Contracts fairly entered into by parties competent to make and consummate them should be sacredly fulfilled in the minutest particulars. Individuals and social compacts from the common business firm up to the most exalted national engagements are bound by the laws of God, man and honor to keep inviolate their plighted faith. A deviation from the path of rectitude in this particular is uniformly attended with evil consequences and often with those most disastrous. The party that violates its obligations without a justifiable reason and especially if it attempts to advance its own interests regardless of, perhaps injurious to those of the other, comes to court with a bad cause. I have repeatedly remarked that the American Revolution resulted from a violation of colonial chartered rights by the mother country. To enter into a full exposition of the relations between the two high contracting parties would require more space than can be allowed in this work. Reference to some of the cardinal points in a single charter will give the reader a clue to them all. Some of a later date are rather more limited in privileges than that of Rhode Island to which I refer.
This charter secured religious freedom, personal liberty, personal rights in property--excluding the king from all interference with the local concerns of the colony and was virtually republican in its provisions. One of the early Acts of Parliament referring to Rhode Island contains the following language. "That no person within the said colony at any time hereafter shall be in any way molested, punished, disquieted or called in question for any difference of opinion in matters of religion that does not actually disturb the civil peace of said colony." The loyalty of the inhabitants up to the time oppressions commenced was unquestionable. The ancient records give full evidence of the fact. The addresses to the king begin thus. "The general Assembly judged it their duty to signify his majesty's gracious pleasure vouchsafed to us." Extract of a letter written to Sir Henry Vane in England. "We have long drunk of the cup of as great liberties as any people we can hear of under the whole heavens. We have not only been long free, together with all English, from the yokes of wolfish bishops and their popish ceremonies against whose grievous oppressions God raised up your noble spirit in parliament but we have sitten down quiet and dry from the streams of blood spilt by war in our native country. We have not known what an excise means. We have almost forgotten what tythes are, yea or taxes either to church or common weal."
In addition to other declaratory acts of Parliament sanctioning and continuing chartered privileges generally in all the colonies, one was passed in March 1663, involving the very hinge upon which the question of the Revolution turned. Extract--"Be it further enacted--_That no taxes shall be imposed or required of the colonies but by the consent of the General Assembly_"--meaning the General Assembly of each colony separably and including the whole. This single sentence of that declaratory act, based upon a cardinal point in the British constitution and guarded by the sanctity of charter contracts that could not be annulled but by the mutual consent of the high contracting parties, solves the problem of the Revolution. Having lived in the full enjoyment of chartered privileges which had become matured by the age of more than a century, the colonists would have been unworthy the name of men had they tamely submitted to their annihilation. To the unfading honor of their names--_they did not submit_. A band of sages and heroes rose in all the majesty of man--met the invaders of their rights and drove them from Columbia's soil.
Among them was William Ellery, born at Newport Rhode Island on the 2d of December 1727. His ancestors were from Bristol, England. He was the son of William Ellery a graduate of Harvard College and an enterprising merchant. He filled many public stations and became one of the first men in the colony. Pleased with the docility of his son he became his instructor and prepared him for college. He entered Harvard and became a close and successful student. He was delighted with the classics and was enraptured with the history of the ancient republics. So great was his veneration for ancient authors that he continued his familiarity with them to the moment of his death. He was one of the most lucid classic philologists of that age. He graduated at twenty and commenced the study of law. In that ever expanding field of labor he was all industry and was admitted to the bar with brilliant prospects before him. Located in one of the most delightful towns on the Atlantic, surrounded by a large circle of friends who desired his success, blessed with superior talents improved by a refined education, esteemed by all who knew him--his situation was truly agreeable. He possessed an amiable disposition, a strong mind, a large share of wit and humor, polished manners and a vivid animation in conversation that dispelled ennui from every circle in which he moved. With these accomplishments he spread his sails to the public breeze.
