A Compromising Calvinist and His Position on Slavery at the Constitutional Convention of 1787
A Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Oliver Ellsworth brought with him a piety rooted in the severe moral theology of New Light Calvinism. History does not satisfactorily explain what attracted Ellsworth to the New Light movement, it only offers hints on how his, and others’, simple lives, lack of social connection, and perhaps Yale educations made them receptive to the harsh moral theology of the New Light. What history does adequately explain though was that Oliver Ellsworth believed he was a righteous ruler who used his political training and office to work for the common good.
The development of the New Light doctrine of the righteous ruler and of Ellsworth’s involvement in the New Light movement requires a fair amount of background discussion. The doctrine of the righteous ruler traces its origins back to the theology of Jonathan Edwards, the hellfire and brimstone preacher who transformed the New England religious landscape in the middle 18th century. His teachings on the inherent depravity of man laid the foundation for one of his most famous students, Joseph Bellamy, to develop a New Light theology of political office. This theology offered a practical, moral solution for the virtuous politician, the righteous ruler, who was forced to work with depraved, selfish members of government. Compromise, understood here as acquiescence to a morally repugnant political arrangement in the belief that God would ordain something greater in the end, allowed him to licitly give in to the desires of his depraved colleagues and permit a lesser evil to occur, so long as the righteous ruler pursued a greater good.
Ellsworth embraced the compromise principle, finding in it an effective method of preserving his strong moral convictions within the realities of political life. He effectively employed the principle of compromise to convince the New Light community to tolerate the alliance with Catholic France during the Revolution. Further, on two separate occasions during the Convention he compromised with competing factions and rescued the Convention from possible disbandment over slavery concerns.
His advocacy on slavery issues at the Convention may, when contrasted with his personal beliefs on the issues, suggest a person of weak will or dubious convictions. Indeed, his advocacy preserved certain elements of the slave trade and denied the humanity of the slave. Such positions were not consistent with Ellsworth’s personal beliefs on these issues; he abhorred institutionalized slavery, desiring its abolition, and he believed that slaves shared in the same humanity and enjoyed the same dignity as any other man. Yet despite his convictions on slavery, Ellsworth believed that he licitly adopted positions at the Convention that were favorable to the slave trade and demeaning to the slave. He was a righteous ruler who could compromise on lesser issues so that he might pursue greater goods.
I. New Light Calvinism
Connecticut, long a bastion of a congregational Calvinism that focused on reasoned faith, experienced a wave of religious expansion during the early and middle parts of the 18th century.1 Episcopalians, Baptists, and other Protestant sects arose to challenge this Established Church. During the “Great Awakening” that swept through New England during 1740-1742 schismatics even divided the Establishment into two competing factions. Stalwart members of the established Church, known as “Old Lights”, remained within the historical Connecticut religion.2 Those caught up in the Great Awakening, the “New Lights,” found themselves reveling in a new moral theology of fire and brimstone.3
This new moral theology, rooted in the thought of Jonathan Edwards, placed man on the edge of the abyss; original sin rendered him ontologically depraved and drove him inexorably towards the gates of Hell.4 Preceded by Edwards’ localized Northhampton Awakening in 1734-1735, the Great Awakening enjoyed such popularity that, early in the movement, Edwards’ theological opponents even entertained its severity from their pulpits. Charles Chauncy, the influential Boston clergyman who eventually came to lead the Old Lights, offered a homily in 1741 in language strikingly similar to Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Chauncy spoke of sinners who “hang, as it were, over the bottomless pit, by the slender thread of life, and the moment that snaps asunder, you sink down into perdition.”5
The evangelical tendencies of New Light Calvinism, particularly its emphasis on the wretchedness of man, swept up the simple minded folk of Connecticut and much of the rest of rural New England.6 Owing to both the substantive moral theology it espoused and to the passion and rhetorical ability of its peripatetic preachers, the New Light movement created widespread confusion amongst the Calvinist church in New England.7 Theologically the New Light movement struck a careful balance between appealing to the individual’s love of God and his fear of Hell. Yet the theology alone could not attract the mobs that many New Light preachers enjoyed; only a dynamic presentation of the material could create such joy in a congregation listening about its wretchedness.
