William Ellery

1727–1820

William Ellery was a Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence, as a delegate from Rhode Island. His career included roles as a customs collector and commissioner of the Continental Loan Office. Ellery remained active in public service and scholarly pursuits until he died in 1820, at the age of 92.

William Ellery, Founding Father, Rhode Island, NYPL

William Ellery. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Essential Facts

  • Born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1727.
  • Graduated from Harvard College in 1747.
  • Member of the Sons of Liberty.
  • Started practicing law in 1770.
  • Served as a Delegate to the Continental Congress from 1776–1786.
  • Signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776.
  • House and property were destroyed during the British occupation of Newport.
  • Appointed Commissioner of the Continental Loan Office (1786-1790).
  • Appointed Customs Collector for Newport, Rhode Island in 1790 by President George Washington.
  • Died in 1820 at the age of 92.
  • Buried in the Common Ground Cemetery in Newport.

Significance to American History

William Ellery is important to American History because he Signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, making him one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Ellery enjoyed a long career in politics, including Congress, various public offices, and Customs Collector.

Life and Career of the Founding Father

William Ellery was one of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence. Unlike his fellow Rhode Island signer, Stephen Hopkins, Ellery’s achievements did not bring him widespread fame beyond his hometown. Despite this, Ellery made significant contributions during his time as a Delegate to the Continental Congress, which was the only significant political position he held in his career.

Education and Early Professional Career

William Ellery was born on December 22, 1727, in Newport, Province of Rhode Island. His father, Benjamin Ellery, was a prominent figure who played a significant role in William’s early education. Ellery graduated from Harvard College in 1747, at the young age of 15. He returned to Newport, where he started his career working as a merchant and then as a Customs Collector before becoming the Clerk of the Rhode Island General Assembly. In 1764, he helped found Rhode Island College.

Stamp Act Crisis and Patriot Cause

During the Stamp Act Crisis, Ellery aligned with the Patriot Cause, along with Samuel Vernon, another prominent Newport merchant.

Ellery was a member of the Sons of Liberty who forced August Johnson to resign from his position as Stamp Agent. In 1766, Captain William Read deeded a plot of land to Ellery and the Sons of Liberty. Ellery also protested the Townshend Acts.

In 1770, at the age of 43, Ellery started practicing law and continued to be involved in the Patriot Cause. 

Second Continental Congress

After Samuel Ward died in May 1776, Ellery was sent to the Second Continental Congress to replace him. Ellery was present when the Lee Resolution was introduced and voted in favor of independence on July 2. On July 10, in a letter to his brother, Benjamin, he said:

“We have lived to see a Period which a few years ago no human forecast could have imagined – to see these Colonies shake off and declare themselves independent of a State which they once gloried to call Parent …”

Later, Ellery wrote to Reverend Ezra Stiles and said, “We have been driven into a Declaration of Independency & must forget our former love of our British brethren. The Sword must determine our quarrel.”

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Ellery, like many members of Congress, officially signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. He recalled the historic event, saying “I was determined 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 each name to the document. Undaunted resolution was displayed in every countenance.”

As a member of Congress, Ellery was appointed to the Marine Committee, which oversaw the establishment of the Continental Navy, and participated in several other committees. Meanwhile, he served as a judge on the Supreme Court of Rhode Island. 

Rhode Island During the War

In 1776, British forces led by General Henry Clinton invaded and occupied Newport, Rhode Island. During the occupation, which included the Battle of Rhode Island (August 29, 1778), the British burned Ellery’s home.

Abolition

Although Rhode Island had been a leader in the Slave Trade, Ellery became an advocate for the abolition of slavery around 1785. 

Customs Collector of the Port of Newport

In 1786, he ended his congressional career to become the commissioner of the Continental Loan Office for Rhode Island. He held this position until 1790, the same year President George Washington appointed him as the First Customs Collector of the Port of Newport. Although he was a Federalist, he was able to retain the position through the administrations of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe — all Democratic-Republicans

Death of William Ellery

Ellery was still the Customs Collector when he died on February 15, 1820. He was buried in the Common Ground Cemetery in Newport. At the time of his death, only one Signer of the Declaration was still living — Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Marriages and Legacy

Ellery married twice. His first wife was Ann Remington, who died in 1764. His second was Abigail Cary. With his wife, he had seven children who survived to adulthood. Ellery’s legacy extended through his grandchildren, including William Ellery Channing, a prominent theologian and advocate of Unitarianism, and Richard Henry Dana, Sr., a well-known poet and essayist.

