Founding Fathers Friday: William Ellery

by Derrick G. Jeter

William Ellery could be the patron saint of any modern day university student or professional. A quick glance at this resume reveals that either Ellery couldn’t keep a job or he liked to job hop. In college parlance: he changed his major . . . often. Despite his impressive beginning—the son of a rich Rhode Island merchant and a Harvard graduate—Ellery’s professional life had the tinge of swiss cheese: flavorful, but full of holes.
As a student at Harvard, Ellery excelled at the languages of Greek and Latin. Unfortunately for him, the means of making a living as a linguist in Colonial America were scare to none . . . leaning a little heavy on the none side, unless he wanted to become a teacher (one of the few jobs Ellery didn’t attempt).
Ellery married young and followed in his father’s footsteps as a merchant. Over the course of his long life, he would have two wives (out living both) and produce sixteen children, though not all survived. He would also dabble in at least seven different professions. The dabbler, as Ellery called himself, would eventually leave the mercantile business and try his hand as a customs collector, the clerk of the general assembly in Rhode Island, and the clerk of common pleas. Finally, at an age when other men were well established in their professions, Ellery studied for the law (he was forty).
Ellery finally found his life’s calling in the law. Establishing his practice in Rhode Island, it quickly grew, listing clients from Massachusetts on its books. And as so many of the other signers, he dabbled in local politics. The fact that his name shows up on the Declaration at all is by pure happenstance. Tiny Rhone Island only needed two delegates to represent them in the Second Continental Congress—and Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward, the former governor, had those jobs. However, in May 1776—three months before he was to vote on independence—Ward contracted smallpox in Philadelphia and died. Ward was out and Ellery was in.
Like the majority of the signers, Ellery put his name to the Declaration on August 2, 1776. Both before and after signing his name, he sat next to the secretary as a witness of each signature: “I was determined,” he later wrote, “to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrant. I placed myself beside the secretary Charles Thomson and eyed each closely as he affixed his name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed in every countenance.”
Two years after signing the Declaration, Ellery’s home in Newport, Rhone Island was torched by British soldiers. Ellery and his family fled to Dighton, Massachusetts, where he tried to rebuild his life. Yet, because of his large brood of children, his incessant shuttling back and forth from Philadelphia, the fact that being lawyer didn’t always equal riches, and that a war was raging, Ellery had a hard time re-establishing financial stability.
In 1786, after eight long years in Congress, Ellery went back to his Newport home and returned to his early job hopping ways. In 1790, George Washington, now President of the Untied States, appointed Ellery as customs collector for Newport; a position he held for the remainder of his life. Not only did the job as customs collector provide financial stability, Ellery proved to be a stable and faithful public employee, holding the position for thirty years.
Later in his life, Ellery sent a letter to a grandson which included his resume: “I have been a clerk of the court, a quack lawyer, a member of Congress, one of the lord of the admiralty, a judge, a loan officer, and finally a collector of the customs, and thus, not without many difficulties, but as honestly, thank God, as most men, I have got through the journey of a varied and sometimes anxious life.”
Despite an anxious life, Ellery was only one of three signers who lived into their nineties, and the second longest survivor. John Adams died at the age of ninety. Ellery was ninety-three. And the Methuselah of the signers: Charles Carroll died at ninety-five.
On the day of his death, February 15, 1820, the classical language loving Ellery was found sitting in his chair reading one of the works of Cicero . . . written in Latin, of course.