Oliver Ellsworth: The Question of Slavery and the Constitution


The United States Constitution that came out of the Convention of 1787 receives criticism for no problem greater than the glaring one of slavery. For a nation born out of the premise in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” the outcome of the convention appears to many to have violated this fundamental principle of the Revolution. In particular, the convention is criticized for compromising with slave states to allow the perpetuation of the wretched institution. As with all fair judgments on history, one must question if this criticism has grounds for merit. An avenue for examining the possibility of such grounds is by taking a closer look at one of the key, but often overlooked, figures in the convention: Oliver Ellsworth, a young delegate from Connecticut who, along with the efforts of his mentor and fellow delegate, Roger Sherman, helped craft the Connecticut Compromise.

Before judging Ellsworth’s motivation for compromise, it is important to take into consideration his personal background and both the arguments condemning the Constitution and defending it. Ellsworth, who grew up in a Puritan environment, was a New Light Calvinist who believed that man was depraved and that harmony in a society was a sign of righteousness, ideas that led him to also believe that a righteous ruler could at times, as God did, permit sin. But the common argument against the Constitution condemns it for doing just that: permitting slavery through the Three-fifths and Slave Trade clauses. Some, such as Frederick Douglass, have come to the defense of the Constitution, arguing that it is simply a tool that can be used for good or ill but has equality in mind at its core. Others avoid the morality of the question altogether by lamenting the institution of slavery but contending that since the American Founding was of a republic, the Founders could not avoid recognizing the harsh reality of the time. Given Ellsworth’s religious background, if he could respond to the arguments against the Constitution, he would likely combine Douglass’s argument with the pragmatic view, though adding that the permission of slavery was not a justification of it. Furthermore, he would leave the moral question of slavery to be answered at a later time once a strong union existed; for Ellsworth, the problem of slavery was secondary to the problem of harmony among the states.

Background of Oliver Ellsworth

Although Ellsworth was dedicated to public service through politics throughout most of his life, his early years were spent training in preparation for ministry. He was born in 1745 in Windsor, Connecticut, which shortly before his birth had undergone a recent religious transformation due to a sermon in the town preached from the well-known evangelist George Whitefield.[1] Consequently, during the decade in which Ellsworth was born, the colony saw a shift away from the traditional Old Light Calvinism toward New Light Calvinism, which emphasized the need for a personal transformation through the grace of God.[2] In the years of his education before attending Yale and what is now Princeton, Ellsworth’s parents sent him to be educated under a local New Light minister, Joseph Bellamy. Historians frequently attribute Bellamy for providing Ellsworth with the religious foundations that guided his actions as a deliberative political leader who often negotiated compromises.[3] Following his years at Yale and Princeton where he was being trained for the ministry, Ellsworth decided to enter the world of politics and was admitted to the bar; soon after becoming a lawyer in his home state, he served in the continental congress for six years, his Governor’s Council for five, and a judge on the state superior court for four. Later on, he was also a delegate to the Convention of 1787, one of Connecticut’s first senators, the third Supreme Court Chief Justice, and a diplomat to France.[4]

Central to the Calvinist teachings that Ellsworth received were the ideas of an all-sovereign God, predestination, and the total depravity of man.[5] Ellsworth clearly accepted the ideas of God’s providential guidance in the world, as is evident in a letter he wrote to his minister, Theodore Hinsdale, during the American War for Independence. Ellsworth wanted to ease Hinsdale’s concern that allying with the French might increase a Catholic influence in the colonies, and wrote that besides having little cause for concern, “[I]t is sufficient, dear Sir, that God governs the world, and that his purposes of Grace will be accomplished.”[6] Ellsworth also demonstrated that he adopted the belief of total depravity during a conversation wherein he argued that, “any comprehensive plan of government must take into account ‘The Selfishness of Man.’”[7] In his view, since man was selfish, or corrupt and sinful, every good form of government must account for that aspect of man’s nature. Altogether, what few personal writings and accounts that are available today indicate that Ellsworth did not deviate from the New Light teachings such as can be found in the works of Bellamy.

