William Ellery of Rhode Island: Merchant, Lawyer, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence
William Ellery of Rhode Island was a strong supporter of the American effort to gain its independence from England. He did this in many ways, but perhaps most significantly by signing the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Ellery was born on December 22, 1727 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the second son of William Ellery and Elizabeth Almy. His father was a graduate of Harvard and a successful merchant. Young William did not attend any formal schools, but instead his learned father provided most of his instruction.
He was a fast learner and went to Harvard at the age of 16. Ellery graduated four years later in 1747 and, by all accounts, was a good student. William soon returned to Newport and entered the family business. Two years later, in 1750, he married Ann Remington with whom he had seven children.
Ellery then moved on from his father’s employment and became a customs collector and then later the Clerk of the Rhode Island General Assembly. While in this capacity, William was able to become familiar with writs, deeds, and other practices of the legal profession. He found he enjoyed this field and began studying law. William passed the Bar and set up his own practice in 1770 at the age of 43.
When relations between England and her American colonies soured in the 1760s, Ellery became a vocal opponent of British oppression and joined the Sons of Liberty, a group of like-minded Patriots. He stated, “To be ruled by Tories (supporters of England) when you may be ruled by the Sons of Liberty is debasing.”
Interestingly, two of the first acts of resistance in the colonies occurred in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay and were initiated by Ellery’s fellow Rhode Islanders. The first incident was the burning of the British ship Liberty, a craft used to collect maritime revenues, on July 19, 1769. Then, on June 8, 1772, these same Rhode Islanders burned the British ship Gaspee, another customs vessel. In both cases, these ships had apprehended a boat owned by an American colonist for supposed customs violations.
When the Second Continental Congress was called in 1775 to address the deteriorating situation with England, Ellery let it be known he would gladly participate if needed. When Samuel Ward, one of Rhode Island’s delegates to this conference, died on March 26, 1776, state leaders selected Ellery to replace him.
Ellery joined this assemblage on May 16, 1776, and proudly affixed his signature to the Declaration of Independence when it was officially signed on August 2, 1776. He wrote to his brother Benjamin, “We have lived to see a period which a few years ago no human forecast could have imagined – to see these Colonies shake off and declare themselves independent of a state which they once gloried to call Parent.”
He continued to be an active participant in Congress until 1785, especially in maritime matters. Because of his experience as a shipping merchant, Ellery was named to the Marine Committee and the Admiralty Court. He also signed the Articles of Confederation in November 1777.
Unfortunately for Ellery, his involvement in the colonial cause cost him quite a bit of money. Besides not being available to do work for his paying legal clients, when the British captured Newport in 1778, they sought out Ellery’s home and burned it to the ground. This incident is a reminder of what our Founders sacrificed and risked promoting our quest for independence.
When the new Federal government was instituted in 1789, President George Washington named William as the Collector of Customs for the Newport District. Ellery held this post through many administrations until his death in 1820.
When Ellery died on February 15, 1820, he was 92 years old, one of only three signers (Charles Carroll of Carrollton and John Adams) who lived into their 90s. In his lifetime he outlived two wives, fathered 19 children, served five different Presidents as a customs’ official, and signed the Declaration of Independence. He had quite a life.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should William Ellery and what he did for America matter to us today?
William Ellery was an early and strong advocate for American independence. Despite having a lucrative law practice, Ellery gladly gave his time and energies to the Second Continental Congress.
He was highly respected by his contemporaries and his advice was sought on many matters. Although he spent most of his life in private pursuits, Ellery did all he could to help his country when it needed him most. That sort of life deserves to be remembered.
SUGGESTED READING: An excellent book on our founding principles like those stated in the Declaration of Independence is We Still Hold These Truths by Matthew Spalding. Published in 2009, it is well worth reading.
PLACES TO VISIT: The Naval War College Museum in Newport, Rhode Island is a great place to visit. Housed in Founders Hall, which was originally built in 1819, the museum has displays on the history of naval warfare and the naval activities that took place in Narragansett Bay.
Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.
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Question: Where exactly in *NEWPORT RHODE ISLAND did one of our independence signees
*William Ellery live (*STREET) at … was it high street ( *Newport)
and was it ( as it had been written down at one time) a home of his donated to the city of Newport? Could get feed back on this question from you or those who could find the correct answer. Thank you for your help and Happy New Year as well.
Stay safe. Respectfully, Mr. Seaman