In Connecticut as well as most of the Middle Colonies the best preachers, such as George Whitfield, an Oxford educated Wesleyan theologian and missionary, could win over their audiences through subtle inflections, dramatic pauses, and modulating the ferocity of their hellfire. The least capable preachers, such as the pugnacious Scotsman Gilbert Tennent, wooed the mob with scathing rants about a vindictive God.8 Known for preaching outside during snowstorms, Tennent’s sermons often ended in “emotional orgies”;9 his audiences, enthralled by his hellfire, sought spiritual release through dramatic bodily gyrations.10 A third prominent New Light preacher during the middle of the 18th century, Joseph Bellamy, enjoyed success in both methods; he combined a rousing rhetorical style with a mighty fear of Divine wrath to woo the crowd.
c. Joseph Bellamy
One of the most important of all New Light theologians, Bellamy first encountered New Light Calvinism when news of Edwards’ Northampton Awakening reached him while he studied theology as an undergraduate at Yale.11 Near the bottom of his class, ranking twenty-third out of a class of twenty-four,12 Bellamy perceived that the distinction between Old Lights and New Lights encompassed more than just moral theological differences, it reflected an increasingly polarized New England society. Old Lights at Yale enjoyed family prestige, money, and political connection while New Lights, socially marginalized at Yale,13 came from the outskirts of settled communities; New Lights farmed, made crafts, and enjoyed little in the way of socio-political connections.14 For Yale undergraduates of the era, social status served as one indicator of the students’ tendencies towards either the Old Light or the New Light.
Joseph, twelve-years-old at the time of his Yale matriculation in late 1731 or early 1732,15 came from this marginalized class. His grandfather’s legal troubles forced the family to constantly relocate, isolating the Bellamy family from proper New Haven society.16 Joseph’s father, Matthew Jr., found his livelihood in risky business ventures; yet despite owning in whole or in part a weaving business, a copper mine, and the tavern that served the miners, Matthew Bellamy, Jr. never enjoyed marked financial success.17
While perhaps also causal, Bellamy’s class rank at Yale at least served as an additional indicator of his affinity for the New Light movement. Class rankings at Yale often reflected religious tendencies; those near the top of the class flocked towards the Old Light camp, or occasionally the Church of England, while those in the bottom half of the class embraced the New Lights.18 One examination of the members of Yale undergraduate classes between 1732 and 1738 indicates that, of those with discernable religious affiliation, nine students ranked in the top half of their respective classes became Old Lights, three became Episcopalians, and four became New Lights. Of those students ranked in the lower half of their classes, four became Old Lights, four became Episcopalians, and twenty-one became New Lights.19
After completing his studies at Yale in 1736, Bellamy traveled to Northampton to apprentice under Jonathan Edwards, becoming Edwards’ first theology student.20 His course of study, an apprenticeship loosely modeled around the tutorial system, was the common method of instruction in the New Light movement. It focused on polemical theology and developed orthodox responses to the questions that surfaced in an increasingly theologically plural New England.21 Heterodox texts raised questions on the divine attributes, God’s moral governance, and the sinful character of man; orthodox texts answered the questions.22
One aspect of Bellamy’s instruction, which he developed at much greater length after completing his studies with Edwards, included training in the theology of political office. For the politician, true religion required not just internal piety and orthodoxy, but that he actively work to further the will of God in the public sphere.23 On this point Professor Valeri writes:
For clerical patriots, genuine religion necessarily involved social morality. When social and moral questions implied political outcomes, preachers engaged in political debate as a matter of religious concern the Edwardseans took republican political sentiments to be particular applications of higher moral principles. Republicanism, hence civil rebellion, appealed to them because they were convinced that the moral law lay embedded in the will of God. 24
Such instruction would, when coupled with his study of the emerging “Moral Sense” philosophical movement, lead Bellamy to develop his own New Light theology of political office. In Bellamy’s theology the politician would become the righteous ruler of society.
c. New Light Faith, Public Office, and Compromise
To develop upon the theology of political office, Bellamy turned towards the Moral Sense school of ethics that enjoyed increasing popularity amongst British moral philosophers and ethicists during the middle of the 18th century. The school rebelled against the abstracted morality of Locke and the self-interest ethics of Hobbes in favor of an ethic of benevolent self-subjugation ordered towards the welfare of others.25 Benevolence, the highest virtue, required policies that upheld the rights and preserved the happiness of the most people. Those in the political sphere suffered an obligation to work for benevolent policies that conferred the greatest possible benefit upon the whole; Moral Sense subjugated the good of individual constituencies to the common good.
Francis Hutcheson, one of the Moral Sense school’s eminent thinkers and the primary source of Moral Sense ethics for Bellamy,26 developed an empiricist ethic that rejected the Age of Reason’s rationalism.27 Moral distinctions, knowledge of right and wrong, did not flow from a deductive schema; rather moral sensibilities occurred to a “sense” of the human being, who apprehended right and wrong through observations of persons and their actions.28 This simple empiricism made the philosophical substance of the movement, particularly its teachings on benevolent governance, easily accessible to the New Light politician.
