Childhood & Early Life
William Ellery was born as the second son of Elizabeth Almy and William Ellery Sr., a businessman, in Rhode Island.
His father was a Harvard College graduate who educated his son at home.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he also attended Harvard College where he excelled in Greek and Latin, and graduated in 1747 at the age of 20.
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He started his career as a merchant, working alongside with his father in his business. He learnt about the prevalent practices in trade and shipping.
He became a Naval Officer of the Colony of Rhode Island on the basis of the shipping knowledge he had. After a short stint, he became a Master Mason in the First Lodge in Boston.
In 1750, he became a Clerk of the Court where he learnt about legal practices and procedures. He served in this position till 1763.
He helped in co-founding the Rhode Island College in 1764 in his city and acted as one of its incorporators.
When The Stamp Act, which imposed a tax on the colonies of British America, was passed in 1765, it was met with wide spread opposition by the patriots. Ellery, along with others, led a march in Rhode Island to resist the Act.
He decided to expand the legal knowledge he had gained while working as a clerk in the court, and started studying law. He cleared the exams and was accepted into the Bar in 1770.
In the 1770s, he also became active in the Sons of Liberty, a group of patriots who were engaged in the protection of the rights of the colonists.
The British government passed certain disciplinary laws in 1774 which took away from the Massachusetts many of its government and historic rights. These laws were dubbed “Intolerable Acts” and were vehemently opposed by the colonists. Ellery played a significant role in the resistance movement.
By the fall of 1774, emotions, regarding the demand for independence from British rule, were running high in the First continental Congress. Ellery, though not a congress member, was strongly in favour of independence and believed that the colonies were capable enough to govern themselves.
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As a lawyer, he was acquainted with several influential people in Rhode Island, and had the means to gather vital information about the British Parliament. He was really frustrated with the way the British were governing America with little concern for the welfare of the people.
By 1775, the American Revolution had already begun, and the Second continental Congress assembled on May 10th. As a fervent supporter of independence, he told the Congress that he would accept the office as a delegate in case a vacancy occurs.
In early 1776, one of the Rhode Island delegates Samuel Ward became ill with smallpox and was dying. The Rhode Island Legislature held an election to choose his replacement, eventually selecting William Ellery.
He attended the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He voted in favour of independence on July 2, 1776. On August 2, 1776, he signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence along with most of the other signers.
After independence, he was placed on the Marine Committee due to his prior experience in shipping. As a member of the congress, he served on several committees while holding this post.
In 1778, he on behalf of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations signed the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the U.S.
Due to his vast knowledge, experience and negotiation skills, he was made a member of the Committee to settle diplomatic problems in 1779. He served as a member of the Congress till 1786.
By 1785, he had gained a reputation for being an abolitionist and wholeheartedly supported Rufus King in his attempts to abolish slavery throughout the U.S.
In 1790, he was appointed as Collector of Customs for the Newport District under the new constitution. He held this post for the rest of his long and productive life.
Personal Life & Legacy
He married Ann Remington in 1750. The couple had seven children, of whom five survived to adulthood. Ann died in 1764.
His second marriage was to Abigail Cary in 1767. With her, he had ten more children, many of whom died in their infancy. His second wife died in 1793.
He lived a long and fruitful life and spent his retired years in the company of his numerous children and grandchildren. He died of natural causes on 15 February 1820 at the ripe old age of 92.