William Ellery Biography
William Ellery, the son of a gentleman of the same name, was born at Newport, on the 22d day of December, 1727. His ancestors were originally from Bristol, in England, whence they emigrated to America during the latter part of the seventeenth century, and took up their residence at Newport, in Rhode Island.
The early education of the subject of this memoir, was received almost exclusively from his father, who was a graduate of Harvard university; and who although extensively engaged in mercantile pursuits, found leisure personally to cultivate the mind of his son. At the age of sixteen, he was qualified for admission to the university, of which his father had been a member before him. In his twentieth year, he left the university, having sustained, during his collegiate course, the character of a faithful and devoted student. In a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages, he is said to have particularly excelled, and through the whole bustle of his active life, until the very hour of dissolution, he retained his fondness for them.
On his return to Newport, he commenced the study of the law, and after the usual preparatory course, he entered upon the practice, which for twenty years he pursued with great zeal. During this period, no other particulars have been recorded of him, than that he succeeded in acquiring a competent fortune, and receiving the esteem and confidence of his fellow citizens.
At an early period of the controversy between Great Britain and the colonies, Rhode Island strongly enlisted herself in the patriotic cause. She was not backward in expressing her disapprobation of the arbitrary measures of the parent country. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Rhode Island is not equally entitled, with Virginia and Massachusetts, to the honor which they claim, of being earliest in the measures leading to the revolution. Among the great scenes which led the way to actual resistance, two occurred in Narraganset bay. The first of these was an attack by the people of Rhode Island, upon the armed revenue sloop, Liberty, in the harbor of Newport, June 17th, 1769. The second was the memorable affair of the Gaspee, June 9th, 1772, and in which it may be said, was shed the first blood in the revolution. This latter occurrence excited an unusual alarm among the royal party in the provinces, and gave occasion to Governor Hutchinson to address the following letter to Commodore Gambier:
"Our last ships carried you the news of the burning of the Gaspee schooner, at Providence. I hope, if there should be another like attempt, some concerned in it may be taken prisoners, and carried directly to England. A few punished at execution dock, would be the only effectual preventive of any further attempts."
By other acts did the people of Rhode Island, at an early period, evince their opposition to the royal government. On the arrival in the year 1774 of the royal proclamation prohibiting the importation of fire arms from England, they dismantled the fort at Newport, and took possession of forty pieces of cannon. Again, on the occurrence of the battle of Lexington, they simultaneously roused to the defense of their fellow citizens, in the province of Massachusetts. Within three days after that memorable event, a large number of her militia were in the neighborhood of Boston, ready to cooperate in measures either of hostility or defense. In that same year she sent twelve hundred regular troops into the service, and afterwards furnished three state regiments to serve during the war.
No sooner was the formation of a continental congress suggested, than Rhode Island took measures to be represented in that body, and elected as delegates two of her most distinguished citizens, Governor Hopkins and Mr. Ward.
During these movements in Rhode Island, Mr. Ellery, the subject of this notice, was by no means an idle spectator. The particular history of the part which he took in these transactions is, indeed, not recorded; but the tradition is, that he was not behind his contemporaries either in spirit or action.
In the election for delegates to the congress of 1776, Mr. Ellery was a successful candidate, and in that body took his seat, on the seventeenth of May. Here, he soon became an active and influential member, and rendered important services to his country, by his indefatigable attention to duties assigned him, on several committees. During this session, he had the honor of affixing his name to the declaration of independence. Of this transaction he frequently spoke, and of the notice he took of the members of congress when they signed that instrument. He placed himself beside secretary Thompson, that he might see how they looked, as they put their names to their death warrant. But while all appeared to feel the solemnity of the occasion, and their countenances bespoke their awe, it was unmingled with fear. They recorded their names as patriots, who were ready, should occasion require, to lead the way to martyrdom.