Embracing a notion of the common good, Hutcheson spoke of virtuous human activity as that which rejected self-gratification in favor mankind’s collective good:
All Virtue is allow’d to consist in Affections of Love toward the Deity and our Fellow Creatures, and in Actions suitable to these Affections. Hence we conclude 1st, That whatever Scheme of Principles shall be most effectual to excite these Affections, the same must be the truest Foundation of all Virtue: And, 2dly, Whatever Rules of Conduct shall lead us into a Course of Actions acceptable to the Deity, and most beneficial to Mankind, they must be the true Precepts of Morality.29
Adopting this theory of moral action, pursuit of the collective good became, for Bellamy, the foremost duty of the politician. Rulers motivated by “a benevolent, generous frame of heart” should be “more concerned about their duty than about their private interests”30 Yet Bellamy believed that one major impediment, the innate depravity of man, prevented the extant political structure from always pursuing benevolent policy. Government, an entity composed of wretched men, suffered the same tendencies towards vice and selfishness as the private individual.13 Judicial malfeasance, self interested legislators, and the abuse of governmental powers all threatened to reduce society to “poverty and slavery.”32
To combat this, Bellamy synthesized his training under Edwards in the theology of the political office with his study of Hutcheson’s Moral Sense philosophy to develop the notion of the righteous ruler. This ruler achieved his public office through merit and wisdom and, once there, he bore co-extensive obligations to both God and men. To God the righteous ruler owed satisfaction on the command of Matthew 22:39: He must love his neighbor as himself. 33
Satisfaction of this duty required that the righteous ruler act as “a father to all his subjects” and devote “all the influence his high station, superior wisdom, and goodness give him over [his subjects’] hearts, [for he] is wholly consecrated to make them a still holier and happier people.”34 The righteous ruler did not suffer the corrupt self-interests of the government for such self-interests necessarily subjugated the goods of the community, one’s neighbors, to the goods of individual politicians or political factions. Righteous rulers preferred “the true interest of the state to any partial interest” because “The Bible teaches [that a ruler should do] whatever is essential to the common weal.”35
The efforts of the righteous ruler to make satisfaction upon the duty to love one’s neighbor as oneself required him to always subjugate personal desires to the common good. Yet political reality required him to interact with other politicians who might suffer under depraved cravings to use their high office to satisfy personal interests. The idealistic Calvinist politician, the righteous ruler, might therefore not fulfill his duties to God and man because the depravity of other politicians, their unwillingness to benevolently work towards the common good, left him politically impotent.
Bellamy’s solution to this quagmire, developed in his sermon Wisdom of God, permitted the righteous ruler to compromise with his depraved political colleagues in an effort to secure some benevolent legislation that would attend to the needs of society. Bellamy proceeded from the premise that God’s will would obtain, regardless of the efforts of depraved men. From this premise, Bellamy derived a practical guide for the righteous ruler: He could interact with his depraved colleagues and pursue political compromise on matters contrary to the common good because God would ensure that His plan would arise and the wicked plans of sinful politicians would collapse.36 This theory of compromise would enjoy great influence over Oliver Ellsworth, whose social status, like Bellamy’s, suggested that he was disposed towards the New Light.
II. The Righteous Ruler: Ellsworth and the New Light
a. Social Disposition to the New Light
New Light Calvinism did not claim Oliver Ellsworth as a member by birth; the Ellsworth family belonged to the established Congregational Church. 37 Yet Ellsworth’s adherence to New Light doctrines as an adult revealed an obvious departure from the Congregational Church in favor of Edwards’ teachings. Lacking information on his childhood,38 Ellsworth’s biographers gloss over his early religious training and begin discussion of his theological education with his apprenticeship to Joseph Bellamy during his teens. This perfunctory evaluation ignores an important question; why did Oliver Ellsworth leave the established Congregational Church in favor of the New Light movement?
The cause for such abandonment in favor of the New Light movement might lie in social factors; perhaps the working classes found a particular tenet of New Light Calvinism more palatable than the pertinent teaching of the Congregation. Bellamy’s Yale experience suggested that, regardless of whether social factors in fact caused one to pursue the New Light movement, social status and academic or disciplinary struggles while at Yale provided somewhat reliable indications of a Yale undergraduate’s religious proclivities. Comparing Ellsworth’s social status and education with Bellamy’s may therefore begin to suggest an answer why Ellsworth abandoned the Congregational Church in favor of New Light Calvinism.
