In 1796, after the Senate rejected the nomination of John Rutledge to serve as Chief Justice, President George Washington nominated Ellsworth to the position. Ellsworth was unanimously confirmed by the Senate, and served until 1800, when he resigned due to poor health. Few cases came before the Ellsworth Court, and he is chiefly remembered for his discouragement of the previous practice of seriatim opinion writing. He simultaneously served as an envoy to France from 1799 to 1800, signing the Convention of 1800 to settle the hostilities of the Quasi-War. He was succeeded as chief justice by John Marshall. He subsequently served on the Connecticut Governor's Council until his death in 1807.
Ellsworth was born in Windsor, Connecticut, to Capt. David and Jemima (née Leavitt) Ellsworth. He entered Yale in 1762, but transferred to the College of New Jersey (later Princeton) at the end of his second year. Along with William Paterson and Luther Martin (both of whom served with him at the Constitutional Convention in 1787) he founded the "Well Meaning Club," which became the Cliosophic Society—now part of Whig-Clio, the nation's oldest college debating club. He received his A.B. degree in 1766, Phi Beta Kappa after 2 years. Soon afterward, Ellsworth turned to the law. After four years of study, he was admitted to the bar in 1771 and later became a successful lawyer and politician.