Ellsworth, Oliver (1745–1807)

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Oliver Ellsworth played a key role in the creation of the United States Constitution in 1787 and the establishment of a national judiciary during the Constitution's first decade.

Born into a well-established Connecticut family, he entered Yale in 1762, but left after two years to attend the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he was graduated with a B.A. in 1766. Ellsworth returned to Connecticut and studied theology for about a year, but abandoned it for the law and was admitted to the bar in 1771. One of the ablest lawyers of his day, he built up an extremely lucrative practice. He also entered politics and was elected to the state's General Assembly in 1773. A warm supporter of the patriot cause against Great Britain, he helped supervise the state's military expenditures during the war for independence, was appointed state attorney for Hartford in 1777, a member of the Governor's Council in 1780, and a judge of the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1785. He also served as one of the state's representatives to the Continental Congress for six terms (1777–1783). While in Congress he became a member of the Committee of Appeals which heard appeals from state admiralty courts, and in this capacity he ruled on the important case of Gideon Olmstead and the British sloop Active which eventually culminated in united states v. peters (1809).

In 1787 Connecticut selected him to be one of its three delegates to the federal constitutional convention in Philadelphia. He played an active role at the convention and won respect for his orderly mind and his effectiveness as a debater. Ellsworth favored the movement to establish a strong and active federal government with the power to act directly on individuals and to levy taxes, as a substitute for the weak central government created by the articles of confederation. But he also thought that the virginia plan went too far in a nationalist direction. "The only chance of supporting a general government lies in grafting it on those of the original states," he argued. In particular, he opposed the idea of apportioning representation in both houses of Congress according to population, to the clear advantage of larger states. To resolve the differences between the large and the small states he helped forge the successful great compromise which apportioned representation in the lower house according to population and in the Senate by a rule of equality, with each state having two senators. Ellsworth also played an active role on the Committee on Detail which produced the basic draft of the United States Constitution.

Following adoption of the Constitution, Connecticut elected Ellsworth to the United States Senate. He recognized that the Constitution as written and ratified was only a basic outline; an actual government had to be created and its powers implemented. He supported alexander hamilton's financial program and was opposed to attempts to ally the United States too closely with France, but his most important contribution was the drafting of the judiciary act of 1789. This law was in many ways an extension of the Constitution itself, for it fleshed out the terse third article of that document which dealt with the nature and powers of the federal judiciary. The Judiciary Act of 1789 specified that the Supreme Court should consist of six Justices, that each state should have a district court, and that there should be three circuit courts consisting of two Supreme Court Justices sitting with a district judge. Under this law the fedral courts were given exclusive jurisdiction in a number of important areas and concurrent jurisdiction with the state courts in other matters. The act also provided that decisions of the state courts involving the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States could be appealed to the Supreme Court.

In 1796 President george washington appointed Ellsworth Chief Justice of the United States. He held the post for three years but had little impact. The cases he heard were not very significant, illness limited his participation in the duties of the Court, and a diplomatic mission took him out of the country. Perhaps his most important decision came in Wiscart v. Dauchy (1796) in which he examined the relationship of the Supreme Court to the district and circuit courts, established a series of important rules dealing with writs of error, and extended common law procedures in appeals to equity and admiralty jurisdiction as well. His opinions tended to be brief, to the point, and nationalist in orientation. In United States v. La Vengeance (1796) he expanded the admiralty jurisdiction of the federal courts to inland navigable rivers, the Great Lakes, and other water routes away from the high seas; and while riding circuit in United States v. Isaac Williams (1799) he upheld the English common law doctrine that citizens of a country did not have a right to expatriate themselves without their native country's consent.

As Chief Justice, Ellsworth encouraged the practice of the Supreme Court's handing down per curiam opinions, with a single decision representing the will of the entire court, as opposed to having separate seriatim opinions by the individual Justices. john marshall, who succeeded Ellsworth as Chief Justice, considered the continuation and further development of this practice all-important in maintaining respect for the authority of the Court when it handed down controversial decisions.

In 1799 Ellsworth, over the protest of some of his closest associates, agreed to a request from President john adams to be part of a special diplomatic mission to resolve the undeclared naval war with France. The mission was a success, but Ellsworth became ill while abroad, resigned the chief justiceship in October 1800, and stayed in England to recuperate. By the time he returned to America the Jeffersonians had triumphed and he retired from public life.

Richard E. Ellis


Brown, William Garrott 1905 The Life of Oliver Ellsworth. New York: Macmillan.

Goebel, Julius, Jr. 1971 History of the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 1: Antecedents and Beginnings to 1801. New York: Macmillan.

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Ellsworth, Oliver (1745–1807)

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