In the year 1777, the marine committee of congress, of which Mr. Ellery was a member, recommended the plan, and it is supposed, at his suggestion, of preparing fire ships, and sending them out from the state of Rhode Island. Of this plan, the journals of congress speak in the following terms:
"If upon due consideration, jointly had by the navy board for the eastern department, and the governor and council of war for the state of Rhode Island, and for which purpose the said navy board are directed to attend upon the said governor and council of war, the preparing fire ships be judged practicable, expedient, and advisable, the said navy board immediately purchase, upon as reasonable terms as possible, six ships, or square-rigged vessels, at Providence, in the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the best calculated for fire ships, with all possible expedition; that the said navy board provide proper materials for the same, an employ a proper captain or commander, one lieutenant, and a suitable number of men for each of the said ships, or vessels, of approved courage and prudence; and that notice be given to all the commanders of the continental ships and vessels in the port of Providence, to be in readiness to sail at a moment's warning: that as soon as the said fire ships are well prepared, the first favorable wind be embraced to attack the British ships and navy in the rivers and bays of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: that the officers of the continental navy there, favor, as much as possible, the design, and use their utmost efforts to get out to sea, and proceed to such cruise, or to such ports, as the said navy board, or the marine committee, shall appoint or order."
During the year that the British army under General Piggot took possession of Newport, where they fortified themselves, and continued their head quarters for some time, the inhabitants sustained much injury in their property. Mr. Ellery shared in the common loss, his dwelling house being burned, and other destruction of property occasioned.
Mr. Ellery continued a member of congress until the year 1785, and indeed, through that year, when he retired to his native state. Soon after, however, he was elected by congress, a commissioner of the continental loan office, to which was subsequently added, by the citizens of Rhode Island, the office of chief justice of their superior court, a station which he did not continue to hold long. On the organization of the federal government, he received from General Washington the appointment of collector of the customs for the town of Newport, an office which he retained during the remainder of his life.
On the 15tb of February, 1820, this venerable man -- venerable for his age, which had been prolonged to ninety-two years, and venerable for the services which he had tendered his country, was summoned to his account. His death was in unison with his life. He wasted gradually and almost imperceptibly, until the powers of nature were literally worn out by use. On the day on which his death occurred, he had risen, as usual, and rested in his old flag bottomed chair, the relict of half a century; he had employed himself in reading, Tully's offices in Latin.
While thus engaged, his family physician called to see him. On feeling his pulse, he found that it had ceased to beat. A draught of wine and water quickened it into life, however, again, and being placed and supported on the bed, he continued reading, until the lamp of life, in a moment of which his friends were ignorant, was extinguished.
"Of no distemper, of no blast he died,
But fell like autumn fruit that mellowed long,
E'en wonder'd at because he falls no sooner.
Fate seem'd to wind him up for fourscore years,
Yet freshly ran he on twelve winters more:
Till, like a clock worn out with eating time,
The wheels of weary life at last stood still."
In the character of Mr. Ellery there was much to admire. He was, indeed, thought by some to have been too tenacious of his opinion, and not always free from asperity to others. But years mellowed down these unpleasant traits of his character, and showed that he had exercised a watchfulness over himself, not entirely in vain. He manifested an uncommon disregard of the applause of men. It was often upon his lips: "humility rather than pride becomes such creatures as we are." He looked upon the world and its convulsions with religious serenity, and in times of public danger, and of public difficulty, be comforted himself and others, with the pious reflection of the psalmist, "The Lord reigneth."
In conversation, Mr. Ellery was at once interesting and instructive. His advice was often sought, and his opinions regarded with great reverence. In letter writing he excelled, as he did in fine penmanship, which latter would be inferred from his signature to the declaration of independence. In stature, he was of middling height, and carried in his person the indications of a sound frame and an easy mind. In the courtesies of life, he kept pace with the improvements of the age; but his conversation, and dress, and habits of life, plainly showed that he belonged to a more primitive generation.
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich