Oliver Ellsworth: Founding Father and Yale Dropout

Oliver Ellsworth, the forgotten founding father, was a lawyer, a member of the Constitutional Convention, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a U.S. senator, a chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court – and a Yale dropout.

He was born April 29, 1745 in Windsor, Conn., to Cept. Capt. David and Jemima Ellsworth. During his boyhood there was only one carriage in Windsor, his family ate from wooden trenchers and work on the farm was hard. In 1762, at the age of 17, he entered Yale College to prepare for the ministry. He only lasted two years.

William Garrott Brown explains in  The life of Oliver Ellsworth that he ‘entered at a time of undergraduate discontent’:

Oliver and Abigail Ellsworth

Oliver and Abigail Ellsworth

The long administration of President Thomas Clap was drawing to a close, and his headship of the still struggling seminary, though admirable for vigor and devotion, had been growing too arbitrary to please the student body. There was much complaint also of the tutors.

And then there was the food. Breakfast for four was a loaf of bread. Dinner for four was an apple pie and a quart of beer.

Young Oliver Ellsworth was disciplined several times, according to the school records. His first offense was puzzling: He joined 10 others ‘to scrape and clean the college yard.’ He also, after evening prayers on Thursday, joined others who ‘put on their Hats and run and Hallooed in the College Yard in contempt of the Law of College.’

Why exactly he left Yale isn’t clear. According to family legend, at midwinter at midnight he inverted the college bell and filled it with water, which froze. For whatever reason, he ended up at Princeton.  The New Jersey college had about 100 students at the time, but it excelled at teaching the art of teaching and writing. No other college trained as many debaters for the Continental Congress or the Constitutional Convention.

About 200 years later, another politician who excelled at speaking and writing would write the biography of Oliver Ellsworth for the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the only encyclopedia entry John F. Kennedy ever wrote.


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