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Ellsworth, Oliver

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Birth: April 29, 1745, Windsor, Connecticut.

Education: Princeton, A.B., 1766; honorary LL.D., Yale (1790), Princeton (1790), Dartmouth (1797).

Official Positions: Member, Connecticut General Assembly, 1773–1776; state's attorney, Hartford County, 1777–1785; delegate to Continental Congress, 1777–1784; member, Connecticut Council of Safety, 1779; member, Governor's Council, 1780–1785, 1801–1807; judge, Connecticut Superior Court, 1785–1789; delegate, Constitutional Convention, 1787; U.S. senator, 1789–1796; commissioner to France, 1799–1800.

Supreme Court Service: Nominated chief justice by President George Washington, March 3, 1796, to replace John Jay, who had resigned; confirmed by the Senate, March 4, 1796, by a 21–1 vote; took judicial oath March 8, 1796; resigned December 15, 1800; replaced by John Marshall, nominated by President John Adams.

Death: November 26, 1807, Windsor, Connecticut.

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Oliver Ellsworth
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Oliver Ellsworth

Oliver Ellsworth was a thoroughgoing Calvinist who experienced his election by God for salvation. He was born into a prosperous (though not wealthy) Connecticut farming family. His parents intended him for the ministry, and he was educated by famous new divinity ministers before and after he graduated from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1766. But Ellsworth found his calling in law and politics. He became—in the Calvinist parlance of his times—a “Righteous Ruler.”

After marrying the daughter of a prominent Connecticut family, Ellsworth developed a lucrative law practice and entered politics. From 1773 to 1789 he was a state legislator and then a judge. He also was an active and influential delegate, first to the Continental Congress and later to the Constitutional Convention, after which he became Connecticut's most effective advocate for ratification. Ellsworth then represented Connecticut in the Senate and was the Federalist senators' de facto floor leader until he became chief justice of the United States in 1796.

None of his contemporaries—except for John Marshall—had a more profound and long-lasting influence on the federal judicial system. At Philadelphia he was a member of the Committee of Detail that wrote the Constitution's judicial article. More significant, in the First Congress, he personally drafted and was widely recognized as the “leading projector” of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established and prescribed the federal courts' judicial powers. Finally, he concluded his national public service as chief justice of the court he had helped to create.

Ellsworth was a gifted politician and known to be self-disciplined. William Vans Murray, who served with Ellsworth on a diplomatic mission to France in 1800, wrote that Ellsworth “has a head of iron—just iron—that works with the precision of a mill, without its quickness and giddy manner. I profoundly admire the neatness and accuracy of his mind.” Ellsworth also understood the art and utility of political compromise. He believed human events to be absolutely predestined by God according to a perfect plan that was beyond human comprehension. His educators had taught him that evil was also part of God's plan and served a divine purpose. Because he had experienced his personal salvation, he knew that his own conduct was righteous. At the same time, he could accept political compromises as part of God's unknowable plan. These psychological dynamics added up to an immensely confident man who acted from principle, but who nevertheless could enthusiastically embrace compromise as a desirable component of political life.

Ellsworth's ability to craft workable compromises played a major role in the drafting and enactment of the Judiciary Act. He was adamant on the need for vesting the federal courts with plenary power over a comparatively narrow range of litigation, including revenue collection cases, criminal prosecutions, and prize cases. He warned that “there will be Attacks on the General Government that will go to the Very Vitals of it [and state] Judges may Swerve.” Without adequate revenues and effective criminal laws, the government could not defend itself. To obtain these absolutely essential powers, Ellsworth agreed to exclude the federal courts from trying many other suits that implicated important but lesser national interests.

As chief justice, Ellsworth revisited the major themes of the Judiciary Act. In Wiscart v. Dauchy (1796) and Turner v. Bank of North America (1799), he reaffirmed Congress's extensive powers to limit the federal courts' jurisdiction. In United States v. La Vengeance (1796), he significantly expanded the federal admiralty judges' authority to enforce federal revenue laws without the intercession of juries.

Ellsworth also took an active role in the vigorous enforcement of criminal law. He believed that God had predestined human history to bring order out of chaos and that the federal government was obviously part of God's plan. He instructed grand juries that “national laws …. are the means by which it pleases heaven to make of weak and discordant parts, one great people; and to bestow upon them unexampled prosperity.” But he also believed in original sin and had a pessimistic view of human nature. “Numerous are the vices,” he warned, “and as obstinate the prejudices, and as daring as restless is the ambition, which perpetually hazard the national peace.” He therefore urged “constant vigilance” in the enforcement of federal criminal law. “No transgression is too small, nor any transgressor too great, for animadversion.”

Given this concern for the enforcement of criminal law, it comes as no surprise that in 1799, his last year of service on the Court, Ellsworth delivered a grand jury charge providing the most comprehensive explanation and justification of the federal courts' controversial enforcement of federal common law crimes. That same year, while riding circuit, Ellsworth wrote a controversial opinion in the common law prosecution of Isaac Williams. In United States v. Williams (1799), he insisted that the federal common law of crimes extended even to conduct outside the United States by an individual who had renounced his American citizenship and became the naturalized citizen of a foreign country.

In addition to his contributions to federal criminal law, Ellsworth was an effective administrator who convinced his fellow justices to accept a significant change in the structure of the Court's public opinions. Before his time, the Court followed the English practice in which each justice would deliver his own opinion seriatim. Under Ellsworth, however, the Court began to follow the Connecticut practice of pronouncing a single opinion presenting the majority's view together with dissenting opinions, if any. During his tenure, seriatim opinions were delivered in only one case in which he participated in the Court's decision. Ellsworth's practice of delivering a single majority opinion continues to the present and has enormous implications for the Court's role as the ultimate expositor of constitutional law. Instead of multifarious pronouncements from the individual justices, the single majority opinion permits the Court to speak with one voice.

Like Chief Justice John Jay before him, Ellsworth spent the last months of his judicial tenure as a diplomat. In 1799 he sailed to Europe to negotiate a conclusion to the undeclared naval war between the United States and France. Following the conclusion of successful negotiations, he resigned his office on the grounds of ill health. Ellsworth spent the rest of his life in Connecticut where he was an active participant in state politics.


William Garrott Brown, The Life of Oliver Ellsworth (1905), is the best biography of Ellsworth, but is quite out of date in terms of the author's style and access to primary sources. “Biographical Sketch of Chief Justice Ellsworth,” Analectic Magazine 3 (1814): 382, is an insightful and reasonably frank sketch by Gulian Verplanck, who knew Ellsworth. The various volumes of The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800 (1985 et seq.) provide the best tools for tracing Ellsworth's drafting of the Judiciary Act and his subsequent service as chief justice. See also William Casto, “Two Advisory Opinions by Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth,” Green Bag 6 (n.s. 2003): 413; and Casto, “Oliver Ellsworth,” Journal of Supreme Court History 20 (1966).

Noteworthy Opinions

United States v. La Vengeance, 3 U.S. 297 (1796)

Wiscart v. Dauchy, 3 U.S. 321 (1796)

Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 U.S. 8 (1799)

United States v. Williams, 29 F. Cases 1330 (C.C.D. Conn. 1799)


Document Citation
Ellsworth, Oliver, in Biographical Encyclopedia of the Supreme Court 180 (Melvin I. Urofsky ed., 2006),
Document ID: bioenc-427-18166-979210
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