While raised in the established Congregational Church of the tiny village of North Windsor, Connecticut, Oliver Ellsworth’s social stature and upbringing arguably made him, like Joseph Bellamy, a natural candidate for recruitment into the New Light movement. His family worked for a living and while never impoverished or wanting, nonetheless enjoyed neither great social connection nor wealth. Oliver’s grandfather Jonathan39 oversaw the family farm while also running a tavern and general store; his father David served as a Captain in the Spanish-American War and farmed the family homestead upon his return.40 Growing up on the farm, Ellsworth knew only simple, frugal living; life consisted of humble food, simple amusement, and hard work.41
Scholarship on Ellsworth’s upbringing and early adulthood reveals little besides that discussed above;42 yet the limited information available supports an inference that Ellsworth would find himself, in light of the theological tendencies of the socially polarized, middle 18th century, Yale undergraduate population, receptive to the New Light movement. His upbringing and social status suggest that Ellsworth would follow the trend of similarly situated Yale undergraduates, like Joseph Bellamy, and become a New Light. Comparing the social status of the Ellsworth family with that of the Bellamy family, both introduced supra, suggests that Ellsworth’s social status and difficulties while at Yale would, like they did for Joseph Bellamy, serve as indicators of Ellsworth’s likely gravitation towards the New Light.
Both Ellsworth and Bellamy grew up in remote communities; Ellsworth in the “little river” farming town of North Windsor,43 Bellamy along Connecticut’s western frontier.44 Further both descended from working class families; Ellsworth’s grandfather farmed and ran a tavern while his father enjoyed first a successful military career and then a successful life as a farmer. Bellamy’s grandfather, Matthew Sr., first taught school in New Haven, although following various indiscretions, removed himself and his family to the small community of Killingworth, Connecticut.45 There the Bellamy family subsisted off of Matthew’s meager savings, perhaps supplemented by income from the occasional job at sea.46 Bellamy’s father, like Ellsworth’s grandfather, ran a tavern.47
Presumably already at least indoctrinated in the New Light theology following his apprenticeship under Bellamy, Ellsworth even, at first,48 followed his tutor’s educational path, matriculating to Yale to study theology in 1762.49 Ellsworth, like Bellamy, struggled mightily while at Yale; his difficulties though, unlike Bellamy’s, did not reflect any academic deficiencies; Ellsworth showed considerable intellectual promise.50 Rather his struggles at Yale stemmed from adolescent rambunctiousness, and ultimately led to his withdrawal in 1764.51
While there Ellsworth encountered a Yale seminary suffering under the arbitrariness of Thomas Clap’s52 waning presidency;53 the seminary no longer enjoyed a reputation for training exceptional preachers, the once esteemed “nursery of piety” now enjoyed only marginal utility as center for the study of language and classic theological literature.54 Yet despite this academic deterioration, the institutionalized class distinctions of Bellamy’s time persisted during Ellsworth’s studies as a series of Old Light Calvinist presidents preserved the status quo for the remainder of the century.55
The death of Jonathan Edwards’ in 1758 precipitated a religious fervor and led to a rapid increase in New Light preachers. Many of these new preachers graduated from Yale, suggesting that, by Ellsworth’s matriculation in 1762, the New Light movement counted even more undergraduate students at Yale than it had during Bellamy’s time.56 If the general rule of New Light apportionment according to social status and struggle that operated during Bellamy’s time at Yale persisted until Ellsworth’s time, it stands to reason that Ellsworth’s social status and difficulties would at least indicate his tendency towards the New Light.
As a politician socially disposed towards the New Light movement, Ellsworth would embrace Bellamy’s notion of the righteous ruler and work for the common good as the proper way of fulfilling his duty to love his neighbor.