Timeline

  1. 1727 — Born in Newport, Rhode Island.
  2. 1747 — Graduated from Harvard College.
  3. 1770 — Started practicing law.
  4. 1776 — Sent to the Continental Congress; signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2.
  5. 1780 — Served on the Admiralty Board in Philadelphia.
  6. 1786 — Became Commissioner of the Continental Loan Office.
  7. 1790 — Appointed Customs Collector for Newport by President George Washington.
  8. 1820 — Died in Newport and was buried in Common Ground Cemetery.

William Ellery, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

This longer biography of William Ellery is taken from The Rhode Island Signers of the Declaration of Independence, which was published in 1913. We have made corrections, additions, and updates to clarify the text, and added section headings. This has been included to provide a more in-depth look at the character and reputation of this important Founding Father.

Early Years in Rhode Island

William Ellery of Newport, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the second son of William Ellery of Bristol. It is believed that the first Ellery who settled in New England arrived on this side of the Atlantic shortly after the middle of the seventeenth century; and towards the end of that century, one branch of the family was established at Bristol, where William Ellery the elder was born October 31, 1701.

The elder Ellery graduated from Harvard College in 1722 and became a well-to-do merchant of Newport. He served as Judge, Assistant, and Deputy Governor, and appears to have been sincerely devoted to the causes of religion and patriotism. He died March 15, 1764, and was survived by several children.

Ellery’s mother was Elizabeth Almy. 

He had two brothers, Christopher and Benjamin, and one sister, Ann, who married Reverend John Burt of Bristol. 

Ellery at Harvard

William Ellery — the Signer of the Declaration of Independence — was born at Newport, on December 22, 1727, and, together with his elder brother, was sent to Harvard for his collegiate education. The date of his registration there is supposed to be 1743. 

Ellery enjoyed to the full the opportunities afforded him for brisk and genial college companionship. One of his biographers tells us that “little is known of his college life besides the frolics and jests in which he had his full share, and which he used to relate in a most diverting style.” But it was by no means all play and no work at Cambridge, for he acquired there a substantial knowledge of classic authors which stood him in good stead his entire life and, indeed, furnished him to the end of his days with one of his chief recreations. 

He was always a great reader, both in Latin and English. When he was 84, he wrote: “As to employment of time, I have experienced such instruction and delight in reading, and investigating truth, that I mean, as long as my mind is capable of bearing it, to keep it in exercise and doze as little as possible. Blessed be the man who invented printing. For this important art I am thankful to that glorious Being from Whom all our blessings flow.”

And as we shall see, on the day of his death, almost at the moment of dissolution, he sat upright in bed to read a cherished volume of Cicero.

He received the degree of bachelor of arts from Harvard in 1747. His continued interest in the college is indicated by the fact that he made an annual visit to the campus in Cambridge until he was 80 years old — though it should be added that his interest in the town was not wholly academic. 

Professor Edward T. Channing, one of his grandsons, tells us that “he was received into the excellent society of the place, where he became attached to the lady whom he afterward married, and intimate with the family of Judge Trowbridge, her near connexion. The scenes of his early studies and first affection became dearer to him with his years, whether as the witnesses of his blessings or afflictions.”

Return to Newport

Upon graduating from Harvard, Ellery made his home in Newport, where in a short time he brought his wife, who had been Ann Remington of Cambridge, daughter of Justice Jonathan Remington of the Superior Court, and a descendant of Governor Joseph Dudley and Governor Simon Bradstreet. 

Commitment to Family

Professor Channing has an interesting domestic story that is worth recalling for the insight it gives into Ellery’s character. 

There was a congenial crowd of young men at Newport who spent their evenings cheerfully together instead of at home. Among them was Ellery, whose faithful wife, after the custom of the times, was wont to inscribe on the margin or blank leaves of the family almanac whatever events she considered noteworthy and memorable. 

