April 29: Oliver Ellsworth, Co-Author of “The Connecticut Compromise” & Founding Father of the U.S. Supreme Court


Oliver Ellsworth, a Connecticut jurist who played a key role in drafting both the U.S. Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789 that helped establish the federal court system and U.S. Supreme Court, was born on this day in 1745 in Windsor.  After graduating from the College of New Jersey (modern-day Princeton University), Ellsworth passed the bar exam in 1771 and became the Connecticut state attorney for Hartford County.  In 1777, he was elected to represent the newly-independent state in the Continental Congress, where he served for the duration of the Revolutionary War.

A few years later, he was once again called to represent Connecticut in Philadelphia, this time at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he played an especially active and crucial role.  There, together with fellow Connecticut representative Roger Sherman, Ellsworth crafted the “Connecticut Compromise” (or “Great Compromise”) that established the bicameral model for the U.S. Legislative branch, featuring proportional representation in the House of Representatives, and equal representation among all states in the Senate.

A miniature of Oliver Ellsworth painted by John Trumbull.

After the Constitution was ratified, Ellsworth was then elected one of Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, serving from 1789 – 1796.  During his senatorial tenure, he drafted and facilitated the passage of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which provided the foundation for the modern U.S. federal court system.  (Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which dealt with the establishment of federal courts, had provided very little detail on how they were to function or be created beyond the establishment of a Supreme Court.)  In 1796, Ellsworth was nominated by President George Washington to serve as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, where he served with distinction for four years before ill health forced him to retire.

Following his illustrious career of judicial and legislative service, Ellsworth returned to his stately home in Windsor, where he died in 1807.  His role in crafting the federal court system and the precedents he set in the Supreme Court have earned him the moniker “the Founding Father of the Supreme Court,” and to this day he remains one of the most influential jurists and politicians in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

The most underrated Founding Father: Oliver Ellsworth?” National Consitution Center

Senator Oliver Ellsworth’s Judiciary Act” connecticuthistory.org