c. Training in Calvinist Theology
While he enjoyed some formal training in the central tenets of New Light Calvinism during his time with Bellamy as a teenager, the bulk of Ellsworth’s religious instruction came through devout personal study and regular attendance at New Light religious services.57 He presided over daily prayer meetings in his home and attended almost 7,000 sermons over his lifetime.58
As a devoted student of New Light theology as well as a politician, Ellsworth thoroughly studied, and applied, the New Light theology of political office embodied in the idea of the righteous ruler. He believed that the inherent depravity of human beings impeded them from forming a virtuous government.59 Only men ever conscious of their duty to love God above all things and to love their neighbors as themselves could form a just government that would pursue the common good.60 These righteous rulers understood their grave charge; they not only answered to the electorate, they answered before the throne of Almighty God.61
Ellsworth’s understanding and application of the righteous ruler doctrine proceeded from New Light teachings on the inherent depravity of man. While God’s will would unfold regardless of man’s sinful actions,62 depraved politicians nonetheless pursued their own selfish desires rather than work towards the common good. Writing to a Connecticut newspaper to urge ratification of the 1787 Constitution, Ellsworth articulated this principle when he described opponents of the Constitution as self-centered men seeking personal gain:
But in the present case, men who have lucrative and influential state offices, if they act from principles of self-interest, will be tempted to oppose an alteration, which would doubtless be beneficial to the people. Believe not those who insinuate that this is a scheme of great men to grasp more power. The temptation is on the other side. Those in great offices never wish to hazard their place by such a change.63
Faced with the inability of depraved men to constitute a government ordered towards the common good, Ellsworth believed that only rulers who understood the awesome weight of making satisfaction before God on the duty to love one’s neighbor as oneself could create good government.64 The duty required a professional as well as personal commitment to love of neighbor; God charged the righteous ruler to provide “good laws – in distributing impartial justice to the rich and poor – in protecting all in their rights and guarding the common interest and safety.”65 Addressing himself “To the Rhode Island Friends of Paper Money, Tender Acts and Anti-Federalism,” Ellsworth wrote of the righteous ruler’s desire for justice and the need for virtue in public office:
Experiments in public credit, though ruinous to thousands, and a disregard to the promises of government had been pardoned in the moment of extreme necessity, and many honest men did not realize that a repetition of them in an hour less critical would shake the existence of society. Men full of evil and desperate fortune were ready to propose every method of public fraud. But your system we see unrighteousness in the essence, in effects, and in its native miseries. There are among you legislators eminent, through the union for their wisdom and integrity. Penetrated with grief and astonishment they stand in silence, waiting for the return of your reason.66
Ellsworth knew that as a righteous ruler, he, despite his desire for justice, faced a major impediment in his pursuit of the common good. Entering into the public arena, he would encounter many un-righteous rulers whose depravity compelled them to work not for the common good, but rather for selfish interests. Nonetheless, as one of Ellsworth’s ministers preached, “human nature must be taken by the civil governor as he finds it.”67 Forced to deal with the depravity of his fellow politicians, Ellsworth believed that the righteous ruler might licitly seek compromise with his selfish colleagues because God’s plan would unfold regardless.68 So long as the righteous ruler generally advanced the common good, he could compromise his principles.69 Human selfishness could not impede God’s work.
III. A Compromising Calvinist
a. Politics and the Divine Plan
Ellsworth found in the unfailing will of God the theological foundation to permit the righteous ruler to compromise in the political realm. Human events unfolded in a perfect, predestined plan conceived by God to create the best of all possible worlds.70 Sin, brought about by the inherent depravity of man, therefore played a role in God’s plan and would be righted in the end.71 Men, of course, could not comprehend this plan; it was “as absolutely incomprehensible by us as it is by children of four years old.”72
By extending the principle that God’s providence ensured that everything turned out all right in the end to the political sphere, Ellsworth employed a New Light theology of political action that permitted the righteous ruler to seek compromise with his depraved colleagues. Compromise succeeded or failed according to God’s will and any injustice that stemmed from such compromise occupied a role in God’s unknowable plan. Writing to his son-in-law on the bitter rivalry between the Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans, Ellsworth expressed this belief: “[I] am satisfied in the meantime that God governs the world, and will turn all the wrath and folly of men to good account.”73
In his own political endeavors Ellsworth sought compromise in an effort to bring about some advancement of the common good. This compromise often required him to, in the name of benevolent governance and the furtherance of justice, acquiesce to political positions he detested. The first prominent example of Ellsworth’s willingness to apply the compromise doctrine to the political realm occurred when concerned New Light ministers wrote him during the early stages of the Revolutionary War. They sought his advice on the theological disaster that might occur should the Protestant colonies ally themselves with Catholic France. Since such an alliance would likely result in the spread of Catholicism, an unfathomable catastrophe, could the righteous ruler, charged with pursuing the common good, licitly support the French alliance?