Out of the Calvinist doctrines mentioned above, Bellamy developed the idea of a “righteous ruler” as a way for Christians to govern. From Bellamy’s understanding, the depravity of man is not outside of God’s sovereignty, but rather God permits sin because in His sovereign and incomprehensible plan it is the best way to manifest His own perfection and man’s imperfection.[8] “God treated humanity,” as one scholar clarifies Bellamy’s position, “with the wisdom of an intelligent lawmaker who crafts the law in such a way that the people ultimately support and ratify it with their free and willing consent.”[9] The New Light teacher believed that God was patient with humans in their sinfulness so that they might ultimately see their own wretchedness.[10] Likewise, righteous rulers, or Christian leaders who are providentially chosen for their positions, could imitate God by permitting sin. One scholar suggests that this idea allowed a saved politician to “deal freely with the unsaved and even participate in apparently sinful compromises.”[11] However, Bellamy offered a clarification to that claim when he wrote that permitting sin in this sense was not “doing evil that good may come, but acting wisely.”[12] Thus, a righteous ruler may at times—particularly when lacking popular support—permit sin without endorsing it and trust that God will bring about reform in the people at a future time.

Another defining element of Ellsworth’s faith that arguably influenced his political actions concerns harmony in a society. Bellamy taught that harmony in a society is a sign of righteousness and promoted religious tolerance among the different denominations that existed in Connecticut.[13] Since it was the proper desire of New Light teaching to see society become righteous, it was also a desire to see society become more unified. In Landholder VII, this idea can be seen shining through in Ellsworth’s writing that, “A test in favour of any one denomination of Christians would be to the last degree absurd in the United States.”[14] If a religious test had been added to the Constitution, it would have unnecessarily divided people instead of uniting them—a result in opposition with the goals of New Light Calvinism. Furthermore, unity was not to be applied only to religious matters, but also to the laws that might be created. In his defense of the need for a Supreme Court, Ellsworth argued, “A perfect [legal] uniformity must be observed thro’ the whole union; or jealousy and unrighteousness will take place.”[15] As a result of his beliefs, Ellsworth sought out political unity at the different levels of government he was involved with, both state and national.

On the subject of Ellsworth’s background, it is important to examine his personal character, which could be described as cautious and deliberate. One of the most apt descriptions of Ellsworth by scholars is that he was “never given to crossing bridges until he got to them,” and that he came “to his conclusions slowly.”[16] Unlike many of the proponents of the Constitution at the Convention of 1787 such as Madison and Hamilton, Ellsworth did not come into the Convention as an ardent supporter of the need for a new structure of government. However, neither did he come into the Convention as an ardent supporter of the Articles or of state governments. Instead, he “occupied the middle ground and took, for the time, a course that was moderate to the point of hesitation.”[17] Always careful to examine the underlying common interests of the whole, Ellsworth was one of the most moderate delegates at the convention and one of the strongest proponents of compromise. Indeed, when it came to the issue of state power versus national power, he said, “We were partly national; partly federal [. . . .] And if no compromise should take place, our meeting would not only be in vain but worse than in vain.”[18] It was likely this compromising spirit that others recognized in Ellsworth that secured him a spot on the Committee of Compromise on Representation, since the delegates comprising the committee were also very moderate.[19] It is evident, then, that the young delegate from Connecticut put his Calvinist principles into action as he cautiously approached issues in such a way as to maintain unity and compromise.

The personal background of Oliver Ellsworth is essential in understanding how he could reconcile the preservation of union with the preservation of slavery with a clear conscience. His religious upbringing gave him the foundations necessary to make use of a productive politician’s tool: the art of compromise. He embraced the teaching of Joseph Bellamy and likely the words of another Joseph: “[Y]ou meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”[20] Ellsworth believed that although man was by nature totally depraved, God’s sovereignty would ultimately use man’s sinfulness to reveal His own glory. As a result, it is not always a leader’s responsibility to correct the sins of man; sometimes it is better to wait patiently for the sinner to recognize his depravity on his own. Furthermore, Ellsworth’s belief in the positive correlation between harmony in society and righteousness motivated him to seek out the middle ground and find agreement between parties. Finally, the record of his character reveals that he put his faith into action—the New Light ideas were not merely ideas; they were principles that he chose to live by.

The Constitution and Slavery

The Constitution has been criticized for perpetuating slavery, particularly because of the inclusions of the Three-fifths Clause and Slave Trade Clause.[21] At first glance, these inclusions appear problematic to most modern audiences: not only did it permit the slave trade for twenty years and slavery itself for an assumedly indefinite amount of time, but it is also dehumanizing to consider a slave three-fifths as valuable as a free citizen. However, reputable abolitionists, such as Frederick Douglass, have made counterarguments deserving of attention. The Three-fifths Clause understood in context served to limit the representation of slave states in Congress, and the Slave Trade Clause ensured that legislation prohibiting the importation of slavery would eventually be passed. Moreover, the original Constitution makes no explicit reference to slavery or race, thereby textually protecting the equality of all free citizens. Nevertheless, the argument that the Constitution tacitly, if not implicitly, perpetuated slavery stands irrefutably beside the fact that it did not abolish the institution. Some scholars have minimized the claim that the compromise on slavery was a significant issue in the Convention, but others have argued that the slavery compromise was of vital importance to the success of the Great Compromise on representation—in effect linking the acknowledgement of slavery with the completion of the Constitution. But alas, a pragmatic look at the Founding would suggest that this perpetuation was simply an unavoidable consequence of the time.