He commenced a successful practice at the bar of Newport and realized the fond anticipations of his friends. He was highly honorable in his course and had the confidence of the citizens, the respect of his professional brethren and the esteem of the courts. To make more complete his standing and importance in community he entered into partnership with a most estimable lady until death should them part. The firm proved prosperous and happy. Up to the time British oppression commenced, his days passed peacefully and quietly along with an accumulating fortune flowing in. When the revolutionary storm loomed up from the horizon he became roused. A new impetus was given to his mental and physical powers. His townsmen were the first who had dared to beard the British lion. On the 17th of June 1769, in consequence of the oppressive conduct of her captain, the revenue sloop Liberty belonging to his Britannic majesty was forcibly seized by a number of citizens in disguise who cut away her masts, scuttled her, carried her boats to the upper part of the town and committed them to the flames under the towering branches of a newly planted LIBERTY TREE. This act was followed by another on the 9th of June 1772 in which blood was shed--that of seizing and burning the British schooner Gaspee. This was made a pretext for more severe measures by the hirelings of the crown who recommended to Parliament the disfranchisement of the colony. The revolutionary ball was in motion at Newport. In the midst of these turmoils Mr. Ellery was with the people and for freedom. He went for the preservation of rights that had become sacred and venerable by age and had the high sanction of the laws of man, of nature and of God. In 1774 he approved a suggestion made in a letter from Gen. Greene--_that the colonies should declare themselves independent_. This spirit took fast hold on the people of Rhode Island at the very inception of the Revolution.
In 1776 Mr. Ellery was elected to the Continental Congress. His constituents left him to act free as mountain air. He stood up to the post of duty boldly and became an active member. He was fully prepared to advocate and sanction the Declaration of Independence. An agreeable speaker, master of satire, sarcasm, logic and philosophy--he exercised a salutary and judicious influence. He was appointed on several important committees and rendered efficient service. Upon the marine committee he was the leading man. He was a strong advocate for the navy. Many of his constituents were bold mariners. He felt a just pride in referring to his fellow citizen--Commodore Ezek Hopkins, as the first commander of the little fleet of the infant republic. It was he who took New Providence by surprise--seized a large amount of war munitions amongst which were one hundred pieces of cannon--took the royal Governor, Lieutenant Governor and sundry others of his majesty's officers prisoners and gave an earnest of the future glory to be achieved by Yankee seamen.
When the time arrived for the final question upon the momentous instrument that was to be a warrant of death or the diploma of freedom, Mr. Ellery was at his post and fearlessly gave it his approving vote and sanctioning signature. With his usual vivacity he took his stand by the side of the Secretary, Charles Thomson, for the purpose of observing the apparent emotions of each member as he came up and signed the important document. He often referred to this circumstance in after life and said an undaunted resolution was observed on every countenance. He was continued a member of Congress until 1785--full evidence of the high estimation in which he was held by his constituents. In 1777 he was upon the committee that originated the plan of fitting out seven fire ships to annoy the British fleet and had the credit of suggesting and perfecting it.
When the enemy obtained possession of Newport their vengeance against this noble patriot was manifested by burning all his property within their reach. This did not move the equanimity of his mind only to make him more zealous in the glorious cause of liberty. In 1778 he strongly advocated a resolution making it death for any citizen--_alias_ tory who should betray or aid in delivering into the hands of the enemy any of the adherents of the cause of freedom or give any intelligence that should lead to their capture. He spent nearly his whole time in Congress and toiled incessantly. In 1779 he was on the committee of foreign relations which had the settlement of some very unpleasant difficulties between the United States and the foreign commissioners. He was chairman of a committee to provide provisions for the inhabitants of Rhode Island who were destitute of the necessaries of life. From year to year he was arduously employed on most of the standing and many other important committees. Marine difficulties occurred between the general government and some of the states arising from a difference of opinion relative to the powers conferred by the Articles of Confederation. A committee was appointed to define those powers of which Mr. Ellery was the leading member. This committee determined that all disputed claims were subject to appeal from the Court of Admiralty to Congress where the facts and law were to be fully settled. On all occasions and in all situations he was diligent and punctual. When he discovered any long faces or forlorn countenances in Congress the artillery of his wit and humor was sure to pour a broadside upon them and often dispelled the lowering clouds that hung gloomily over the minds of members.
