At forty-two, Connecticut delegate Oliver Ellsworth had a solid reputation as a shrewd, able, well-educated lawyer, a fine debater, and an eloquent speaker. His thick brows and broad forehead gave him a dramatic appearance, but his notorious stinginess gave him a reputation as a poor social companion. He was born in Windsor, Connecticut, and attended Yale College and the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University). He built a prosperous law practice in his native Connecticut, earning him an appointment as state attorney for Hartford County in 1777. That same year he was chosen to serve in the Continental Congress. During the war years, he supervised his home state’s military expenditures and took a seat on Connecticut’s Council of Safety. At the Constitutional Convention, Ellsworth was a powerful voice during the debate on the Great Compromise. On his recommendation, the term “United States” replaced “national” as the title of the proposed new government. Like several other delegates, Ellsworth left the convention early and did not sign the final draft of the Constitution. Nevertheless, he played an active role in seeing the Constitution ratified in his home state, writing the influential Letters of a Landholder in support of the new government. Oliver Ellsworth served as one of Connecticut’s first senators, holding that office from 1789 to 1796. In the spring of 1796, he was named chief justice of the Supreme Court. In 1799 and 1800, he served as a commissioner to France. When he returned to America, he retired from politics, settling in his hometown of Windsor.
Sixty years old when he served as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention, Johnson had already amassed an impressive number of academic degrees. Dr. Johnson, as he was respectfully called, came from a scholarly family; his father was the first president of King’s College (later Columbia University) and a well-known Anglican clergyman and philosopher. Johnson graduated from Yale in 1744 and then went on to earn his master’s degree at Harvard. Later he would receive honorary degrees from Oxford University. He took up a career in law after leaving Harvard and was an immediate success. He moved quickly into politics, serving in Connecticut’s colonial assembly and its council. When the Revolution came, however, Johnson’s loyalties were divided. He believed most of Britain’s policies in the 1760s and 1770s to be unwise, but he had strong personal ties to England and a strong association with the Anglican Church. As tensions increased, Johnson attempted to remain neutral and to work for a peaceful settlement of differences. He was briefly arrested in 1779 by the Revolutionaries, but when the war ended, he was welcomed back into the state’s political arena. He served in the Confederation Congress and played a major role at the Philadelphia convention as an advocate of the Connecticut Compromise. With Ellsworth, he was appointed to the first Senate by Connecticut. He abandoned politics in 1791 to devote his considerable energies to the presidency of Columbia College.
Tall and awkward, Sherman provided a striking contrast to the suave Dr. Johnson at the Connecticut delegates’ table. The ungainly Sherman was an autodidact who devoured books in what spare time he could eke out while doing farm chores and learning the cobbler’s trade from his father. Although he was born in Massachusetts, he moved to Connecticut as a young man following his father’s death. There he purchased a store, learned surveying, and won appointment to a number of local offices. With no formal education, Sherman managed nevertheless to pass the bar in 1754 and establish a reputation as a distinguished jurist and political leader. His skills in political debate and his shrewdness in political negotiations were well-known by the time he came to the Philadelphia convention. Despite his constant political duties before the Revolution, Sherman was able to publish an essay on monetary theory and a series of almanacs containing his own astronomical observations and his own poetry. In 1761 Sherman gave up his legal practice and returned to shopkeeping. He did not give up politics, however. He served in the Continental Congress and was on the committees that drafted both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Although his finances were failing, Sherman agreed to take time away from his business interests to serve at the Philadelphia convention. He was one of the prime spokesmen for the interests of the smaller states and played a critical role in creating the Connecticut Compromise. A solid supporter of the Constitution, Roger Sherman served in the first House of Representatives and later in the Senate. He remained a Federalist throughout his life.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.