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Constitution Daily

The Most Underrated Founding Father: Oliver Ellsworth?

On the anniversary of Oliver Ellsworth’s birth, Constitution Daily looks back an important founder who helped forge a compromise that led to the Constitution and later played important roles in the early Senate and Supreme Court.

Ellsworth was born on April 29, 1745, in Windsor, Connecticut. From a prominent New England family, Ellsworth began his education at Yale and finished at Princeton, where he started the American Whig-Cliosophic Society along with fellow students Luther Martin and William Paterson. (Other early members included James Madison, Aaron Burr, and Henry Lee.)

He quickly became a successful lawyer and then became involved in the Revolutionary War, serving in the Continental Congress. Ellsworth was also a judge in Connecticut.

Ellsworth played a very active role in the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia. According to Madison’s records, Ellsworth frequently spoke at the Convention. And Ellsworth won a debate over dropping the term “United States” from the official name of the federal government.

Ellsworth and Roger Sherman were involved in the Great (or Connecticut) Compromise that led to a House of Representatives with proportional representation and a Senate with fixed representation based on two Senators per state; he also supported the three-fifths compromise about slavery. Ellsworth then served on the five-person committee that wrote the Constitution’s first draft, but he forced to leave Philadelphia for business reasons before signing the final document in September 1787.

During the ratification battle over the Constitution, Ellsworth wrote Letters of a Landholder, a series of articles like the Federalist Papers that supported the proposed Constitution. Seven were written about Connecticut’s ratification debate, and six were targeted at a national audience.

In the first national government under the Constitution, Ellsworth was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Connecticut. He functioned as the de facto Senate Majority Leader until 1796. His biggest accomplishment was the drafting and passing of the Judiciary Act of 1789. Ellsworth personally wrote much of the Act along with William Patterson, which defined the structure and jurisdiction of the federal court system, and remains largely intact today. The Act also gave the federal Supreme Court the ability to hear appeals of cases decided by state supreme courts, which was an important step in the concept of judicial review.

Ellsworth was also an important force in the Senate for promoting Alexander Hamilton’s national debt funding and for starting the Bank of the United States. In 1796, Ellsworth left the Senate to become the third Chief Justice of the United States, and he also served as a commissioner to France while he sat on the Supreme Court between 1796 and 1800. During his short time on the Court, Ellsworth tried to initiate the modern format of Supreme Court decisions, with Justices issuing joint majority and dissenting opinions.

While in France negotiating with Napoleon to end an undeclared trade war with the United States, Ellsworth resigned from the Supreme Court, citing health problems caused by his travel schedule. Ellsworth’s replacement was John Marshall.

Returning to Windsor, Connecticut, Ellsworth remained active in state politics until his death in 1807.

Despite Ellsworth’s considerable contributions in the Founding period, little has been written about him, with few biographies available. The official Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Ellsworth was written by future U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

1 Comment
  • Jim says:

    Thanks so much for the info. As a Social Studies Teacher of 30 yrs, I’m certain that I’ve encountered his name before, but knew nothing about the guy.

    Thanks again

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