Born in eastern Rowan County, in what is now part of Davidson County, on November 23, 1820 to Anderson and Judith Ellis, John Willis Ellis was a North Carolina lawyer, legislator, judge, and Democratic governor.
Ellis graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1841 and then studied under the famous lawyer, Richmond Mumsford Pearson. A year later, Ellis embarked on a law career in Salisbury. From 1844 to 1848, he served in the state legislative assembly. In 1848, the General Assembly voted for him to be a Superior Court judge, a position he filled until winning the gubernatorial election of 1858. In 1860, Ellis was reelected and served in this position until he, suffering from bad health, died on July 7, 1861.
The son of a planter, Ellis unsurprisingly championed the property rights of slaveholders. Ellis believed the U.S. Constitution protected one’s private property (slaves were considered legal property). During the 1850s, he feared the influence of abolitionists—especially after U.S. Senator William H. Seward of New York called for a “complete and universal emancipation.” From Ellis’s perspective, such an action would destroy the republic; for slaveholders upheld constitutional property rights and supported the Union, but abolitionists dismissed them, thereby dividing the country. A strong and unified Democratic Party, Ellis believed, was the only means to preserve national unity and constitutional government.
Throughout his political career, Ellis vigorously promoted internal improvements—government-sponsored transportation projects. Although a Democrat, Ellis hailed from a predominantly Whig county, so his political speeches unsurprisingly reveal a combination of Democratic individualism and Whiggish economic planning. His encouragement for internal improvements resulted from a love for his native state as much as a desire to spread economic markets. During the 1850s, in particular, Ellis promoted the construction of the North Carolina Railroad, a line starting in Goldsboro, passing through Raleigh, and ending in Charlotte. He claimed the railroad was a panacea for all of North Carolina’s ills: it would boost the state’s economy by connecting towns and industry, and as a result, it would decrease emigration and foster political reconciliation. When the railroad was completed in 1856, Ellis delivered a speech praising the technological achievement and stirring local patriotism of the “Old North State.” It should be noted that North Carolina Railroad passed through Ellis’s hometown, Salisbury.
Ellis had the misfortune of being governor during the secession crisis. Historians William S. Powell and Noble J. Tolbert label Ellis an “ardent secessionist,” yet the governor did not aggressively steer the state toward secession. Although he sympathized with the plight of the original seven states of the Confederacy and anticipated Lincoln’s call for troops to put down the rebellion, he believed secession was unnecessary to preserve slavery. He cautiously dealt with an explosive political situation. For instance, Ellis dispatched envoys to Montgomery (the capital of the Confederacy before Virginia seceded) and Washington, D. C. and commanded secessionists who seized Forts Caswell and Johnston to give the federal forts back. But when Lincoln called for North Carolina troops to put down the rebellion, Ellis replied, “I can be no party to this wicked violation of the laws of the country and to this war upon the liberties of a free people. You can get no troops from North Carolina.” On May 20, 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Ellis then had no problem seizing federal forts. Shortly afterward, he finally succumbed to lifelong bouts with bad health.
Ellis is now buried in the Old English Cemetery in Salisbury.
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1963), John Willis Ellis, Speech of Hon. John W. Ellis, Delivered before the Democratic State Convention, in Raleigh, March 9, 1860 (Raleigh, 1860); William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); Noble J. Tolbert, “John Willis Ellis” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (Chapel Hill, 1979-1996); Harry L. Watson, “Old Rip and a New Era” in Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson, The North Carolina Experience: An Interpretive & Documentary History (Chapel Hill, 1984).