Oliver Ellsworth's Calvinism: A Biographical Essay on Religion and Political Psychology in the Early Republic
Casto, William R.
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The year 1801 was a catastrophe for staunch Federalists. Thomas Jefferson became president, and a coalition opposed to the Federalists gained control of the Congress. In New England, Standing Order Calvinist ministers hysterically railed that Jefferson was "a debaucher, an infidel, [and] a liar." But one of New England's most prominent Federalists was more philosophical. Oliver Ellsworth, the third chief justice of the United States, was almost relieved that the Federalists would no longer have to try to make the national government work. Invoking the legend of Sisyphus, Ellsworth wrote, "So the anti-Feds are now to support their own administration, and take a turn at rolling stones up hill." At first glance, this imagery seems a common example of the eighteenth-century political elite's use of classical metaphors. This essay will explore the influence of Calvinism upon Ellsworth's understanding of political psychology, and incidentally will suggest that for Ellsworth the legend of Sisyphus was essentially a Calvinist allegory.