Connecticut State Library with state seal

Memorials of Connecticut Judges and Attorneys
As Printed in the Connecticut Reports
volume 34, page(s) 581-585



WILLIAM WOLCOTT ELLSWORTH, for many years a Judge of the Supreme Court of this state, and for four years Governor of the state, died at his residence in the city of Hartford on the 15th of January, 1868, in the seventh-seventh year of his age. He was a man of great strength of character and filled with ability and the highest integrity and faithfulness the offices which he held. The following sketch of his life, and very just estimate of his character, appeared immediately after his death in the Hartford Daily Courant.

William W. Ellsworth was the third son of Oliver Ellsworth, second Chief of Justice of the United States. He was born November 10, 1791, at Windsor, where he received his early education. In 1806 he entered Yale College, and graduated in 1810. Having chosen the law as his profession, he began his legal studies at the celebrated law school at Litchfield, under the guidance of Judges Reeve and Gould, and continued them in Hartford in the office of his brother-in-law, the late Chief Justice Williams. He was admitted to the bar in 1813, and the same year he married Emily, eldest daughter of Noah Webster, the great lexicographer, and established himself in Hartford in the practice of his profession.

Mr. Ellsworth had, we may say, an hereditary predilection for the law, and he was drawn to its study by natural taste, and prosecuted it with great energy and high purpose. He proceeded to master his profession with great painstaking, neglecting not the slightest means to familiarize himself with it. It was his habit, at this time, to write on blank pages of the interleaved copies of the elementary works, which he had prepared for the purpose, all the new decisions in the American and English courts, and he thus kept himself informed of the exact state of the law in every point that might arise. The progress of a young man in the practice of law has seldom been rapid in Hartford, and it is an evidence of the success of Mr. Ellsworth that in 1817, when Judge Williams, whose practice was second to none at this bar, was elected to Congress, the latter entered into partnership with him, and left with him for two years the management of his extensive business. By this time Mr. Ellsworth's own reputation as an able lawyer was widely extended, his practice was large, and he continued in it with undiminished ardor for sixteen years.

In 1827 Mr. Ellsworth was sent to Congress from this district by the Whigs, and was continued there for five years, when he resigned at the close of the first term of the twenty-third Congress, anxious to practice, without interruption, the profession he loved. His course in Congress was highly honorable to himself and satisfactory to his constituents. During the whole time he was on the judiciary committee, in which capacity he took an active part in preparing measures to carry into effect Jackson's proclamation against the nullification of South Carolina. He was one of the congressional committee to investigate the affairs of the United States Bank at Philadelphia, a famous investigation in its day; to him more than to any one else is due the just extension of the law of copyright; and he was an unflinching advocate of a moderate protective policy, such as should develope [sic.] home manufactures. His ablest speeches in the House were upon the judiciary, the tariff, the pension laws, and the removal of the Cherokee Indians.

Mr. Ellsworth returned to his home in 1834, and soon regained his in lucrative practice, but in 1838 he was persuaded, much against his own wishes, to again become the public servant, and he was elected Governor of the state by a large popular majority. He was continued in this office four years, being each time re-elected by the people. During the period of his service as Governor, he was twice offered an election to the Senate of the United States, but he refused steadily to be a candidate, having resolved not again to be drawn away from his favorite and life-long pursuit.

Mr. Ellsworth continued at the bar until 1847, when the legislature elected him a Judge of the Superior Court, and Supreme Court of Errors. He remained on the bench as an associate Judge of the Supreme Court until his office expired by the limitation of law upon reaching the age of seventy. And then, full of honors and still in the use of his vigorous intellectual powers, he retired to the well earned rest of private life.

But it was not an idle life. His interest in public affairs was unabated, and during the progress of the war the cause of the Union had no more earnest and determined supporter. One of the pleasantest remembrances of the writer of this, is the hearty faith and courage that he uniformly maintained even in the darkest day of that struggle, and his lofty adherence to principle to the end. He never counseled lowering the flag an inch, or taking one backward step. With a mind naturally conservative, his sense of justice and honor, and all the traditions of his ancestry, forbade him to compromise principal.

We cannot to day make any fitting estimate of the character of the distinguished lawyer, judge and statesman who has gone. He was a Puritan of the best stock. His honesty was the perfect whiteness. Long ago Rufus Choate spoke of him, in a speech before a legislative committee of Massachusetts, as a man of "hereditary capacity, purity, learning and love of the law;" and he added, "If the land of the Shermans, and Griswolds, and Daggetts, and Williamses, rich as she is in learning and virtue, has a sounder lawyer, a more upright magistrate, or an honester man in her public service, I know not his name."

