1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ellsworth, Oliver

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13232301911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 9 — Ellsworth, Oliver

ELLSWORTH, OLIVER (1745–1807), American statesman and jurist, was born at Windsor, Connecticut, on the 29th of April 1745. He studied at Yale and Princeton, graduating from the latter in 1766, studied theology for a year, then law, and began to practise at Hartford in 1771. He was state’s attorney for Hartford county from 1777 to 1785, and achieved extraordinary success at the bar, amassing what was for his day a large fortune. From 1773 to 1775 he represented the town of Windsor in the general assembly of Connecticut, and in the latter year became a member of the important commission known as the “Pay Table,” which supervised the colony’s expenditures for military purposes during the War of Independence. In 1779 he again sat in the assembly, this time representing Hartford. From 1777 to 1783 he was a member of the Continental Congress, and in this body he served on three important committees, the marine committee, the board of treasury, and the committee of appeals, the predecessors respectively of the navy and treasury departments and the Supreme Court under the Federal Constitution. From 1780 to 1785 he was a member of the governor’s council of Connecticut, which, with the lower house before 1784 and alone from 1784 to 1807, constituted a supreme court of errors; and from 1785 to 1789 he was a judge of the state superior court. In 1787, with Roger Sherman and William Samuel Johnson (1727–1819), he was one of Connecticut’s delegates to the constitutional convention at Philadelphia, in which his services were numerous and important. In particular, when disagreement seemed inevitable on the question of representation, he, with Roger Sherman, proposed what is known as the “Connecticut Compromise,” by which the Federal legislature was made to consist of two houses, the upper having equal representation from each state, the lower being chosen on the basis of population. Ellsworth also made a determined stand against a national paper currency. Being compelled to leave the convention before its adjournment, he did not sign the instrument, but used his influence to secure its ratification by his native state. From 1789 to 1796 he was one of the first senators from Connecticut under the new Constitution. In the senate he was looked upon as President Washington’s personal spokesman and as the leader of the Administration party. His most important service to his country was without a doubt in connexion with the establishment of the Federal judiciary. As chairman of the committee having the matter in charge, he drafted the bill by the enactment of which the system of Federal courts, almost as it is to-day, was established. He also took a leading part in the senate in securing the passage of laws for funding the national debt, assuming the state debts and establishing a United States bank. It was Ellsworth who suggested to Washington the sending of John Jay to England to negotiate a new treaty with Great Britain, and he probably did more than any other man to induce the senate, despite widespread and violent opposition, to ratify that treaty when negotiated. By President Washington’s appointment he became chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in March 1796, and in 1799 President John Adams sent him, with William Vans Murray (1762–1803) and William R. Davie (1756–1820), to negotiate a new treaty with France. It was largely through the influence of Ellsworth, who took the principal part in the negotiations, that Napoleon consented to a convention, of the 30th of September 1800, which secured for citizens of the United States their ships captured by France but not yet condemned as prizes, provided for freedom of commerce between the two nations, stipulated that “free ships shall give a freedom to goods,” and contained provisions favourable to neutral commerce. While he was abroad, failing health compelled him (1800) to resign the chief-justiceship, and after some months in England he returned to America in 1801. In 1803 he was again elected to the governor’s council, and in 1807, on the reorganization of the Connecticut judiciary, was appointed chief justice of the new Supreme Court. He never took office, however, but died at his home in Windsor on the 27th of November 1807.

See W. G. Brown’s Oliver Ellsworth (New York, 1905), an excellent biography. There is also an appreciative account of Ellsworth’s life and work in H. C. Lodge’s A Fighting Frigate, and Other Essays and Addresses (New York, 1902), which contains in an appendix an interesting letter by Senator George F. Hoar concerning Ellsworth’s work in the constitutional convention.