One day, she had recorded, as its most precious event, and with expressions of tenderness and gratitude, that her husband had passed the evening with her and her children.

When Ellery read it, he understood how important it was for him to be with his family. He did not comment to his wife. 

That night he announced to his friends that it would be his last night with them, and that, hereafter, he would remain at home with his family. Some disbelieved, others scoffed, and they ridiculed him. Ellery stayed true to his word and was ever after a thoroughly domestic man.

Ann Ellery died at Cambridge on September 17, 1764, at the early age of 39; and 50 years later Ellery remembered her, saying to one of his grandchildren: “You read, in the graveyard in Cambridge, the epitaph of your grandmother, a woman dear to me and to all who were acquainted with her. Alas! I was too early deprived of her society.”

Ellery in Newport

For a number of years, Ellery was a merchant at Newport, and during a part of this time he served as naval officer of the colony. He was fond of gardening, which became a favorite occupation and diversion at a later period of his life. In his later years, he wrote, “I was among the first who followed the example that was set before us by some European gardeners who were imported into the town when I was a young married man; and, in consequence of our rival exertions, ten times as great a quantity of vegetables was raised upon the same quantity of ground annually as had ever been raised before.”

Three years after the death of his wife, on June 28, 1767, Ellery married a second time. She was Abigail Cary of Bristol, the daughter of Colonel Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Wanton) Cary. She died July 27, 1793, aged 51.

Ellery’s Children

Ellery was the father of five children — Edward Trowbridge, Elizabeth (Mrs. Francis Dana), Lucy (Mrs. William Channing, the mother of William Ellery Channing), Almy (Mrs. William Stedman of Boston), and William Ellery Jr., in whose house the First Unitarian Church of Newport was organized.

A story is told that illustrates his mild but effective methods of discipline with his children. One of his sons, on leaving for school one day, left the door open. 

Ellery sent his servant, Arthur Flagg, a black man, to summon the boy home. 

“Father, did you want me?” asked the boy when he returned. 

“Yes, my son,” was the reply, “shut the door.”

Legal Career

In 1770, Ellery started the practice of law, having previously served as clerk of the Court of Common Pleas. He secured considerable professional business, including cases from a number of the other colonies.

Home in Newport

During the British activities in and near Newport, Ellery’s house was burned in revenge for the share he took in the Colonial cause. 

The house in which he spent the latter portion of his life was a three-story structure of wood in the Colonial style, surmounted by a railing. It was purchased on April 23, 1799, from Asher and Mary Robbins, and remained in the Ellery family until March 1905, when it was sold to Henry Clay Anthony, a state Senator from Portsmouth. Shortly afterward, in 1906, it was torn down.

It was in this house the Ellery Chapter of the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution of Newport was organized.

Ellery’s Letters and Correspondence

Unfortunately, Ellery requested his friends to preserve none of his correspondence. There remain, however, certain letter books and five diaries detailing his journeys in three successful years to and from Congress. 

His credentials to that body as a delegate from Rhode Island are dated May 4, 1776, the exact day upon which the colony proclaimed its independence from Great Britain, forestalling the national Declaration by two months. 

Signing of the Declaration

He took his seat on May 14 and later signed his name to the Declaration of Independence. His habits of observation and philosophy are suggested by the fact that he stood by the side of the Secretary, Charles Thomson, during the proceedings, and noted the expression and manner of each member as he approached to place his name upon the roll. His grandson says that he was accustomed to describing the scene with great spirit.

Ellery in Congress

During his term in Congress, of which he was a member from 1776 to 1786, except in 1780 and 1782, he was appointed to some of the most important committees and took a frequent and influential part in debate. 

Shortly after his first election, he was placed on the Marine Committee, as might have been expected, considering the maritime prominence of Newport at this period. 

In 1779 he was chosen to the newly constituted Board of Admiralty, with full oversight of the naval and marine affairs of the nation. It consisted of but three commissioners from outside Congress and two from that body. So efficient was his service on this board that when he was temporarily retired from Congress in 1780 he was chosen one of the three other commissioners

He was a member of the Treasury Committee, for establishing expresses, for providing relief for the wounded and disabled and for purchasing necessaries for the army. 

