Returning to his home in Windsor, Connecticut, he studied theology and then law, and was admitted to the bar in 1771. At first his law practice was so unremunerative that he had to support himself by farming and occasional woodchopping, and on days when the court was sitting he was obliged to walk from his farm in Hartford and back, a round trip of twenty miles, since he was too poor to keep a horse.
In 1775 he moved to Hartford. There his rise at the bar was rapid, and before long there were few important cases in Connecticut in which Ellsworth did not represent one side or the other.
He was a delegate to the General Assembly of the state that met soon after the Battle of Lexington, and throughout the Revolutionary War was a member of the Continental Congress. He was one of the delegates from Connecticut in the Federal Constitutional Convention, one of the first two senators from Connecticut, and, on appointment of President Washington, served as Chief Justice of the United States from 1796 to 1800.
At the Federal Constitutional Convention, William Pierce, a delegate from Georgia who kept careful notes about all his colleagues, said Ellsworth was ``a gentleman of a clear, deep, and copious understanding, eloquent in . . . public debate . . . very happy in reply, and choice in selecting such parts of his adversary's arguments as he finds makes the strongest impressions, in order to take off the force of them so as to admit the power of his own.'' Ellsworth employed these talents to support the Connecticut Compromise, which broke the deadlock between the large states, represented by James Madison 1771 of Virginia, and the small states, represented by Ellsworth's fellow Well Meaner and Cliosophian, William Paterson 1763 of New Jersey.
Ellsworth made his greatest contribution while serving in the United States Senate by drafting the Judiciary Act of 1789; the court system it established has continued to the present with little change.
Yale conferred an honorary LL.D. on him in 1790; Princeton, in 1797.
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