He was born Elias Brevoort Woodward in 1774 in New York. He read the law and practiced as an attorney in Washington, DC.
Woodward never married. His biographer, Arthur M. Woodford, describes Woodward as a prototype of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane. He stood 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 m) tall, and was thin, sallow, and stooped. His long, narrow face was dominated by a big nose. He had thick, black hair. His contemporaries commented on his slovenliness.
While living in Washington, D.C., Woodward was described as "a man of middle age, a hardened bachelor who wore nut-brown clothing . . . he slept in his office which was never swept ... and was eccentric and erratic. His friends were few and his practice was so small that he hardly made a living." But while working in Washington, he got to know President Thomas Jefferson, and they shared scientific and education interests.
President Thomas Jefferson and Woodward knew each other personally. Jefferson appointed Woodward on March 3, 1805, as the Michigan Territory's first Chief Justice. When Woodward arrived in Detroit on June 30, 1805, he found the city in ruins from the devastating fire earlier that month on June 11. Few buildings were left standing.
Woodward, with Governor William Hull and associate Justices John Griffin and Frederick Bates, possessed all the legislative power in the Territory. Woodward and Griffin, along with the current Governor and a third judge, held this power from 1805 until the institution of a legislature in 1824. Woodward and Hull bickered almost constantly. One of Woodward's legacies is the Woodward Code: a series of statutes serving as the basis of the Territorial Supreme Court legal procedures.
Woodward and Hull developed a new plan for Detroit, in keeping with its status as the capital of the Territory. They based their work on Pierre L'Enfant's layout for Washington, D.C. (as shown in Woodward's notebook). Woodward's plan was ambitious, in line with the newly adopted city motto, Speramus Meliora, Resurgit Cineribus (“We hope for better days, it will rise again from the ashes”). For the first time in Detroit's history, attention shifted fully from its river to its roads.
Woodward Avenue in Detroit, originally called Court House Avenue and other names, was popularly named after the justice's work in city planning and rebuilding. Woodward, somewhat in jest, claimed the road's name was simply related to the fact that it traveled toward the wooded area to the north of the city.
The alignment of Woodward Avenue seems to coincide exactly with the axis of the pre-settlement Saginaw Trail which followed a straight line route from Detroit to Saginaw via Flint. It is likely that a series of indian trails once radiated from the approximate location of Campus Martius and this may have inspired the choice of a radial geometry for Woodward's city plan.
Woodward proposed a system of hexagonal street blocks, with the Grand Circus at its center. Wide avenues, alternatively 200 feet and 120 feet, were designed to radiate from large circular plazas like spokes from the hub of a wheel. As the city grew, it could develop along the avenues in all directions from the banks of the Detroit River. When Woodward presented his proposal, Detroit had fewer than 1,000 residents. The plan was abandoned after 11 years, but some of its most significant elements had already been implemented. Most prominent of these are the construction of the six main "spokes" of Woodward, Michigan, Grand River, Gratiot, and Jefferson avenues and Fort Street.
Woodward protected the free status of Michigan Territory in regard to slavery. In 1807 as Territorial Justice, he refused to allow the return of two slaves owned by a man in Windsor, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario). Woodward declared that any man “coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.” Detroit became a station on the Underground Railroad, by which fugitive slaves escaped from the South. After Canada had abolished slavery, many went across the river to escape slave catchers who operated even in the northern border areas.
During the War of 1812, Governor (and later Brigadier General) Hull surrendered Detroit to the British without a shot being fired in the Battle of Detroit. While Hull and Justices Bates and Griffin left, Woodward stayed and maintained his judicial status in Detroit during the British occupation. The British offered him the office of Secretary of the Territory, but Woodward declined that offer.
Eventually, he became a problem for the British. He was asked to leave the territory and was granted safe passage to New York. The United States regained control of Detroit in 1813.
Considered a hero upon his return to Washington, DC, Woodward soon concentrated on science (a lifelong interest). He also promoted the founding of the University of Michigan (in 1817) as a state institution. He urged its development along similar themes to the University of Virginia, which was founded two years after the founding of the University of Michigan (in 1819) by Woodward's friend and former president, Thomas Jefferson.
Woodward was described as being among the first to recognize the coming of the scientific age. In 1816, he published his seminal work, A System of Universal Science.
With Rev. John Monteith and Father Gabriel Richard, in 1817 Woodward drafted a charter for an institution he called the Catholepistemiad or the University of Michigania. On August 26, 1817, the Governor and Judges of the Michigan Territory signed the university act into law. This institution became the University of Michigan. It was ahead of its time. No mere charter, it was a detailed blueprint for the organization of a first-class university.
Woodward was also a Freemason.
August 26, 1824, saw Woodward's return to the judiciary, as President James Monroe appointed him to a judgeship in the new Territory of Florida. Woodward served in that capacity until his death July 12, 1827, at the age of 52.Woodward is commemorated in a Michigan Legal Milestone erected by the State Bar of Michigan.