In Judge Ellsworth were hereditary qualities of great mental and moral worth. Like his father, the Chief Justice, he was remarkable for the simplicity of his tastes and habits. In manner he was dignified, and he had as fine a personal presence and bearing as any man of his time; in conversation he was earnest and sincere, and all his intercourse was marked by kindness and integrity of nature. We have only to add what was the crown of his enduring character. He was educated in the early religious principles of New England. He early professed Christ, and ever after, through all his years of membership in the old Center Church, was a faithful follower of his Lord. He delighted in theological studies and discussions, but he took a very active part in practical religious movements. He was a prominent friend of the great charitable and missionary enterprises; he was much interested in the Sunday school, and even after he had attained a high official position, he continued his duties as a teacher in the school connected with his church. From 1821 till his death, a period of forty-seven years, he held the office of deacon in the Center Church.

He loved his country unselfishly; he loved his state as a patriot should, and was proud of her honors; he loved his profession; he loved his church and all its dear worship and communings; and his love for home and the enjoyments of social life was never weakened by his public callings. In all things he was an admirable representative of New England, a man of old time integrity, sincerity, solidity of character. In his life and in his death his memory is blessed; there has lived among us no one more honorable, there has departed no one better fitted to go.


At a meeting of the Hartford County Bar, holden on the day after the death of Judge Ellsworth, William R. Cone, Esq., in proposing some resolutions on the subject, addressed the members of the bar substantially as follows:

"Mr. Chairman, I should do violence to my own feelings did I not give expression to this tribute of regard to the memory of our departed friend.

"The recollections that cluster about him carry me back quite to my youth - to the time when, as our representative in the Congress of the United States, he took that noble stand against nullification, which at that day came so near to open rebellion; and so earnestly sought to secure the peace of the country, which was ultimately insured by the unflinching firmness of that hero, General Jackson, in the issuing his famous proclamation against South Carolina.

"I remember him in the early days of my professional life - his urbanity and kindness toward the younger portion of the profession - the readiness with which he extended his aid and encouraged them in the trial of their causes, and the pleasant familiarity with which he always met and greeted his professional brethren.

"I remember him as Governor of the state - the dignity and fine personal presence and bearing with which he discharged so appropriately and acceptably the duties of his station.

"I remember him, also, as most of you do, as the Judge upon the bench, giving his undivided attention as he listened to the cause on trial before him - his pains-taking and patient effort to find out the truth and decide right, and the uniform kindness with which he treated all who were in any way connected with the court or engaged in the trial of the cause.

"But I remember him with most pleasure and satisfaction as a kind-hearted neighbor and consistent Christian friend, with whom for more than thirty years I have been on terms of familiar and neighborly intercourse, the memory of which will remain with me as long as I shall live.

"His life has been a useful, consistent and successful one. He died as he lived, a sincere, earnest, happy Christian man.

"Thus, my friends, the few links that bind us, the older members of the bar, to the past, are one after another broken. Early friends and associates, one after another, fall; but the breach is soon closed, and as I look around upon the few that remain, I find that nearly all of my early legal associates have fallen by the way, and some of us stand here almost alone.

"And now another has gone, but he has left us a bright example - an example worthy of imitation by every young professional man - a bright Christian example for us to follow, and which should lead us all to desire to die the death of the righteous, and that our last end may be like unto his."

Addresses were also made by other members of the bar, and the following resolutions were adopted:

Whereas, God in His providence has removed by death the Hon. William W. Ellsworth, lately a Judge of the Supreme Court of this state, and a member of this Bar, therefore -

Resolved, That we cherish an affectionate remembrance of the great excellencies and many virtues of our deceased friend, exhibited in the varied public stations he has occupied, as well as in the quiet simplicity and godly example of his private life. As a member of Congress, his patriotic endeavors extended to every part of the country, and regarding the whole as his country, he was ever active and vigilant in preparing and reporting measures calculated to insure and secure its permanency, its unity, and its highest prosperity.

As the Chief Magistrate of this his native state, he devoted himself to her interests and the advancement of the education of her people with that ardor and inflexible purpose which characterized him in every undertaking.

As a Judge he brought to the bench, as he did to the bar, great purity and uprightness of character, learning, love of his profession, industry, high integrity of mind and heart, and that habit of patient and impartial investigation which made him distinguished as a lawyer and most acceptable and respected as a judge - "a man whom the state delighted to honor, and in honoring whom she honored herself."

As a Christian Gentleman, he was characterized by great simplicity of manner and dignity of person, and by an earnest love of the truth and the doctrines of the Bible. His life has been rich in all the elements of usefulness and happiness, and his example in all the relations of life, public and private, is worthy to be imitated and kept in bright remembrance.

Resolved, That in token of our esteem for his memory, we attend his funeral in a body, and respectfully request the superior court, now in session, to adjourn for that purpose.

Resolved, That the court be requested to order these resolutions to be entered upon its minutes, and that the clerk of the bar transmit a copy thereof to the family of the deceased, and furnish a like copy for publication in the newspapers of the city.