Oliver Ellsworth's New Light Theology - Page 2

A Compromising Calvinist and His Position on Slavery at the Constitutional Convention of 1787

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IV. Compromise at the Convention

At the Convention Ellsworth faced a significant moral dilemma: He could urge the Convention towards the abolition of the depraved institution of slavery and affirm the dignity of the slave, both dangerous propositions that threatened to destroy the Convention. His other option, acquiescence to the Southern states on these points would preserve the Convention but would compromise his New Light beliefs on slavery. Like he urged those who sought his advice on the French alliance to do, Ellsworth employed the doctrine of compromise to resolve this dilemma.

a. What Should a Convention Era New Light Believe About Slavery

Convention era New Light theology on the impropriety of slavery and its role in the divine plan developed out of the theological foundations of Edwards' New Light movement. Edwards, who owned slaves himself, condoned slave ownership but did not wholeheartedly defend the peculiar institution.86 He believed slavery ultimately fit into God's plan, although he found slavery and the slave trade, as practiced in the colonies, inequitable and disturbing.87 By the time of the Convention New Light preachers developed two distinct schools of thought on slavery; both lamented slavery as a great evil, but while the preaching of Jonathan Edwards Jr., extended his father's ideas and taught that men ought to accept slavery as God's method of Christianizing Africa, the preaching of Samuel Hopkins condemned slavery outright.88

Jonathan Edwards (Sr.) distinguished between justly owning slaves and the immorality of slavery and the slave trade as practiced in the colonies. One might purchase a war captive, a debtor, or the child of a slave and place them into a state of slavery.89 So long as the slave owner purchased the slave "in a way of valuable consideration" then he suffered no moral failure. Edwards believed that Leviticus 25:44-46 permitted the Israelites to purchase, but not steal, "children of the strangers that do sojourn among you."90 However slavery, as practiced in the colonies, led to the indecent treatment of the slave and was therefore unjust; morally licit slavery required the slave owner to treat the slave decently.91 Edwards taught that the evil of institutional slavery in the colonies "was a necessary evil that served some positive good in the natural order that God had decreed."92

A generation later, around the time of the Convention, New Light preachers developed two distinct schools of thought on the tolerability of slavery. Jonathan Edwards Jr. extended his father's teachings on slavery as "a necessary evil." In the junior Edwards' view "God had designed the enslavement of black men and women as a means of Christianizing ‘Ethiopia' through the expatriation of converted black Americans to Africa."93 God's plan for Christianizing the world required grudging acceptance of slavery and its evils.

In contrast to this view, Samuel Hopkins, who around 1740 converted to the New Light movement while an undergraduate student at Yale,94 developed from the mandate of love of neighbor as self a doctrine of unequivocal human equality that absolutely forbade slavery as contrary to God's will.95 With absolute faith in the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal," Hopkins utilized the Declaration of Independence to preach that slaves were "as much included in these assertions as ourselves."96 If all men were created equal then it followed, for Hopkins, that slaves were neighbors in the fullest sense of the term and deserved the love God commanded all men to give their neighbors:

If we practiced that ‘benevolence which loves our neighbor as ourselves, as is agreeable in truth and righteousness, we should begin to feel towards them, [negroes] in some measure, at least, as we should towards our children and neighbors.'97

This theology, far more critical of slavery than either of the Edwards's theologies, led Hopkins to the conclusion that "slavery was contrary to God's will and therefore sinful, and Negroes and whites were equal as members of the human race." Hopkins believed that Congress must give "universal liberty to white and black."98 The scant evidence available about Ellsworth's personal thoughts on slavery suggest that he likely subscribed to Hopkins' teachings and believed that the colonies ought to abolish slavery, a wholly evil institution.

b. What Ellsworth Believed as a Private Individual

In The Landholder VI, Ellsworth, responding to a recent newspaper article by Colonel Mason, wrote of the evils of slavery, the humanity of the slaves, and of the need to abolish the institution:

Col. Mason may suppose it more humane to breed than import slaves – those imported having been bred and born free, may not so tamely bear slavery as those born slaves, and from their infancy inured to it; but his objections are not on the side of freedom, nor in compassion to the human race who are slaves, but that such importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of defence. To this I readily agree, and all good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves.99

Ellsworth's August 22nd discussion of slavery while at Convention also revealed that he never owned a slave and that he desired to abolish slavery outright:

[Mr. Ellsworth] As he had never owned a slave could not judge on the effects of slavery on character: He said however that if it was to be considered in a moral light we ought to go farther and free those already in the Country.100

However, despite his personal conviction that the colonies ought to abolish slavery, Ellsworth pursued a much softer position at the Convention.

c. What Ellsworth Did at the Convention

Ellsworth's advocacy at the Convention seemed contrary to his personal convictions that slavery was evil and contrary to the will of God. During the Convention he supported the three-fifths rule to calculate population for taxation purposes and he argued that the states ought to decide for themselves whether to permit or abolish slavery.