b. The Alliance with Catholic France
Eighteenth century New Light circles regarded Roman Catholicism as the tool of Satan and believed that the Pope was the anti-Christ.74 A 1774 New Light pamphlet stated “Popery [is not a religion] it is rather a conspiracy against it the Pope being in Truth the Vice-Regent of the Devil.”75 Catholic France was more than just a theologically wayward country, it was “an urban Hell presided over by aristocratic, Roman-Catholic devils leisurely dabbling in magical lore.”76
An alliance with Catholic France might serve military goals, but it would come at a substantial cost – the spread of Roman Catholicism to the Protestant colonies. Many prominent colonists still carried memories of ancestors who suffered in Catholic France. These colonists were further taught from a young age (and believed) that France was the only impediment to Anglo-America world domination:
Leading statesmen like John Adams and John Jay were taught to hate the French from their early childhood. Adams said in 1755 that the only obstacle which prevented Anglo-Americans from ruling the world was the French. Jay learned French easily and early in a grammar school kept by a Huguenot. In Jay, old Huguenot blood ran hotly, thrilling him with the memories of his great-grandfather Pierre Jay driven from La Rochelle; of his grandmother Anna Maria Bayard seeking refuge in Holland from the long arm of the papacy. The power of the church of Rome he knew and feared. He did not like France, nor the French whom he despised as Catholics, papists.77
Some colonists who despised France’s Catholicism and feared its spread took up arms against the colonies following the Treaty of Alliance. Tory loyalists, already frustrated by Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October, 1777, grew desperate when the colonies entered into the Treaty of Alliance with France in February of 1778. Wondering how the colonies could align themselves with a Catholic nation and fearing the French would ruin America78 some Tories sought to defeat their hereditary enemy by enlisting in the British ranks or establishing their own mercenary armies.79
While not violent, New Light preachers offered their congregations mixed responses to the alliance. Many clergy appreciated the substantial military advantage the alliance created for the colonies and, despite their disdain for “popery,” reined in their virulent anti-catholic sentiment.80 This temperance ultimately stemmed from their New Light faith in the unfolding of the divine will; the Revolution was the “accomplishment of magnalia dei – the great events – designed from eternal ages to be displayed in these ends of the earth.”81 The alliance with Catholic France might promote Catholicism, but was nonetheless part of God’s incomprehensible plan for the world.
Yet some of the New Light clergy held deep reservations about the alliance because, despite whatever military advantage the alliance afforded the colonies, the French alliance would likely result in the spread of Catholicism. Ellsworth’s own minister even wrote him, expressing general dissatisfaction with the world’s moral state and particular concern that the alliance would promote Catholicism.82 Ellsworth would have been sympathetic to such concerns; his contempt for Catholicism regularly surfaced in his writings, where he spoke of Catholicism as “popery” and “superstition”83 and suggested that opponents to the Constitution, such as Tory loyalists, were no better than deceitful priests performing an exorcism on an imaginary demon:
I can foresee that several classes of men will try to alarm your fears, and however selfish their motives, we may expect that liberty, the encroachments of power, and the inestimable privileges of dear posterity will with them be fruitful topicks [sic] of argument. As holy scripture is used in the exorcisms of Romish priests to expel imaginary demons; so the most sacred words will be conjured together to oppose evils which have no existence in the new constitution. The first to oppose a federal government will be the old friends Great Britain, who in their hearts cursed the prosperity of your arms, and have ever since delighted in the perplexity of your councils. Many of these men are still among us, and for several years their hopes of a reunion with Britain have been high.84
Despite his misgivings, Ellsworth counseled patience with the French alliance; whatever evils might stem from the spread of Catholicism were still ultimately part of God’s plan and would be righted in the end. The Catholic alliance might offend every New Light sensibility, but was nonetheless acceptable because it could not interfere with the unfolding of God’s plan. Responding to his pastor, Ellsworth presented himself as a patient, yet confused, observer of the proposed treaty:
I am waiting, Sir, as well as you, tho’ perhaps with less concern and more doubt, to see how the great events now taking place in the world will affect the moral state of it. [I do not know] the design of providence in this respect. But it is sufficient, dear Sir, that God governs the world, and that his purpose of Grace will be accomplished.85
Compromise permitted Ellsworth, as a righteous ruler, to suffer the alliance with Catholic France because of the military advantages it afforded the colonies during the Revolution. The alliance offended New Light notions of proper religion; it contributed to the expansion of Roman Catholicism. Yet the New Light righteous ruler could suffer and even promote the alliance because it pursued a great good, military superiority for the colonies during the Revolution, and could not possibly interfere with the unfolding of God’s plan for the world. This principle of compromise, acquiescence to a morally repugnant political arrangement in the belief that God would ordain something greater in the end, would play an important role in Ellsworth’s advocacy at the Constitutional Convention. There he would be forced to sacrifice his New Light convictions to help preserve the Convention and create the Constitution.
