The second son in a family of four, Ellery was born in 1727 at Newport, his lifelong residence. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a rich merchant and political leader, by attending Harvard. On his graduation in 1747, he returned home. During the following two decades or so, he tried his hand at several occupations, eventually taking up the study of law, which he began practicing in 1770. Meantime, he had married twice and was to rear two sons and three daughters. Among his grandchildren were William Ellery Channing, influential theologian and apostle of Unitarianism, and Richard Henry Dana, Sr., noted poet and essayist.
By May 1776, when the colonial legislature sent Ellery to the Continental Congress, he had already earned a reputation for his work on local patriotic committees. Tradition records that, at the formal signing of the Declaration on August 2, he placed himself beside the Secretary and observed "undaunted resolution" on every face as the Delegates subscribed to their "death warrant." The next year, Rhode Island initiated popular election of congressional Delegates, and Ellery's Newport constituency maintained him in office until 1786 except for the years 1780 and 1782. In 1780 he remained in Philadelphia as an ex officio member of the board of admiralty, on which he had been sitting. His other committee assignments included those dealing with commercial and naval affairs. On occasion, to entertain himself and others, he wrote witty epigrams about various speakers. In 1785 he turned down the chief justiceship of the Rhode Island Superior Court to remain in Congress, where he had attained commanding seniority.
The very next year, Ellery terminated his congressional career to accept an appointment as commissioner of the Continental Loan Office for Rhode Island (1786-90). Probably the need to straighten out his finances compelled him to accept. British troops in 1778, during their 3-year occupation of Newport, had destroyed his home and property, and he had been too busy to rebuild his fortune. In 1790 President Washington appointed Ellery as customs collector for the district of Newport, a position he held for three decades. Although he was a Federalist, he managed to retain office during the Democratic-Republican administrations, probably because of his Revolutionary record and competence.
In his later years, Ellery prospered. He kept active in public affairs and spent many hours in scholarly pursuits and correspondence. Living to 92, a more advanced age than all the signers except Charles Carroll, he died in 1820 at Newport. His remains rest there in the Common Ground Cemetery.
Drawing: Oil, 1876, by Samuel B. Waugh, after John Trumbull, Independence National Historical Park.
Last Updated: 04-Jul-2004