On Thursday, July 12th, discussing a motion of Gouverneur Morris to include in the census clause on the floor "a proviso that taxation shall be in proportion to representation," Ellsworth moved, in order to preserve the principle of taxation according to representation, to insert an additional clause that calculated taxation according to the three-fifths rule that the Convention debated applying to the census the prior day.

[Mr. Ellsworth] In order to carry into effect the principle established, moved to add to the last clause adopted by the House the words following "and that the rule of contribution by direct taxation for the support of the Government of the U. States shall be the number of white inhabitants, and three fifths of every other description in the several States, until some other rule that shall more accurately ascertain the wealth of the several States can be devised and adopted by the Legislature.101

The only other times that Ellsworth spoke of slavery during the Convention occurred on Tuesday, August 21st and Wednesday, August 22nd during argument over the merits of article VII (VI), section 4 of the August 6th draft. The Convention, on the motion of Luther Martin, took up whether the article should permit Congress to enact either a tax or a ban on the importation of slaves.102 On the 21st Ellsworth advocated a local morality, arguing that decisions on the importing of slaves and the morality of slavery were best left to the individual states: "[Mr. Ellsworth] was for leaving the clause as it stands, let every State import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the States themselves."103

On Wednesday, August 22nd Ellsworth revealed his personal opinion that the Convention ought to recommend abolishing slavery, but did not move the Convention to do such. He spoke of the need to placate South Carolina and Georgia and of his belief that slavery would, presumably in accord with God's plan, soon disappear in the United States:

[Mr. Ellsworth] He said however that if it was to be considered in a moral light we ought to go farther and free those already in the Country. – As slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia & Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps foreign supplies are necessary, if we go no farther than is urged, we shall be unjust towards S. Carolina & Georgia. Let us not intermeddle. As population increases poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country.104

At the Convention Ellsworth publicly supported positions on slavery contrary to the beliefs that he, as a New Light, privately held. In Landowner VI Ellsworth spoke of the humanity of slaves, the evils of slavery, and of the need to abolish slavery, a position he re-iterated in Convention on August 22nd. Yet at the Convention he supported adding clauses to the Constitution that would treat slaves as only three-fifths of a person and refused to move the Convention to consider the abolition of slavery. This tension between his political advocacy at the Convention and his personal beliefs demands resolution.

V. Why Ellsworth Went Soft on Slavery at the Convention

Sensitive to slavery's economic importance in certain states, Ellsworth understood that should the Convention fail to adopt the three-fifths provision or should it permit the federal government to tax or prohibit the importation of slaves, several states might withdraw and the Convention might fail to produce a Constitution. Knowing that only compromise on the issue could keep the Convention from dissolving, Ellsworth abandoned his personal positions on slavery. For this righteous ruler "The practical question [became] merely how much should be conceded in order to keep Georgia and the Carolinas in the Union."105

Ellsworth's compromise on slavery helped to preserve the Convention in the face of threats by North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to refuse to confederate. For example, on July 12th William Davie, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke of North Carolina's unwillingness to confederate if the three-fifths clause failed:

[Mr. Davie] said it was high time now to speak out. He saw that it was meant by some gentlemen to deprive the Southern States of any share of Representation for their blacks. He was sure that N. Carola. would never confederate on any terms that did not rate them at least as 3/5 . If the Eastern States meant therefore to exclude them altogether the business was at an end.107

Considering only North Carolina's interests on the issue, rather than the good of the collective states, Davie's selfishness could have seriously hampered the Convention's efforts. Ellsworth understood that any state withdrawing from the convention could prevent the great good that a federal constitution might accomplish for the rest of the states.108 To placate the selfish Mr. Davie and advance the interests the several states had in preserving the Convention, Ellsworth compromised his personal beliefs on the humanity of slaves and supported the sub-human, three-fifths position.

On August 21st, South Carolina indicated that it would not ratify the Constitution if the Convention permitted the federal government to levy a tax or prohibit the importation of slaves. Though he spoke optimistically about the possibility that South Carolina might abrogate the importation of slaves on its own, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney nonetheless indicated that South Carolina would never countenance such abrogation by the federal government:

[Mr. Pinckney] South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade. In every proposed extension of the powers of the Congress, that State has expressly & watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of negroes. If the States be all left at liberty on this subject, S. Carolina may perhaps by degrees do of herself what is wished, as Virginia & Maryland have already done. 108

Although he spoke in convention immediately before Pinckney, Ellsworth likely anticipated that such a threat might come from a state with a substantial economic interest in slavery. He sought to avoid disaster, particularly at such a late date in the Convention, by compromising his personal beliefs on the abolition of slavery in favor of letting the individual states decide the issue for themselves.

