William Ellery

Portrait by Artist to Come

QUICK FACTS
BORN:
22 December 1727 in Newport, Rhode Island
  DIED:
15 February 1820 in Newport
Buried at Common Burying Ground and Island Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island.

William Ellery, American politician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1727. He graduated from Harvard in 1747, engaged in trade, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1770. He was a member of the Rhode Island Committee of Safety in 1775 – 76, and was a delegate in Congress in 1776 – 81 and again in 1783 – 85.

Just after his first election to Congress, he was placed on the important Marine Committee, and he was made a member of the Board of Admiralty when it was established in 1779. In April 1786 he was elected Commissioner of the Continental Loan Office for the State of Rhode Island, and from 1790 until his death in 1820 at Newport, he was collector of the customs for the district of Newport.

ADAPTED FROM:
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 ed.

Yet there is no doubt that his natural abilities were what most distinguished [John] Marshal from other lawyers and jurists. His head, said Senator Rufus King, is the best organized of anyone I have known. Marshal could grasp a subject in its whole and yet simultaneously analyze it parts and relate them to the whole. He could move progressively and efficiently from premise to conclusion in a logical and rigorous manner and extract the essence of the law from the mass of particulars. In the words of Justice Story, he had the remarkable ability to seize, as it were by intuition, the very spirit of juridical doctrines. Even Jefferson acknowledged Marshall’s talent, but he scarcely respected it. Jefferson told Story that when conversing with Marshall, I never admit anything. So sure as you admit any position to be good, no matter how remote from the conclusion he seeks to establish, you are gone. So great is his sophistry you must never give him an affirmative answer, or you will be forced to grant his conclusion. Why, if he were to ask me whether it were daylight or not, I’d reply, Sir, I don’t know, I can’t tell.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)