Founding Fathers - William Ellery

William Ellery

Born: December 22, 1727 (Newport, Rhode Island)

Died: February 15, 1820 (Newport, Rhode Island)


You've likely noticed by now that some first names were quite popular among the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  So far, for instance, we've been introduced to three men named George, four named John, and five named Thomas.  This week we'll add our fourth William to the list as we look at the second of two signers from our smallest state, Rhode Island.  William Ellery was the second son of his father, who bore the same name, and his wife Elizabeth.  The elder William was a well-educated merchant who taught his sons at home while they were children.  Young William followed in his father's footsteps by studying at Harvard, where he graduated in 1747 at the age of 19.  He returned home to Newport and immediately began working for the family business as a merchant while also becoming a colonial naval officer.  In 1750, William married a fellow Newport resident by the name of Ann Remington, and the couple eventually had seven children together.

Although his father had become wealthy as a merchant, William Ellery did not pursue that vocation very long.  He was a customs collector for a time before becoming clerk for the Rhode Island General Assembly.  The year 1764 was momentous for Ellery, as both his wife and father died during the time he was helping found Rhode Island College, which eventually became Brown University.  Upon receiving a large inheritance from his father's estate, Ellery opted to abandon any pursuit of his family's merchant business and instead began to study law, while  also becoming increasingly active in politics.  In time he joined the Sons of Liberty and became a supporter of Governor Samuel Ward, the only Royal Governor to not agree to support the much-hated Stamp Act.  He joined protests in 1765 against the act, and two years later was active in opposing the so-called Intolerable Acts.  Ellery remarried in 1767, this time to Abigail Carey who would give birth to ten more children, before he was eventually admitted to the bar in 1770.

Despite not participating in the First Continental Congress, William Ellery corresponded regularly with the delegates from Rhode Island and other New England colonies.  He was so shocked by the actions of the British that led to violence at Lexington and Concord that he stated his belief that no possibility remained for a peaceful resolution, and that he would willingly serve as a delegate should the need arise.  It did, indeed, as his mentor Samuel Ward became ill and died of smallpox on March 26, 1776.  Ellery was chosen to replace him, joining fellow delegate Stephen Hopkins in signing the Declaration just a few months later.  He wrote that he positioned himself next to the secretary to watch each delegate sign, specifically noting their collective conviction as they affixed their names to what seemed likely to become their death warrant.  Ellery remained in Congress throughout the war, being primarily involved in naval matters and signing the Articles of Confederation in 1778, the same year the British occupied Newport and burned his home in his absence.  He nearly became one of the few men to sign the Constitution as well, but shortly after the convention to draft the document began he returned to Rhode Island to accept a position on the state's Supreme Court.  After serving just a single year, Ellery turned his attention to advocating for Rhode Island's ratification of the new Constitution, and his efforts were rewarded by President Washington, who appointed him as customs collector in 1790.  After serving in that role for 30 years through the administrations of five different presidents, William Ellery died in 1820 at the age of 92.  

The signature of William Ellery can be found as the eighth signature in the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.

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