Delegates from Southern states at the Convention, particularly South Carolina and Georgia, forcefully defended slavery on several accounts. The two states were the only ones to vote affirmatively on a motion to allow slaves to be counted equally with whites.[22] Had this motion passed, slave-holding states would have received greater power in the new government, possibly prolonging slavery in the United States. By counting slaves equally with free citizens, slave states would have also received a greater incentive to continue participation in the slave trade. But even with the three-fifths proportion, free states were already concerned that this incentive might pervade. As an attempt to counter this, they decided to tie representation with taxation and use the national power to regulate foreign trade as a way to prohibit the slave trade. But delegates from slave states fought back and demanded that the Slave Trade Clause be included in the Constitution. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney told the Convention that he “should consider a rejection of the clause as an exclusion of South Carolina from the Union.”[23] His demands were likely informed by a common defense of slavery at the time that it was beneficial to the economy.[24] And as a result of Pinckney’s demands echoing the sentiment of slave owners in the South, other delegates, such as Ellsworth, conceded and included the clause.

Despite the concessions to slave states, the Convention took the advice of Elbridge Gerry who said, “[W]e [have] nothing to do with the conduct of the States as to Slaves, but [should] be careful not to give any sanction to it.”[25] Although the argument can be made that the Constitution tacitly approved slavery, it cannot be justly argued that the Constitution explicitly approved it. The authors were careful to exclude the use of terms such “slavery” or “slave trade.” This was the key claim made by Frederick Douglass in a speech he gave defending the Constitution, where he argued:

It has been said that negroes are not included within the benefits sought under this declaration. This is said by the slaveholders in America—it is said by the City Hall orator—but it is not said by the Constitution itself. Its language is “we the people;” not we the white people, even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the low, but we the people; not we the horses, swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people, we the habitants; and, if negroes are people, they are included benefits for which the Constitution of America was ordained and established. But how dare any man who pretends to be a friend to the negro thus gratuitously concede away what the negro has a right to claim under the Constitution?[26]

In Douglass’s view, the Constitution is a tool that gives every citizen a right to participate in the self-governance of the United States. Far from criticizing the Founders for permitting slavery, he voiced gratitude for their deliberate wording to avoid any explicit sanction of slavery. He believed that abolitionist leaders could use such a tool for anti-slavery ends.

While there is no doubt that slavery was an issue at the Convention, debate arises concerning the extent of its role in the Great Compromise. One well-known historian of the Convention, Max Farrand, draws a clear distinction between the Great Compromise on the sources of representation in the House and Senate and the three-fifths compromise, which he saw as simply a subordinate part of the former.[27] However, another hypothesis claims that a secret bargain took place between Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, who was later helped by Ellsworth, and South Carolina’s John Rutledge, resulting in the Great Compromise and the slave trade compromise.[28] This theory has received skepticism due to its unreliable sources, but through an analysis of the voting record on motions during the Convention, other scholars have supported the claim that political trade-offs on issues such as slavery were ultimately used to negotiate the Great Compromise.[29] Since it is impossible to know everything that happened during the months of the Convention and understand the precise effects of every factor, there can be no certainty to either side of the argument. Regardless of the connection between compromises, the desired outcome of the compromises should stand without dispute: the Founders wanted to create a lasting union that could survive not only war but also peace.

Looking past the criticisms of how the Constitution addressed slavery and the debate on the connection of compromises, one must come to the realization that slavery was a part of American life in 1787 and was an unavoidable issue for the Convention. The union held together by the weak foundations of the Articles of Confederation was beginning to crumble, but the Founders wanted the union to be strong and thus sought a new foundation. Of course, if the new form of union was to be a true republic, as they desired, its legislature needed to reflect the entire society within the United States.[30] Unfortunately, because some of the southern states had not yet abolished it, slavery was a characteristic of that society. Thus, as one scholar puts it, “the major dispute in the Convention was not whether [slavery] should or should not be [acknowledged], but how it would be done.”[31] Consequently, modern critiques of the Constitution regarding slavery should not focus on the fact that it was addressed, but rather on how it was addressed.

