Oliver Ellsworth was an American lawyer and politician, who served as the third Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He was among the men who shaped political and juridical system of the United States and set its basic formal discourse.
Oliver Ellsworth was born on April 29,1745, in Windsor, Connecticut, to David Ellsworth and Jemima Leavitt Ellsworth. His parents wished him to become a clergyman and to this end arranged for him to study with Joseph Bellamy, a minister in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
He entered Yale in 1762, but transferred to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at the end of his second year. He continued to study theology and, while attending, helped found the American Whig–Cliosophic Society along with Aaron Burr and William Paterson. He received his A.B. degree, Phi Beta Kappa after 2 years. Soon afterward, however, Ellsworth turned to the law. After four years of study, he was admitted to the bar in 1771 and later became a successful lawyer and politician.
He graduated in 1766 and returned home to Windsor, where his father prevailed on him to study theology with the Reverend John Smalley. After a year, however, Ellsworth abandoned a ministerial career in favor of a career in law. He first studied under Matthew Griswold but soon had to accept a more affordable apprenticeship with Jesse Root. In 1771 he was admitted to tire Connecticut bar.
Ellsworth’s early years of practice did not immediately bring financial success. He married Abigail Wolcott, the niece of a former Connecticut governor, but the political and social ties he secured by this union did not alter Iris fortunes at once. The couple took up residence on a farm owned by Ellsworth’s father near Windsor, and he struggled to develop his practice while cutting and selling timber from the farm to make ends meet. Lacking a horse, Ellsworth traveled 10 miles on foot to attend court sessions in nearby Hartford, but in the beginning industry alone did not secure him success: his total earnings from the practice of law for the first three years were a paltry three pounds.
Eventually, though, hard work, family connections, growing experience, and natural ability combined to make ltis law practice prosper. Soon he entered the field of politics when Windsor elected him its representative to the Connecticut General Assembly in 1773. Continuing in this post the following year, he was also appointed justice of the peace for Hartford County. By 1777 he had gained the post of state’s attorney for Hartford County, and that same year he was elected to represent Connecticut in the Continental Congress. His service in these positions ultimately yielded an appointment to Connecticut’s Supreme Court of Errors in 1785 and, a year later, to the state’s Superior Court.
Ellsworth returned home to Connecticut the following spring to a partial retirement, though he served for a time on the Governor’s Council. He briefly considered undertaking an appointment as chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court but ultimately declined the position. He died in Windsor on November 26, 1807.
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadclpliia in 1787, Oliver Ellsworth arrived as one of three Connecticut delegates. In this capacity he helped negotiate the compromise that forged a union of both small and large states by creating a bicameral legislature that partially protected the interests of each. The House of Representatives favored the populous states, because their populations would guarantee them proportionately greater representation in the chamber. The Senate protected the interests of less populous states by giving them an equal voice there. Ellsworth is also credited with suggesting the title for the framework of government as “the government of the United States.” After making these important contributions, though, Ellsworth’s responsibilities in Connecticut forced him to leave the Constitutional Convention early and thus prevented him from signing the proposed Constitution.
Upon his return to Connecticut, Ellsworth labored vigorously for ratification of the Constitution, and when his state joined the others in the new union, it promptly selected Ellsworth as one of its first senators. He served in the U.S. Senate until 1796 and commanded such respect among the other legislators that Aaron Burr is said to have suggested that “If Ellsworth had happened to spell the name of the Deity with two d’s, it would have taken the Senate three weeks to expunge the superfluous letter.” While in the Senate, Ellsworth’s most important legislative contribution was drafting, along with future Supreme Court justice William Paterson, the Judiciary Act of 1789, signed into law by President George Washington on September 24, 1789. This seminal act established the structure of the federal court system, providing for the Supreme Court to consist of a chief justice and five associate justices and creating 13 district and three circuit courts. The first nine sections of the act arc written in William Paterson’s hand, while tire remaining sections—10 through 23— are in Ellsworth’s.
Immediately after the Judiciary Act became law, President Washington nominated John Jay to serve as the Court’s first chief justice. Jay served in this post for six years but resigned in 1795 after being elected governor of New York. Washington sought first to elevate Associate Justice John Rudedge to replace Jay as chief justice, but although Rutledge served temporarily in the position for a few months, the Senate ultimately refused to confirm his appointment. Washington then approached Associate Justice William Cushing to accept the chief seat, but Cushing refused the nomination. Finally, die president nominated Oliver Ellsworth to become chief justice of the Court. The Senate confirmed the appointment die following day, and a few days later Ellsworth took the oath of office.
In 1772, Ellsworth married Abigail Wolcott, the daughter of Abigail Abbot and William Wolcott, nephew of Connecticut colonial governor Roger Wolcott, and granddaughter of Abiah Hawley and William Wolcott of East Windsor, Connecticut. They had nine children including the twins William Wolcott Ellsworth, who married Noah Webster's daughter, served in Congress and became the governor of Connecticut; and Henry Leavitt Ellsworth, who became the first Commissioner of the United States Patent Office, the mayor of Hartford, president of Aetna Life Insurance and a large benefactor of Yale College. Oliver Ellsworth was the grandfather of Henry L. Ellsworth's son Henry W. Ellsworth.