How William Ellery served our country

Published 12:55 pm Tuesday, January 23, 2024

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 by David Streater

William Ellery, a small man who spoke wisely, was born on December 22, 1727, in Newport, Rhode Island. Ellery was the second son of William, Sr., and Elizabeth’s marriage. William was an excellent student and was tutored by his father. At 16 years old, William entered Harvard as a legacy student and graduated in 1747. 

William wanted to attend law school. Knowing that being a young attorney would not provide a steady income, he decided to go another way by working in his father’s enterprise. Over the next several decades, Ellery became a Rhode Island naval officer and a Master Mason. He also worked as a court clerk and Rhode Island’s General Assembly administrator.  These experiences exposed him to deeds, writs, briefs and other legal forms related to criminal and civil law. 

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In 1764, William’s father died, leaving him an inheritance. This financial gift allowed Ellery to study law and pursue other areas of life that interested him. Due to the colonies’ dispute with England over taxes and other essential matters, William joined the ‘High Sons of Liberty.’ In 1770, when he was 42, Ellery began his dream career as an attorney. Being a lawyer led him to be active in resisting the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Intolerable Acts of 1767. 

When Samuel Ward, a Continental Congress delegate from Rhode Island, died of smallpox, a special election was called. On May 4, 1776, Ellery was elected for the open seat. As a new representative, he signed the Declaration of Independence with the experienced delegates.  Remembering others signing the Declaration, William said, “I was determined to see how they all looked as they signed what might be their death warrant.” 

Ellery was never physically injured, but the British retaliated by destroying his property and home in December 1776. In the years that followed, William continued to serve in several ways: Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and member of the Committee of Foreign Relations, and as a member of the admiralty court, the Marine Committee and other councils. Ellery also served in positions that considered postal routes, military procurement, wounded Revolutionary War veterans and public affairs.

In his later years, William had other achievements, including advocating “in Rhode Island ratification of the federal constitution.” William also joined the efforts to “abolish slavery throughout the Country” and acquired an affection for theology. George Washington appointed him as the collector of customs from 1790 until he died in 1820. This position was vital as it was the new national government’s primary revenue source. The customs tax was replaced by the federal income tax, which began in 1913 via the 16th Constitutional Amendment.

Ellery continued to be a Renaissance man. At the time of his death, he was sitting in his chair reading “De Officiis” about ethics and philosophy. On February 15, 1820, at 92, Ellery died in his Newport, Rhode Island home. He was an enduring and righteous patriot who led his state under five presidential administrations. William Ellery was buried in Rhode Island’s Common Ground Cemetery in Newport. 

Please visit the Polk County Charters of Freedom setting in Columbus, at the corner of Gibson and Ward Streets beside the House of Flags Museum. Vance and Mary Jo Patterson are the benefactors of Foundation Forward, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization that made the Polk County Charters of Freedom possible. Visit to learn more.  

Dr. David Streater is the director of education for Foundation Forward, 501(c)3. To obtain a personalized engraved legacy paver for placement at the Charters of Freedom perpetual display, or for free educational materials, contact him at