1 Allan Nevins, The American States During and After the Revolution 424 (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1924).
2 Nevins at 424-425.
3 Edwin S. Gaustad, Society and the Great Awakening in New England, Vol. 11, No. 4, The William and Mary Quarterly, 566, 567-568 (Oct., 1954).
4 Gaustad at 568.
5 Gaustad at 572, quoting Charles Chauncy.
6 Eugene E. White, Decline of the Great Awakening in New England: 1741 to 1746, Vol. 24, No. 1, The New England Quarterly, 35 (Mar., 1951).
7 White at 37.
8 White at 36.
9 White at 37.
10 White at 36 –37.
11 Mark Valeri, Law and Providence in Joseph Bellamy’s New England: The Origins of the New Divinity in Revolutionary America 12 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
12 Valeria at 13.
13 The ostracism of New Lights at Yale was more than just class segregation perpetrated by the student body, it was an institutional response by the college to the New Light movement. Quite severe, the measures ultimately back-fired when they caused the public to doubt Yale’s ability to train young men for the ministry. In his 1997 article Professor Kling recounted the college’s efforts, particularly under then President Thomas Clap, to eradicate the New Light threat: “New Lights were stymied by the heavy hand of Old Light rule at Yale. Under the imperious President Thomas Clap, Yale instituted measures to snuff out any threat of New Light enthusiasm or censoriousness. And so David Brainard was expelled in 1741 for his refusal to make public confession for an offhanded private comment that his tutor ‘Had not more grace than the chair’ he was leaning on. Three years later the brothers John and Ebenezer Cleaveland were expelled for attending a Separatist meeting while at home with their parents. Such Old Light actions created martyrs to the New Light cause (as Edwards cast Brainerd in his biography), and consequently heightened controversy over Yale’s fitness to train evangelical ministers of the gospel.” David W. Kling, New Divinity Schools of the Prophets, 1750-1825: A Case Study in Ministerial Education, Vol. 37, No. 2, History of Education Quarterly 185, 191 (Summer, 1997).
14 Valeria at 12-13.
15 Valeria at 11.
16 Valeria at 10.
17 Valeria at 10.
18 Valeria at 13.
19 Valeria at 35 n.11, citing to Franklin Bodwitch Dexter, Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College with Annals of the College History 438-620 (New York: Holt, 1885).
20 Valeria at 14.
21 Kling at 197-198.
22 Kling at 199.
23 Mark Valeri, The New Divinity and the American Revolution, Vol. 46, No. 4 The William and Mary Quarterly, 741, 745-746 (Oct., 1989).
24 Valeri, The New Divinity at 745-746.
25 Valeri, The New Divinity at 748.
26 Valeri, The New Divinity at 748.
27 William Frankena, Hutcheson’s Moral Sense Theory, Vol. 16, No. 3, Journal of the History of Ideas, 356, 357 (Jun., 1955).
28 Frankena at 365-366.
29 Alfred Owen Aldridge, A Preview of Hutcheson’s Ethics, Vol. 61, No.3, Modern Language Notes, 153, 155 (Mar., 1946). No emphasis added.
30 Valeri, The New Divinity at 753.
31 Valeri at 142-143.
32 Valeri at 142-143.
33 William R. Casto, Oliver Ellsworth and the Creation of the Federal Republic 22-23 (New York: Second Circuit Committee on History and Commemorative Events, 1997).
34 Casto (1997) at 23.
35 Casto (1997) at 23.
36 Casto (1997) at 26.
37 William Garrott Brown, The Early Life of Oliver Ellsworth, Vol. 10, No.3., The American Historical Review, 534, 539 (Apr., 1905).
38 William Garrott Brown, Life of Oliver Ellsworth 12 (London: The MacMillan Company, 1905).
39 A family Bible belonging to Ellsworth records his grandfather’s name as “David”, though. Perhaps simply a slip of the pen, placing his father’s name in the position reserved for his grandfather. Brown (1905) at 10 n. 3.
40 Brown (1905) at 10-11.
41 Brown, citing to an obscure manuscript recovered in the effects of Oliver’s son, Oliver Jr., writes that Oliver “told his son that when he was a boy there was but one carriage in Windsor, and most people ate their food from wooden trenchers; that the life was hard, and manners simple to coarseness.” Brown (1905) at 12 n.1.
