Chilton was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and grew up in Ogden Dunes, Indiana. His father and both grandfathers were engineers. His father, a mechanical engineer, patented a way to create a self-standing artificial Christmas tree. DuPont's Thomas H. Chilton Laboratory in Wilmington, Delaware, is named for his grandfather, a chemical engineer who worked there. Jess M. Bartholomew, Chilton's namesake, was an electrical engineer at the Joy Manufacturing Company in Michigan City, Indiana. His great-great-grandfather was William Parish Chilton and his great-great-uncle was Thomas Chilton, who both served in government.
After high school, Chilton worked at a steel mill for a year, arguing later that the experience convinced him that someone had to look out for "the little guy". He began attending Purdue University in 1979, majoring in political science and communications but left one semester before graduating to work on Democratic Party 1984 political campaigns.
Chilton worked in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985 to 1995, where he was legislative director for three members of Congress and was the executive director of the Congressional Rural Caucus. He later worked in the executive branch during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, where he became the deputy chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman and served as a liaison to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From 2001 to 2005, he was a senior advisor to Senator Tom Daschle. In 2005, he went to the Farm Credit Administration, where he was an executive assistant to the board, afterward becoming chief of staff and vice president for governmental relations at the National Farmers Union, representing family farmers.
Chilton has been one of the five CFTC commissioners since August 2007, when he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate after having been nominated by President Bush. He was the chairman of the CFTC’s Energy and Environmental Markets Advisory Committee. He was re-nominated by President Barack Obama and re-confirmed by the Senate in 2009. In his first official remarks as a new commissioner on the CFTC, Chilton made clear his support for market regulation and has, since joining the CFTC, worked for the implementation of position limits.
In early 2010, he was contacted by Andrew Maguire, who detailed fraud taking place in the precious metals markets. Chilton had one of the senior investigators from the CFTC's enforcement division contact Maguire. Maguire shared information in an hour-long telephone interview and detailed e-mails. Maguire accurately predicted a manipulative event in the silver futures market, notifying Chilton and the investigator two days in advance and sending additional e-mails while it was taking place, pointing out important data.
Chilton believed violations of law have taken place in the silver futures market and has said he wanted to see prosecutions. Gold Anti-Trust Action Committee board member Adrian Douglas has called Chilton "the modern-day equivalent of Eliot Ness". In late 2010, he revealed that a single trader controlled 40 percent of the silver market, although in compliance with the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, the CFTC has proposed a position limit of ten percent.
On April 15, 2011, Chilton issued a statement against legislation to delay the financial regulatory reforms in the Dodd-Frank Act.
In July 2013, Chilton replaced outgoing Commissioner Jill Sommers as Chair of the Global Markets Advisory Committee (GMAC).
Chilton used to sport shoulder-length blond hair and liked to wear cowboy boots. He was married to Sherry Daggett Chilton and lived in Washington, D.C. and Arkansas.