In 1782 he was an efficient member of the committee on public accounts the duties of which were large and perplexing. Speculation and peculation had rolled their dark waves over the public business of the nation--to do justice to all who presented claims was a problematical matter. In 1784 he was upon the committee to act upon the definitive treaty with Great Britain. He was upon the committee to define the power of the Treasury Board--the one upon Foreign Relations and the one upon the War Office. To crown his brilliant labors in Congress with resplendent glory, he advocated the resolution of Mr. King to abolish slavery in the United States. His whole force was brought to bear upon this subject in a strain of forensic eloquence and powerful logic that added fresh lustre to the substantial fame he had long enjoyed. _Then_ the subject was legitimate for Congress--_now_ it belongs to each state interested.
In 1785 Mr. Ellery retired from political life and repaired to his now peaceful home to replenish his ruined fortune and enjoy the blessings of the Independence he had so much aided in consummating. In the spring of 1786 Congress made him commissioner of the National Loan Office for Rhode Island. Shortly after he was elected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of his native state. On his accession to the Presidential chair, Washington appointed him Collector of Customs for Newport which station he ably filled until he took his tranquil departure to a brighter world. The evening of his life was as calm and mellow as an Italian sunset. Universally esteemed--he enjoyed a delightful intercourse with a large circle of friends. Honest, punctual and correct--he had the confidence of the commercial community in his official station. During the thirty years he was Collector of Customs, a loss of only two hundred dollars upon bond accrued to government and upon that bond he had taken five sureties. He spent much of his time in reading classic authors and in corresponding with eminent men. But three weeks before his death he wrote an essay upon Latin prosody and the faults of public speakers. His bible was a favorite companion from which he drew and drank the living waters of eternal life. Always cheerful, instructive and amusing--his company was a rich treat to all who enjoyed it. His writings combined a sprightliness and solidity rarely found.
His death was as remarkable as it was tranquil and glorious. It was that of a Christian and philosopher. On the morning of the 15th of February 1820 he rose in usual health and seated himself in the flag-bottom chair which he had used for fifty years and which was a relic rescued from the flames when the enemy fired his buildings. He commenced reading Tully's _Officiis_ in his favorite Latin without the aid of glasses the print being no larger than that of a pocket bible. During the morning the family physician called in and seeing him very pale felt his wrist and found his pulse had ceased. He administered a little wine which gave a transient impetus to the purple current. The physician spoke encouragingly to whom Mr. Ellery replied--"It is idle to talk to me in this way. I am going off the stage of life and it is a great blessing that I go free from sickness, pain and sorrow." Becoming extremely weak his daughter helped him on the bed where he sat upright and commenced reading _Cicero de Officiis_ with the same composure as if in the full vigor of life. In a few moments his spirit left its tenement of clay without a motion, groan or sigh--his body still erect with the book under his chin as if asleep. William Ellery was dead--relations and friends wept--our nation mourned.
Thus usefully lived and happily died one of the brightest specimens of human excellence. His whole career presents a rare and rich picture upon which the imagination may feast, with increasing delight and which cannot be rendered more beautiful or interesting by the finest touches of the pencil of fancy dipped in the most brilliant color of romance. He was of the middle stature, well formed, with a large head; an intelligent and expressive countenance, moderate in his physical movements and with all his vivacity generally had a grave aspect. He was temperate, plain and uniform in his habits and dress and could seldom be induced to join in chase after the _ignis fatuus_--FASHION. For many years before his death his wardrobe was of an order belonging to a by-gone generation. His courtesy and hospitality were always conspicuous--the whole frame-work of his character was embellished with all the rich varieties of amiable and good qualities--uniting beauty with strength which ever gain esteem in life and tranquillity in death. Reader contemplate this bright picture until its impress is so deeply fixed upon your mind that nought but death can erase it.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.