not begun to play a political role until later when John Marshall became Chief Justice, and third he was a compromiser.

Ellsworth was born in 1745 in Windsor, Connecticut. He attended Yale and Princeton where he studied the law and the liberal arts. After his studies, Ellsworth became a lawyer, then a soldier in the American Revolution, and then a judge.

Ellsworth served in the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1783. In 1785 he became a Supreme Court Justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court.

After the revolution, Ellsworth was selected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He and Roger Sherman are credited with the passage of the Connecticut Compromise which secured equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives. Ellsworth also served on the committee of detail which refined the language of the Constitution.

During ratification when Ellsworth was asked why the delegates did not abolish slavery he said, “All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves. The only possible step that could be taken towards it by the convention was to fix a period after which they should not be imported.”

After the Federal Convention, when the states were asked to ratify the Constitution, Ellsworth played an instrumental role in Connecticut’s choice to ratify the Constitution. Ellsworth, like Madison and Hamilton in New York, wrote a series of essays called Letters to a Landholder which urged the people of the state to ratify the Constitution.

After the Constitution had been ratified, Connecticut appointed Ellsworth to the Senate. He was an advocate for Hamilton’s treasury plan, and he acted as majority leader during his time in the Senate. He drafted the Senate Judiciary Act of 1789. The structure of the federal judiciary was outlined in his plan, and that structure still exists today. In 1796 George Washington appointed Ellsworth to the United States Supreme Court.

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