Ellsworth’s Probable Response

Considering both Ellsworth’s personal background and the debate over slavery at the convention leads to the conclusion that he would have agreed with the pragmatic argument and Douglas that the Constitution in some way mirrored slavery in America without sanctioning it, leaving the problem of slavery to be addressed in the future for the sake of harmony between the states. Evidence suggests that Ellsworth stood in opposition to slavery and disagreed with Pinckney’s defense of it. But though he viewed it as wrong, he believed that lawmakers could permit it, just as a sovereign God permitted it—particularly since he thought that it was already beginning to fade away. Furthermore, as a New Light Calvinist, he highly valued harmony and was consequently in favor of maintaining the union. Altogether, his upbringing and religious background are the clearest explanations to his compromises at the convention.

All historical evidence suggests that Oliver Ellsworth was personally opposed to slavery. During the Convention, Ellsworth asserted that he had never owned a slave, and there are no historical records disproving his claim.[32] However, it is probable that sometime after the Convention, by the discretion of his wife, the Ellsworth’s purchased a young slave girl and subsequently emancipated her.[33] Furthermore, in Landholder VI, he wrote, “[A]ll good men wish the entire abolition of slavery.”[34] He also believed that “slavery in time [would] not be a speck in our country,” as states themselves, such as his home state of Connecticut, were already in the process of abolishing slavery.[35] Taking these few instances in which his perspective on slavery can be inferred, it ought to be concluded that Ellsworth was opposed to its existence.

Following in the tradition of Bellamy’s righteous ruler, Ellsworth did not try to enforce his personal opposition of slavery onto the delegates of states like Georgia and South Carolina, but rather hoped that with time they might come to understand their offenses. He made this attitude evident at the convention when he said, “The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves.”[36] In making the issue of slavery a state matter instead of a national one, Ellsworth shifted the responsibility of a practice he viewed as sinful toward the individual. In effect, he modeled the idea of a righteous ruler who does not partake in the sin himself, but permits others to do so in hopes that they will eventually be convicted. As previously mentioned, Ellsworth saw that such a conviction against slavery was already taking hold in some states and believed that other states would soon experience it as well. Because of this general move away from slavery and because the Constitution did not sanction the institution, he had no objections to its ratification.

In addition to his justification for the permission of slavery, Ellsworth also believed that union was vital to the well-being of the people and that without some form of national government, anarchy would take its place. In Landholder IX, Ellsworth makes the assertion, “Anarchy, or a want of such government as can protect the interests of the subjects, against foreign and domestic injustice is the worst of all conditions. It is a condition which mankind will not long endure.”[37] In keeping with the New Light belief that harmony in a society was a sign of societal righteousness, he prioritized union among the states. The debate over the relation of compromises on slavery to the Great Compromise is irrelevant to Ellsworth’s position at the convention. In either case—if the Great Compromise was the result of the slavery compromises or if the two were completely unrelated—Ellsworth would have agreed to the ultimate compromises of the Constitution in order to preserve harmony between the states under a single national government. In his opinion, harmony was the righteous alternative to dissolving the union and introducing the likelihood of anarchy and war amongst the states.


Given an examination of Oliver Ellsworth and his position on slavery, the question remains to be explicitly answered: do the arguments against the Constitution for tacitly approving slavery have grounds for merit? If the argument is left simply with the assertion that the Constitution tacitly approved slavery, then the answer is a simple yes; the Constitution necessarily reflected an unfortunate aspect of the early United States and permitted slavery just as God permits sin. But if the argument implies that the Constitution should be despised for its tacit approval of slavery, then it would have faced contention from Ellsworth. It is possible that if he had known of the destruction that would result in the Civil War from the problem of slavery, he would have approached the issue differently. But Ellsworth could not predict the future; he could only act as wisely as he could and leave the results up to God. And from his perspective, harmony in the immediate context was most important. Thus, if he were here today, Ellsworth would not emphasize that slavery was permitted in the United States, but rather that there was a United States. One can know the outcome of the Constitution: slavery was permitted and eventually it led to the bloody Civil War. One cannot know the outcome if the Constitution had not been ratified, but it very well might have resulted in anarchy amongst the states, greater political rivalry on the North American continent, and the perpetuation of slavery to this day. Thus, Ellsworth, no doubt, would not hold the Constitution accountable for the sin of slavery, even if he foresaw the outcome. Instead, he would place the faults of slavery solely on the shoulders of those who owned slaves and those who explicitly sanctioned the owning of slaves.


