Significance: Ellsworth helped author the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the federal judicial system. As an associate justice, he favored the expansion of the powers of the federal courts, but illness and a diplomatic assignment prevented him from having much impact.
Intended by his father to have a career in the church, Ellsworth entered Yale in 1762 but left two years later to complete his college education at Princeton, where he earned a B.A. in 1766. Soon after returning home, he gave up the study of theology for law. Admitted to the bar in 1771, he set up practice in Windsor, Connecticut. Four years later, he moved to Hartford, where he quickly rose to prominence and recognition as a leader of the Connecticut bar. In 1777 Ellsworth was appointed state's attorney for Hartford County. He became a member of the Governor's Council within three years and a judge of the Connecticut superior court shortly thereafter. During the Revolutionary War, as a member of the Committee of the Pay Table, he supervised the state's war expenditures; in 1779, he was chosen to serve on the Council of Safety. Also in 1777, the Connecticut general assembly appointed him a delegate to the Continental Congress, where he served for six years. As a delegate, Ellsworth gained recognition for the Connecticut compromise, which established two legislative houses and, to create a balance between states with large and small populations, granted each state two senators. He also recommended that the words “United States” be used instead of the word “nation” to designate the government. One of the first U.S. senators from Connecticut, he served in this capacity for seven years until appointed chief justice of the United States in 1796. In the Senate, Ellsworth had earned respect for drafting the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the circuit and district court system, but his three-year term as chief justice was fairly undistinguished. His decisions were more remarkable for common sense than for legal learning. Although he was known as a good lawyer, Ellsworth was more an advocate than a jurist. Noteworthy, however, is his decision on Hylton v. United States (1796), the first time the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of an act of Congress. In 1799 Ellsworth, although still chief justice, traveled to France, where he and other U.S. commissioners negotiated with Napoleon Bonaparte to avoid a war between the two countries. The combined effects of arduous travel and difficult negotiations broke his health, and he resigned from the Supreme Court in 1800, while still in France. After retiring to Connecticut in 1801, he served in that state's upper house and was appointed chief justice of Connecticut's highest court in 1807, the year of his death.
- Bader, William H., and Roy M. Mersky, eds. The First One Hundred Eight Justices. Buffalo, N.Y.: William S. Hein, 2004.
- Brown, William Garrott. The Life of Oliver Ellsworth. New York: Macmillan, 1905. Reprint. New York: DeCapo Press, 1970.
- Friedman, Leon, and Fred L. Israel, eds. The Justices of the Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions. 5 vols. New York: Chelsea House, 1997.
- Harrington, Matthew P. Jay and Ellsworth, The First Courts: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2007.