William Ellery (1727–1820), merchant, congressman, chief justice, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the son of prominent Newport merchant William Ellery and Elizabeth Almy. His well-to-do father sent him to Harvard, from which young William graduated in 1747. He then embarked on a mercantile career, but when his father’s death in 1764 left him with a considerable inheritance, Ellery began to engage actively in politics as an ally of Governor Samuel Ward. He was an early supporter of the protest movement against England and joined the Newport Sons of Liberty in the mid-1760s.
By 1769, Ellery had deemphasized his mercantile activity in favor of a career in law and government, and he was admitted to the bar in 1770. At the death of Samuel Ward, who had been representing Rhode Island in the Continental Congress, Ellery was chosen by the General Assembly to succeed his mentor. He arrived in Philadelphia just in time to join with Stephen Hopkins in signing the Declaration of Independence.
Ellery served in the Continental Congress throughout the Revolution, developing a special interest in naval affairs. In 1779, he was chosen a member of the newly constituted Board of Admiralty. On July 9, 1778, he joined with delegates Henry Marchant and John Collins in signing the Articles of Confederation for Rhode Island, hailing this first national constitution as the “Grand Corner Stone” of the new nation. Ellery was also a Rhode Island delegate to the Confederation Congress until he returned from Philadelphia in 1785 to accept election by the legislature as chief justice of Rhode Island’s highest court, a post he held for a one-year term.
Ellery played a major role in Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution and even conspired with such members of the U.S. Congress as Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut and John Adams of Massachusetts to pressure Rhode Island into joining the Union. His efforts on behalf of Federalism were rewarded handsomely when President George Washington appointed him to the lucrative post of collector of customs for Newport, a position Ellery held from 1790 until his death in 1820 at the age of ninety-two, during a time when tariff duties were the principal source of federal revenue.
As a member of the customs service, Ellery vigorously opposed the effort of James DeWolf of Bristol to create a new customs district in that port town and appoint as collector Charles Collins, a slave trader who would turn a blind eye toward DeWolf’s illegal involvement in that notorious traffic. Despite Ellery’s protest, President Thomas Jefferson sided with the wealthy and influential DeWolf and approved the creation of a separate Bristol district in 1801.
Ellery’s first wife, Ann Remington, died in 1764, leaving him with six children, and in 1767, Ellery married Abigail Carey, with whom he had ten more children. Among Ellery’s grandchildren were Richard Henry Dana, the author of the maritime classic Two Years Before the Mast; Edward T. Channing, a noted Harvard professor who wrote a biographical sketch of Ellery; and Reverend William Ellery Channing, the chief spokesman for New England Unitarianism in the mid-nineteenth century. Ellery’s nephew Christopher Ellery served as a Democratic-Republican U.S. senator from Rhode Island from 1801 to 1805 and succeeded William as Newport customs collector from 1820 to 1834. Ellery’s career is recounted by William M. Fowler Jr. in a biography entitled William Ellery: Rhode Island Politico and Lord of Admiralty (1973). William Ellery Park, at Thames and Popular Streets in Newport, has been named in his honor.
Excerpt taken from:
Patrick T. Conley The Makers of Modern Rhode Island. Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2012.