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William Ellery

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

WILLIAM ELLERY, was forty-eight years old when he presented himself at the Second Congress on May 14, 1776. He was replacing Samuel Ward, a political ally who had died in March. Ellery was born in Newport, Rhode Island December 22, 1727, was a graduate of Harvard class of 1747. His father was deputy governor of Rhode Island. William, however, showed no interest in politics, law or much of anything else for that matter. He held a number of odd jobs earning just enough to raise a large family. His first wife, Ann Remington of Cambridge, died after fourteen years of marriage leaving six children; his second wife, Abigail Cary, gave him five more children. Twenty years would pass before he sought a career in law. He confided later, "if the year before I graduated I had determined upon law, or physics, especially the latter, I am persuaded that I should have led a more profitable and useful life. But no one advised me, and I made no choice. I entered into small commerce without a spirit of enterprise or skill in trade; that would not do. I had married a wife, and could not submit to be an understrapper to a physician. I became a clerk of the court; where I copied writs and declarations, gained some knowledge of practice, and stood forth a dabbler -- a quack lawyer."

William Ellery stepped out of his quiet, unassuming character during the Stamp Act crisis by leading a riotous march through Providence in opposition. At the opening of the Second Congress, he announced boldly: "You must exert yourself. To be ruled by Tories, when we may be ruled by Sons of Liberty – how debasing. You must rouse up all that is Roman in Providence. There is liberty and fire enough; it only requires the application of the bellows. Blow, then, a blast that will shake this country."

William Ellery signed the Declaration of Independence at the age of forty-eight. He was noted for his ready wit, and he often amused himself by writing epigrams about his colleagues while they were speaking. According to a well known story, Ellery, at the signing of the Declaration, took a position where he could watch the faces of the delegates as they put their names to this revolutionary document, and reported afterward that every one of them showed ‘undaunted resolution'. More than one record indicates that at the time of the signing, Benjamin Harrison, a heavily-built man said to the thin-framed Ellery, "I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Ellery, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air for an hour or two before you are dead."

On January 1, 1790, President Washington appointed Ellery collector of customs for the Newport district, and he retained this post, through all the changes in administration, until his death thirty years later. Ellery died in 1820 at the age of ninety-two. With the exception of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, he was the longest-lived of the Signers.



Autograph document signed "Wm. Ellery," written to Thomas Burgess. Ellery is requesting Burgess to furnish a list of "Petitioners for thebenefit of the Act of Congress of Jany. 2, 1813." Docketed by Thomas Burgess perpendicular to Ellery's text. One page measuring 6 ½ x 8 ¼ inches. Seal of Ellery in lower left corner.



Image Copyright 2001 Virtualology, Inc


Image Copyright 2001 Virtualology, Inc. 

ELLERY, William, signer of the Declaration of Independence, born in Newport, R. I., 22 December 1727; died there, 15 February, 1820. His father, of the same name, was graduated at Harvard in 1722, became a successful merchant in Newport, served successively as judge, senator, and lieutenant governor of the colony, and (lied in 1764. The younger William received his early education mostly from his father, and was graduated at Harvard in 1747. He married in 1750, engaged in business in Newport, and was for some time naval officer of Rhode Island he began the practice of law in Newport in 1770, having served for two years previous as clerk of one of the courts. He was an active patriot, and in May, 1776, was chosen the colleague of Stephen Hopkins, as delegate to the Continental congress, and took his seat on the 14th of that month, He became an influential member of that body, serving on the committee to consider the ways and means of establishing expresses between the continental posts, on those on the treasury and on marine affairs, and on the special committee for purchasing clothing for the army. During this session he signed the Declaration of Independence, and he was accustomed in later years to relate with great vivacity the incidents connected with that event. "I was determined," he said, "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."  

Mr. Ellery continued a member of the congress till 1786, with the exception of the years 1780 and 1782, and, overcoming his natural diffidence, became a ready debater. He was a member of important committees, but did especially good service on the board of admiralty, where he had much influence, and probably originated the plan of fitting out fire ships at Newport. During the British occupation of Rhode Island, Mr. Ellery's house was burned and much of his other property injured.  

In 1779 he was a member of a committee to arrange some diplomatic difficulties among the American commissioners to Europe, and was chairman of a committee to consider means of relieving the distress brought upon the Rhode Islanders by the British occupation. In 1782 he presented to congress a plan for organizing a department of foreign affairs. In 1785 he actively supported Rufus King in his effort to abolish slavery throughout the country, seconding King's resolution to that effect. He was appointed commissioner of the continental loan office for Rhode Island in 1786, was for a short period chief justice of the Rhode Island superior court, and from 1790 till his death was collector of Newport, being" retained in the office in spite of frequent and frank avowals of political differences with several administrations.  

Mr. Ellery was of moderate stature, with a large head and impressive features. He was fond of study and literature, and was highly esteemed for his social qualities, being intimate with all the distinguished men of his time. He retained the full use of his faculties to the close of his long life, and died holding in his hand a copy of Cicero's " De Ofliciis," which he had been reading. See a biography of Ellery by his grandson, Edward T. Channing, in Sparks's "American Biography," vol. vi., and Goodrich's " Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence. -- Edited AC  Biography Copyright© 2001 by VirtualologyTM


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Colonial Hall: Biography of William Ellery
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Abraham Clark
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William Ellery b. Newport, RI, December 22, 1727. d.
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... Home. Rhode Island Documents 2. WILLIAM ELLERY (1727-1820). Lawyer, Patriot Activist,
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