Finally, perceiving that Georgia might also join the Carolinas and abandon the Convention over slavery provisions, Ellsworth spoke of justice for Georgia and, on Wednesday, August 22nd, urged the Convention not to interfere with slavery in that state.109 Abraham Baldwin confirmed Ellsworth's suspicions about Georgia's willingness to abandon the Convention over slavery issues later that same day:

[Mr. Baldwin] had conceived national objects alone to be before the Convention, not such as like the present were of a local nature. Georgia was decided on this point. That State has always hitherto supposed a Genl. Governmt. to be the pursuit of the central States who wished to have a vortex for every thing- that her distance would preclude her from equal advantage — & that she could not prudently purchase it by yielding national powers. From this it might be understood in what light she would view an attempt to abridge one of her favorite prerogatives.110

These examples of Ellsworth not advocating his New Light moral convictions in the face of depraved slavery suggest, without the idea of compromise, a weak will or lack of conviction. Only with recourse to the New Light theology of the righteous ruler do these examples of compromise reveal Ellsworth's intent. A righteous ruler armed with the ability to compromise on his New Light convictions, Ellsworth compromised his personal beliefs of the humanity of slaves and the need to abolish slavery because he perceived that only compromise on the issue could preserve the Convention.

His compromises permitted sin and evil, slavery, to flourish in the fledgling republic because only through those compromises could he secure for the rest of the states the great goods of preserving the Convention and constructing the Constitution. He was the perfect model of the New Light righteous ruler who, when confronted with the depravity of other politicians, pursued not the best possible good, but the best good available. Confident that God's plan would unfold and make right the wrong of slavery, Ellsworth acquiesced to the selfish demands of slave states in the hopes that such concessions would further the common good by preserving the Convention.


Disposed by social class towards the New Light, Oliver Ellsworth embraced the theology of political office developed by Joseph Bellamy, one of the great New Light theologians of the era. Ellsworth learned of benevolent government that sought not to advance the selfish interests of its members, but rather worked towards the common good. He believed he owed God satisfaction on the duty to love his neighbor as himself and found virtuous political life an effective way of making satisfaction.

Charged by God to love his neighbor as himself, Ellsworth used his training and high office to secure the welfare of the community; he was the righteous ruler who sought the common good, not selfish desires. Yet he realized that political realities left him impotent, for his idealism could not overcome the selfish desires of other, depraved, members of government. Only through compromise could Ellsworth participate in a system of government corrupted by inherently depraved men who used their office for personal gain rather than for the common good. Ellsworth acquiesced on some of his beliefs, confident that whatever sin the compromise might permit, his compromise could nonetheless achieve a great good. With solid faith he also believed that the sin that arose as a result of compromise fulfilled part of God's plan, else God would not permit it, and that God would also set any temporary wrong right at the end.

A compromising Calvinist, Ellsworth fully embodied the New Light ideal of the righteous ruler; in his personal life he observed a strict and pious moral code while in the political arena, he worked deft compromises that allowed a government with depraved members to achieve great goods. An avowed anti-papist, he nonetheless justified the colonies' strategically beneficial alliance with Catholic France as part of God's plan for the unfolding of history. Confronted with divisive southern views on slavery at the Constitutional Convention, he, believing the creation of the Constitution a great good, licitly compromised his New Light moral opposition to slavery in favor of preserving the Convention.


86 Kenneth P. Minkema, Jonathan Edwards on Slavery and the Slave Trade, Vol. 54, No. 4, The William and Mary Quarterly, 823, 824-825 (Oct., 1997).

87 Minkema at 825.

88 John Saillant, Slavery and Divine Providence in New England Calvinism: The New Divinity and a Black Protest, 1775-1805, Vol. 68, No. 4, The New England Quarterly, 584 (Dec., 1995).

89 Minkema at 829.

90 Minkema at 829.

91 Minkema at 825-826.

92 Minkema at 825.

93 Saillant at 584.

94 David S. Lovejoy, Samuel Hopkins: Religion, Slavery, and the Revolution, Vol. 40, No. 2, The New England Quarterly, 227, 230 (Jun., 1967).

95 Lovejoy at 234.

96 Lovejoy at 234.

97 Lovejoy at 234.

98 Lovejoy at 234-235.

99 Oliver Ellsworth, The Landholder VI, in Essays on the Constitution of the United States, Published During Its Discussion by the People 1787-1788 164 (Paul Leicester Ford, Ed., Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1892).

10> James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention Wednesday, August 22 at 504 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).

10> Madison, Thursday, July 12 at 279.

10> Madison, Tuesday, August 21 at 502.

10> Madison, Tuesday, August 21 at 503.

10> Madison, Wednesday, August 22 at 504.

10> Brown (1905) at 152.

10> Madison, Thursday, July 12 at 278.

10> In the midst of tense debate over the origin of money bills, Ellsworth urged compromise in response to veiled threats to dissolve the Convention as well as for Madison's calls for harmony. Speaking on the highly divisive issue, Ellsworth urged that: "Some compromise was necessary." Madison, Thursday, July 5 at 242.

10> Madison, Tuesday, August 21 at 503.

10> Madison, Wednesday, August 22 at 504.

11> Madison, Wednesday, August 22 at 505.