[1] Michael C. Toth, Founding federalist: the life of Oliver Ellsworth (Wilmington, DelawareISI Books, 2011), 10.

[2] William R. Casto, “Oliver Ellsworth: ‘I have sought the felicity and glory of your Administration,’” in Seriatim: The Supreme Court Before John Marshall, edited by Scott Douglas Gerber (New York: NYU Press, 1998), 293.

[3] Toth, 11.

[4] John F. Kennedy, Encyclopedia Britannica, 8th ed., s.v. “Oliver Ellsworth” (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009). Available at https://www.britannica.com/biography/Oliver-Ellsworth#toc248142 (accessed September 9, 2017).

[5] Casto, 294.

[6] Oliver Ellsworth, Letter from Oliver Ellsworth to Theodore Hinsdale, Jan. 26, 1779, in Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 11 October 1, 1778 – January 31, 1779. Available at https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg011518)) (accessed Oct. 21, 2017).

[7] Casto, 294.

[8] Casto, 295.

[9] Toth, 12.

[10] Ellsworth evinces this idea in Landholder V, where he argued, “The little state of Rhode Island was purposefully left by Heaven to its present madness, for a general conviction in the other states, that such a system as is now proposed is our only preservation from ruin.”

[11] Casto, 296.

[12] Reverend Joseph Bellamy, Four Sermons on the Wisdom of God in the Permission of Sins (Morristown, NJ: Henry P. Russell, 1804), 108, quoted in Toth, Founding Federalist, 13.

[13] Toth, 16.

[14] Ellsworth, A Landholder VII (Dec. 17, 1787). Available at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/ library/document/a-landholder-vii/ (accessed Oct. 19, 2017).

[15] Ellsworth, A Landholder V (Dec. 3, 1787). Available at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/a-landholder-v/ (accessed Oct. 19, 2017).

[16] Brown, William Garrott Brown, “A Continental Congressman: Oliver Ellsworth, 1777-1783,” The American Historical Review 10, no. 4 (Jul., 1905), 780. Available at JSTOR (accessed September 9, 2017).

[17] Ibid., 771.

[18] Ellsworth quoted in Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison, ed. by Adrienne Koch (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985), 218.

[19] John R. Vile, “The Critical Role of Committees at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787,” The American Journal of Legal History 48, no. 2 (Apr., 2006), 159. Available at JSTOR (accessed September 9, 2017).

[20] Genesis 50:20, English Standard Version.

[21] Other criticisms have been made on the inclusion of the Fugitive Slave Clause and the power to suppress insurrection, though I will forego discussion on these arguments to preserve time.

[22] Notes of Debates, 269.

[23] Charles Cotesworth Pinckney quoted in Notes of Debates, 505.

[24] W. B. Hesseltine, “Some New Aspects of the Pro-Slavery Argument,” The Journal of Negro History 21, no. 1 (Jan., 1936), 4. Available at JSTOR (accessed November 16, 2017).

[25] Elbridge Gerry quoted in Notes of Debates, 506.

[26] Frederick Douglass, “The constitution of the United States: is it pro-slavery or anti-slavery?” in the Wilson Anti-Slavery Collection (1863), 13. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 29, 2017).

[27] Max Farrand, “Compromises of the Constitution,” The American Historical Review 9, no. 3 (Apr., 1904), 488. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 29, 2017).

[28] James H. Hutson, “Riddles of the Federal Constitutional Convention,” The William and Mary Quarterly 44, no. 3 (Jul., 1987), 415. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 29, 2017).

[29] Jeremy C. Pope and John Treier, “Reconsidering the Great Compromise at the Federal Convention of 1787: Deliberation and Agenda Effects on the Senate and Slavery,” American Journal of Political Science 55, no. 2 (April, 2011), 289. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 29, 2017).

[30] Howard A. Ohline, “Republicanism and Slavery: Origins of the Three-Fifths Clause in the United States Constitution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 28, no. 4 (Oct., 1971), 567. Available at JSTOR (accessed October 29, 2017).

[31] Ibid., 584.

[32] Ellsworth quoted in Notes of Debates, 504.

[33] Toth, 90.

[34] Ellsworth, A Landholder VI (Dec. 10, 1787). Available at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/landholder-vi/ (accessed October 19, 2017).

[35] Ellsworth quoted in Notes of Debates, 504.

[36] Ibid., 503.

[37] Ellsworth, A Landholder IX (Dec. 31, 1787). Available at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/landholder-ix/ (accessed October 19, 2017).