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October 14, 2013

Introducing Oliver Ellsworth

In connection with research into the Judiciary Act of 1789, I have recently been reading Oliver Ellsworth and the Creation of the Federal Republic, by William R. Casto. Published in 1997, the book contains the fruits of Professor Casto's extensive study of Ellsworth and is likely to be of interest to many readers of this blog. One of the themes running through the book is the relationship among Ellsworth's Calvinism, his understanding of government, and his actions as a public official. From the book's introduction:

Throughout the Founding Era, Ellsworth played an almost omnipresent role in forging what he called an "energetic" federal government. Littls purpose would be served by retelling the whole story yet one more time. Ellsworth's participation in the Constitutional Convention will be used to shed light upon his understanding of the art of political dealmaking rather than to rehearse the general meaning and significance of the Convention's labors. In particular the compromises on the states' representation in Congress and upon Congress's power to forbid the importation of slaves provide a laboratory for studying the nuances of Ellsworth's sophisticated political psychology and his consummate ability to craft effective political compromises.

Other episodes of the Founding Era are less familiar and will be addressed in more general scope. In particular, Ellsworth was the most effective and influential senator in the First Congress. He was the drafter and leading proponent of the Judiciary Act of 1789 that created the federal judicial system, and he had to bring all of his formidable political skills to bear on this complex and difficult task. In the Senate debates on the Bill of Rights, he was the floor manager, and he later was the Senate chairman of the Committee of Conference on the Bill of Rights and personally drafted the Committee's Report. Finally he was the architect of the Senate's Rhode Island Trade Bill that coerced the hold-out state into ratifying the Constitution and joining the Union. Rhode Island's ratification of the Constitution was the final step in the creation of the federal government. Ellsworth continued playing the premier leadership role in the Senate until 1796.

Ellsworth's exploits as a pragmatic politician are interesting, but what made him such a gifted political operative is even more so. He had a clear, sophisticated, detailed, and ruthlessly analytical political philosophy and psychology that was quite consistent and never failed him in his quest for effective political solutions. His philosophy, however, was not that of the secular enlightenment. He was not like Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and many other Founders. He was a strict Calvinist who saw no difference between secular and religious life and whose entire world view of personal and political life was consciously based upon religion. His strict Calvinism provided him with a philosophical model that enabled him to make sense of the chaotic and occasionally tragic human condition. He view all human activity as a seamless web minutely predestined by an all-powerful God. Moreover he viewed himself as a "Righteous Ruler" chosen by God to rule on earth and elected by God for personal salvation.

In the late twentieth century, there is a tendency to compartmentalize religious belief short of the political realm--to separate secular decision making in public life from personal faith. Consistent with this tendency, the political leaders of the Founding Generation are frequently viewed as secular giants who either had little religion or whose religion was important in their private--but not their public--lives. For example, one capable and respected historian whas written that "nearly all of the Founding Fathers claimed to be Christians; but, by virtually any standard of doctrinal orthodoxy, hardly any of them was . . . . Quite possibly, not a single delegate [to the Constitutional Convention] accepted Calvinist orthodoxy." Even among today's historian's studies of religion in the eighteenth century almost always focus upon the ideas of ministers rather than those of public officials. Oliver Ellsworth stands in sharp contrast to this compartmentalized, secular vision, and his thoroughoing integration of what today we call religious and secular life presents a valuable counterpoint to our inclination to separate the two.

In addition to shedding light on a largely unexplored aspect of the world view of the political leaders of the Founding generation, Ellsworth's understanding of the role of religion in society bears directly upon the religion clauses of the Bill of Rights. He played a significant role in framing these clauses and personally wrote the Establishment Clause. Therefore a thorough investigation of his complex and carefully elaborated views on the free exercise of religion and the governmental establishment of religion . . . provides fresh insights to the framing of the Constitution's religion clauses.

Posted by Kevin C. Walsh on October 14, 2013 at 04:08 PM | Permalink

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