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Ellsworth, Oliver (1745–1807), revolutionary politician and jurist in the United States of America, was born on 29 April 1745 in Windsor, Connecticut, the second son of Captain David Ellsworth (1709–1782), farmer and militia officer, and Jemima Leavitt (1721–1790). His father intended him for the ministry and after preparing for college with the noted New Light clergyman Joseph Bellamy, he entered Yale College in 1762. In 1764 with his parents' approval he transferred to the College of New Jersey, graduating with the class of 1766. After studying theology for another year, he was apprenticed with two eminent legal counsellors, Matthew Griswold and Jesse Root. In 1772 he married Abigail Wolcott (1755–1818) of East Windsor. Shortly afterwards he was elected to represent Windsor in the Connecticut general assembly.

In 1775 Ellsworth moved to neighbouring Hartford, which became the revolutionary capital of the state. For the next eight years he served in various state offices including state's attorney for Hartford county, member of the council of safety, which directed Connecticut's war effort, and, beginning in 1779, as one of the twelve assistants who constituted the upper house of the state legislature. In 1777 he was also appointed delegate to the continental congress, where he served intermittently until 1783. His sojourn in congress convinced him that a stronger national government alone could solve the problems of small states like Connecticut just when many of his fellow citizens had reached the opposite conclusion. Although a populist attempt to purge him as assistant failed in 1783–4, Ellsworth accepted appointment to the state's newly constituted supreme court in 1785 partially to insulate himself from electoral pressures.

Connecticut's delegation to the Philadelphia constitutional convention in 1787 included Roger Sherman, William S. Johnson, and Ellsworth. Collectively they are credited with fashioning the key compromise of the convention, often referred to as the ‘Connecticut compromise’, which matched a house of representatives that proportionately represented the population with a senate in which each state had equal representation. Ellsworth also served on the committee of detail, which produced the first draft of the constitution, and vigorously supported its acceptance in the public prints and at Connecticut's ratifying convention. Chosen by Connecticut's legislature to serve in the senate of the first congress, he was the principal draftsman of the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established the structure and defined the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary.

Ellsworth was critical of the French Revolution almost from its inception and after 1792, as the war in Europe threatened United States neutrality, favoured an accommodation with Britain. In 1794 he with other like-minded congressmen urged Washington to appoint a special envoy to negotiate the outstanding differences between the two countries. When the resulting Jay treaty proved controversial, Ellsworth did everything in his power to secure its ratification and implementation.

In 1796 Ellsworth accepted appointment as the second chief justice of the United States supreme court. During his brief tenure the court affirmed the supremacy of federal treaties over state laws and defined rules and procedures that would govern appeals from state to federal courts as well as within the federal judicial system. Ellsworth also wrote advisory opinions supporting the executive's privilege to deny congress access to diplomatic correspondence and the constitutionality of the Sedition Act.

In 1799 Ellsworth accepted President John Adams's appointment as one of three commissioners to negotiate an end to the limited naval war the United States had been waging against French armed vessels since 1798. While the convention of Môrtefontaine failed to resolve many of the differences between the two countries, it did restore friendly diplomatic relations with France. Ellsworth's health, already compromised by gout and kidney problems, collapsed on the journey to Paris, leading him to resign as chief justice after concluding the convention of 1800. When he returned to the United States in 1801, he retired to his native Windsor where he remained active in Connecticut's public life until his death, in Windsor, on 26 November 1807. He was buried in Windsor burial-ground.

Richard Buel jun.


W. Craven, ‘Oliver Ellsworth’, Princetonians: a biographical dictionary, 1748–1768, ed. J. McLachlan (1976), vol. 1 · W. G. Brown, The life of Oliver Ellsworth (1905) · D. J. Lettieri, Connecticut's young man of the revolution: Oliver Ellsworth (1978) · W. R. Casto, ‘Ellsworth, Oliver’, ANB · W. R. Casto, The supreme court in the early republic: the chief justiceships of John Jay and Oliver Ellsworth (1996) · W. R. Casto, ‘Oliver Ellsworth, “I have sought the felicity and glory of your administration”’, Seriatim: the supreme court before John Marshall, ed. S. D. Gerber (1998) · A. DeConde, The quasi-war: the politics and diplomacy of the undeclared war with France, 1797–1801 (1966) · M. Farrand, ed., The records of the federal convention of 1787, rev. edn, 4 vols. (1937); repr. (1966) · J. H. Hutson, ed., Supplement to Max Farrand's ‘The records of the federal convention of 1787’ (1987) · H. R. Stiles, The history and genealogy of ancient Windsor, Connecticut, 2 (1892)


Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, MSS · L. Cong., papers of the continental Congress


R. Earle, oils, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut · D. C. Hinman, engraving (after a miniature by Trumbull), repro. in Analectic Magazine, 3 (1814), 382