42 Brown (1905) at 12.
43 Brown (1905) at 9.
44 Valeri (1994) at 10.
45 Valeri (1994) at 10.
46 Joseph’s grandfather, Matthew Sr., was presumed lost at sea in the late 1680’s. Valeri (1994) at 10.
47 Supra page 6.
48 Ellsworth eventually completed his undergraduate studies at Princeton. Brown, Early Life at 544.
49 Brown, Early Life at 541.
50 Brown (1905) at 12.
51 Brown cites two instances of Ellsworth’s misconduct while at Yale. The faculty records reveal that Ellsworth, in 1763, conspired with other undergraduates to “scrape and clean the college yard”. The group “presently after evening Prayers on Thursday last put on their Hats and run and Hallooed in the College Yard in contempt of the Law of the College.” The college fined Ellsworth one shilling. Brown (1905) at 15-16. In 1764, prior to his withdrawal, Ellsworth suffered a fine of four shillings for his presence at a gathering that included “a general treat or compotation of wine both common and spiced in and by the sophomore class.” Brown, Early Life at 543.
52 Clap apparently “regarded Yale as the dike keeping Connecticut orthodoxy from being inundated by the eighteenth century and himself as a sort of theological Hans Brinker.” James Edward Scanlon, American College Presidents in the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 11, No. 1, History of Education Quarterly, 72, 73 (Spring, 1971).
53 Brown, Early Life at 541.
54 Kling at 192.
55 Thomas Clap remained president of Yale until 1766. Naphtali Daggett succeeded him as president and served until 1777, when Ezra Stiles assumed the office, which he held until 1795. Kling at 192.
56 Kling at 192-193.
57 Casto (1997) at 19.
58 The sermons amounted to almost 15,000 hours of instruction. Casto (1997) at 19. For comparative purposes, a law student carrying fifteen credit hours over a 28 week school year attends 1,260 hours (15 hours x 28 weeks x 3 years) of classroom instruction in all.
59 William R. Casto, Oliver Ellsworth’s Calvinism: a Biographical Essay on Religion and Political Psychology in the Early Republic, 36 J. Church & St. 507, 512 (1994) .
61 A fellow New Light preacher, as well as Ellsworth’s friend and neighbor, Joseph Perry succinctly preached the gravity of the righteous ruler’s duty during his 1775 election sermon: “Other principles, such as honor, public spirit, natural benevolence, and ambition, it is true, in some instances have influenced men to do many worthy deeds for the happiness of the community they stood related to. But such are not so sure, nor do they bind in the same way, nor to the same degree, as principles of religious virtue. The good man has his mind impressed with a sense of future invisible objects, he lives and acts under a sense of the omniscient eye of God, remembers the solemn account we must give and the reward he shall receive for his conduct.” Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 512-513.
62 Casto (1997) at 28.
63 Oliver Ellsworth, The Landholder II, in Essays on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People 1787-1788 145 (Paul Leicester Ford, Ed., Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1892).
64 Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 512.
65 A Summary of Christian Doctrine ch. XIX-XX (The Missionary Society of Connecticut, 1804) reprinted in part in Casto (1997) at 23. Ellsworth contributed to the preparation of the Summary.
66 Ellsworth, The Landholder XII, in Essays on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People 1787-1788 197-199 (Paul Leicester Ford, Ed., Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1892).
67 Casto (1997) at 24.
68 Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 519.
69 Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 519.
70 Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 517.
71 Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 517.
72 Joseph Bellamy, The Wisdom of God in the Permission of Sin (1758). Reprinted in Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 517.
73 Oliver Ellsworth to Ezekiel Williams, Jr., 29 May 1796, reprinted in Casto, Ellsworth’s Calvinism at 520.
74 Casto (1997) at 26.
75 Casto (1997) at 26.
76 Charles L. Sanford, Classics of American Reform Literature, Vol. 10, No. 3, American Quarterly, 295, 296 (Autumn, 1958).
77 Maurice Ross, Teaching the Reasons for France’s Participation in the American Revolution, Vol. 36, No. 5, The French Review, 491, 495-496 (Apr., 1963).
78 Ross at 495.
79 Ross at 495.
80 Casto (1997) at 26.
81 Melvin B. Endy, Jr., Just War, Holy War, and Millennialism in Revolutionary America, Vol. 42, No. 1, The William and Mary Quarterly, 3, 4 (Jan., 1985).
82 Casto (1997) at 26.
83 Casto (1997) at 26.
84 Oliver Ellsworth, The Landholder II, in Essays on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People 1787-1788 143 (Paul Leicester Ford, Ed., Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1892).
85 Casto (1997) at 26.