Another of the lesser-known signers of the Declaration of Independence is William Ellery. Like the others, he played an important role in American history and should be remembered for his contributions to independence, and to the early history of this country. This Founding Father may not be well known today, but it is time his story was restored to modern audiences. This is William Ellery’s story.
William Ellery was born in 1727 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the second son of William Ellery, Sr. and his wife, Elizabeth Almy. Elizabeth was a descendant of Thomas Cornell, who was a prominent early setter of Boston. William’s father was a merchant and a politician.
William received a solid education as a child, being homeschooled by his father, who was a graduate of Harvard University. William himself went on to also be a Harvard student, and to graduate from there. While at Harvard, William showed himself to be an excellent scholar in Greek and Latin, with a high aptitude for those subjects. After graduation, William came home to Newport, where he took up a profession as a merchant, like his father, working alongside him in his mercantile business.
Yet, William did not continue as a merchant for long, finding he did not enjoy it as much as his father might have hoped he would. Instead, he moved on to become a customs collector and became the Clerk of the Rhode Island General Assembly after that. William also became a Naval Officer for the Colony of Rhode Island, where he learned about naval affairs, a knowledge that served him well during the American Revolution, when he was on the Continental Congress. William also became a Master Mason at the First Lodge in Boston not long after graduating from Harvard.
Later, still looking for the correct profession for himself, William became a lawyer at the age of 43. Around the same time William became a lawyer, he also became committed to the cause of independence from Great Britain and became an active and prominent member of the Rhode Island Sons of Liberty.
William did not like the idea of the British parliament dictating to the colonies. The colonies, he believed, were people about whom the British parliament knew little and cared even less. Once the first shots of the Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord, William let it be known that he believed no peaceful reconciliation with Great Britain would be possible, as some other contemporary American colonial leaders had hoped it would be.
When the prominent Rhode Island statesman Samuel Ward died in 1776, William was appointed to replace him as a representative of Rhode Island at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. While at the Continental Congress, he became a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His signature on that document is notable because it is second only to John Hancock’s in largeness and flourish. Later, William also became a signer of the Articles of Confederation, which were the governing documents of the new United States before our present Constitution was written and adopted.
While William Ellery may be most famous for being a part of the Constitutional Convention and by signing his name with such style to the Declaration of Independence, he had a career beyond this. He served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of Rhode Island after his time at the Constitutional Convention. He even became that court’s Chief Justice for a time. William was the first customs collector for the port of Rhode Island after the Constitution was adopted, and he served in that capacity for the rest of his life. William was also one of the founders of Rhode Island College, as well as one of its incorporators, something he is still known and recognized for to this day in Rhode Island.
In addition to these things, William Ellery was a member of the Second Congregational Church of Newport, and was also a well known abolitionist, having adopted this new philosophy and attitude in 1785.
There is a chair that is currently in the custody of the Newport Historical Society in Newport, Rhode Island that was supposedly owned by William Ellery. It was discovered in his house by William C. Cozzens and given to the historical society to preserve and keep for the people of Rhode Island.
As for his personal life, William Ellery married Ann Remington in 1750. She was from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was the daughter of Judge Jonathan Remington. The couple had seven children together, five of whom survived past childhood and had children of their own. Ann died in 1764 while the couple was in Cambridge, and she was buried there.
William went on to remarry Abigail Cary in 1767. This couple had 12 children, only two of whom survived past childhood and had children of their own. Some of their children died as children, and others grew up but remained unmarried or did not have children of their own. Between his two wives, William had nineteen children. Because of this large number of children, William has a truly remarkable number of descendants. Some of the better-known ones include Ellery Channing, William Ellery Channing, Richard Henry Dana, Washington Allston, and American actress Kyra Sedgwick.
William Ellery lived a remarkably long life, dying in 1820 at the age of 92. He was buried in Newport, Rhode Island at the Common Burial Ground. There is an annual commemoration there to this day on July 4, which is put on by the Rhode Island Sons of the Revolution and the William Ellery Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. While William Ellery may not be one of the best known of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, this does not mean he has been forgotten by the people of Rhode Island, To them, he is still an important and prominent figure in their state’s history. There are a few other commemorations for William Ellery in the United States. The town of Ellery, New York is named after him. There is also an Ellery Avenue located in the town of Middletown, Rhode Island.