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Oliver Ellsworth served as the third chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Though his tenure on the Court was undistinguished, Ellsworth played an important part in shaping the political and legal structure of the United States as a representative at the Constitutional Convention and as a U.S. senator.
Ellsworth was born April 29, 1745, in Windsor, Connecticut, into a prosperous and distinguished family. He attended Yale College (now Yale University), then transferred to Princeton, where he graduated in 1766. Ellsworth entertained thoughts of becoming a minister but decided to enter the legal profession. He was admitted to the Connecticut bar in 1771 and was quickly recognized as an able attorney.
Politics soon attracted Ellsworth. A proponent of American independence, he served in the Connecticut General Assembly in 1775. From 1777 to 1783 he was a member of the Continental Congress and from 1780 to 1784 he sat on the Connecticut Governor's Council. Ellsworth also served as a trial judge during this period.
Ellsworth advocated a strong national government and aligned himself with the Federalist Party. When the Constitutional Convention convened in 1787, Ellsworth served as a representative from Connecticut. During the writing of the Constitution Ellsworth contributed the phrase "United States." More important, Ellsworth and Roger Sherman convinced the convention to adopt their Connecticut Compromise (sometimes called the Great Compromise), which resolved the nature of the federal legislature.
"Institutions without respect, laws violated with impunity, are, to a Republic, the symptoms and seeds of death."
The convention had been divided over this issue. edmund randolph offered the Virginia Plan, which was supported by the more populated states. This plan provided for a bicameral (two-chambered) legislature with representation based on each state's population. william paterson of New Jersey put forward his New Jersey Plan, which was favored by the smaller states. This plan called for equal representation for each state, regardless of population. Ellsworth and Sherman proposed a compromise: the legislature would be bicameral, with the lower house based on proportional representation and the upper house based on equal representation, and all revenue bills would originate in the lower house. The Connecticut Compromise was approved July 16, 1787. The structure proposed in the compromise has proved to be an important check and balance, giving smaller states equality in the upper house, called the Senate.
Ellsworth learned firsthand about the Senate as he served in that institution from 1789 to 1796. He was the leader of the Federalists in the Senate and drafted the conference report that recommended the adoption of the amendments to the Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights. He also helped write the Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 73). The judiciary act implemented the vague language of Article III of the Constitution by organizing the federal court system into the Supreme Court, circuit courts of appeal, and district courts. The basic structure of the federal courts has remained substantially the same since 1789.
President George Washington appointed Ellsworth chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1796. Once on the Court, Ellsworth proved generally ineffective. Because of illness and the undertaking of diplomatic assignments, he had little time or energy to devote to Court business.
Ellsworth resigned in 1799 following an arduous trip to France. President John Adams had sent him there to negotiate a trade agreement with Napoléon. The trip aggravated his illness.
Ellsworth did not abandon public life. He sat on the Connecticut Governor's Council for a second time, serving from 1801 to 1807. In 1807 he was appointed chief justice of Connecticut. He died on November 26 of that year, in Windsor, before taking his seat.
Casto, William R. 1996. "Oliver Ellsworth." Journal of Supreme Court History. (annual): 73–91.