In 1779 he served on the Committee on Foreign Relations and in 1782 on the Committee on Public Accounts. 

Support for Abolition

In 1785, “he advocated with great zeal, forensic eloquence and powerful logic the resolution of Rufus King for abolishing slavery in the United States.”

Political Offices

Congress made him Commissioner of the Continental Loan Office for Rhode Island in 1786, and shortly afterward he was chosen Chief Justice of Rhode Island, as Stephen Hopkins, his co-signer of the Declaration, had been chosen before him. 

In 1790 President Washington appointed him Collector of Customs at Newport, and that office he held for 30 years, until the day of his death.

Quotes

His diaries, heretofore referred to, are full of the agreeable quality of the man. He was a keen student of his fellows, the possessor of a natural cheerfulness and wit that could sharpen into irony upon occasion. 

At Kingston, on his way to the Capital in 1777 he noted the surrender of General John Burgoyne, ending the Saratoga Campaign:

“This Day had a Confirmation of the glorious News of the Surrendry of the Col. of the Queens Light Dragoons with his whole army. Learn hence proud Mortals the ignominious end of the vain boaster.”

A half day’s journey farther west he records :

“After dinner rode to Tyler’s which is now a private house opposite to the Revd. Hart’s Meeting House, drank a Dish of Coffee in the Evening and were waited upon by a good female Body, who was almost consumed with the Hysterics of Religion — VIDE Dr. Lardner’s Credulity of the Gospel History.”

At Hartford he attended church :

“In the afternoon heard Mr. Strong preach a good sermon, and most melodious Singing. The Psalmody was performed in all its parts, and Softness more than Loudness seemed to be the Aim of the Performers. In the evening waited upon Gov. Trumbull and was pleased to find so much Quickness of apprehension in so old a Gentleman.”

At Litchfield, he was entertained by General Oliver Wolcott:

“He had lately returned from the Northern Army, where he commanded a Number (300 I think) of Volunteers, which he had collected by his Influence. He gave us an account of the Surrendry of the menacing Meteor, which after a most portentous Glare had evaporated into Smoke.”

Detained on a later journey by a storm that had been brewing for a fortnight but amounted to little when it came, he is reminded of a story of the Rev. Dr. Phillips of Long Island :

“This Mr. Phillips had been preaching in I know not and care not what Parish, and being much fatigued the Gent, with whom he dined, to refresh his spirits before dinner, presented him with a dram in a very small glass, observing at the same time that the dram was 10 years old. The arch priest wittily professed that it was the least of its age that he had ever seen in his life.”

In the same entry, we find a sprightly dissertation on laughter. He declares that Mrs, Emmons, his landlady, “is one of the most laughing creatures that I ever saw. She begins and ends everything she says, and she talks as much as most females, with a laugh which is in truth the silliest laugh that ever I heard.”

“He will not find fault with laughter however, though Solomon and Chesterfield have inveighed against it. He quotes Horace: Ride si sapis;” and he concludes:

“The Spectator hath divided laughter into several species some of which he censures roundly; but doth not as I remember condemn seasonable, gentle laughter. — Therefore my pleasant Landlady, laugh on.”

Ellery Dies Reading Cicero

On February 15, 1820, Ellery rose as usual at his home in Newport and seated himself in the armless flag-bottom chair that he had used for half a century. He began to read Tulley’s Offices in the original, using no glasses, though the print was small. 

To his physician, who had happened in and found him looking thin and pale, he said: “I am going off the stage of life, and it is a great blessing that I go free from sickness, pain and sorrow.” 

As his weakness increased, he was assisted by his daughter to his bed, where he sat upright and began to read Cicero de Officiis. A few moments later, without a struggle or other visible sign, he passed away as if entering on a peaceful sleep, his posture erect and the book still clasped in his hand.

So at the age of 92, he died as calmly and cheerfully as he had lived — scholar, philosopher, patriot, and friend.

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  • Article Title William Ellery
  • Date 1727–1820
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  • Keywords William Ellery, Who was William Ellery, What did William Ellery do, When did William Ellery live, Where was William Ellery from, Why did William Ellery support the American Revolution, How did William Ellery become a Founding Father
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 8, 2024

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