The Reading Room
Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American New Republic
In 1777, John Adams described Connecticut’s Roger Sherman as “that old Puritan, as honest as an angel, and as firm in the cause of American Independence as Mt. Atlas.” Late in life, Patrick Henry remarked that Sherman and George Mason were “the greatest statesmen he ever knew.” Thomas Jefferson, who was often at odds with both Adams and Henry, shared their admiration for Sherman. He once pointed Sherman out to a visitor and noted “[t]hat is Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Roger Sherman was born in Stoughton, Massachusetts in 1721. Shortly after the death of his father in 1741, he moved to New Milford, Connecticut, where he worked as a cobbler, surveyor, and store owner. Sherman never went to college, but he was a voracious reader. He taught himself advanced mathematics and, in 1750, he began publishing a popular almanac which was issued annually or biannually until 1761. Sherman later studied law and was admitted to the Litchfield bar in 1754.
In 1760, after the death of his first wife (with whom he had seven children), Sherman moved to New Haven. He opened a store next to Yale College and sold general merchandise, provisions, and books. Sherman married Rebecca Prescott three years later, and they had eight children. He was elected to the lower house of the General Assembly and, in 1766, Connecticut voters chose him to be one of the twelve members of the upper house, or Council of Assistants. Traditionally, four Assistants were selected by the General Assembly to serve with the deputy governor as the judges on Connecticut’s Superior Court. Sherman was appointed to this court in 1766 and he held both offices until he resigned from the legislature in 1785. He remained a Superior Court Judge until he became a member of the United States House of Representatives in 1789.
Beginning with the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765, Sherman was a consistent opponent of what he considered to be British abuses of power. In 1776, Sherman was the only delegate to serve on all three of the most important congressional committees: the Board of War, the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (fellow members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston), and the committee to draft what became the Articles of Confederation.
Connecticut’s General Assembly asked Sherman and Richard Law to revise the state’s laws in 1783. Among Sherman’s contributions was a religious liberty statute entitled “An Act for securing the Rights of Conscience in Matters of Religion, to Christians of every Denomination in this State.” The revisions also included a law providing for the gradual emancipation of children born to slaves in Connecticut after March 1, 1784.
In 1787, the General Assembly appointed Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, and William Samuel Johnson to represent Connecticut in the Federal Constitutional Convention. Sherman arrived in Philadelphia convinced that the national government’s powers needed to be strengthened, but he was also a firm supporter of both local and limited government. He was instrumental in drafting what became Article 1, Section 8, which enumerates the national government’s powers.
Sherman’s most significant contribution at the Convention was the “Great” or “Connecticut” Compromise. When it became apparent that the large states would not accept retaining the Articles’ provision of one-state-one-vote and the small states would not agree to proportional representation alone, Sherman helped craft the compromise whereby membership in the House of Representatives would be proportionally allocated based on state population while states would be represented equally in the Senate–initially with the senators to be chosen by the state legislatures.
Sherman’s contributions at the Federal Convention were neglected for many years, but scholars have recently gained a better appreciation for them. For instance, David Brian Robertson concludes in a 2005 article published in The American Political Science Review that Sherman often outmaneuvered Madison at the Constitutional Convention, and he suggests that the “political synergy between Madison and Sherman . . . very well may have been necessary for the Constitution’s adoption.”
In December of 1788, Sherman was elected to the House of Representatives and, in 1791, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill the unexpired term of William Samuel Johnson. In Congress, he engaged in debates over tariffs, the assumption of state debts, and the creation of a national bank. Although initially opposed to adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, Sherman served on the eleven-member House committee that drafted the amendments, was an active participant in debates over the specific provisions, and was a member of the six-person conference committee that put the amendments into their final form. As well, Sherman argued as well for placing the amendments after the original Constitution rather than interspersing them within the text as originally proposed by Madison. Sherman remained active in politics until his death on July 23, 1793.
Sherman was not a radical thinker, a great author, or a stirring orator–realities that diminished his contemporary and future fame. Nevertheless, as the historian Jack N. Rakove comments in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Original Meanings, “America has had more Shermans in its politics than Madisons, and arguably too few of either, but it was the rivalry between their competing goals and political styles that jointly gave the Great Convention much of its drama and fascination–and also permitted its achievement.” Scholars, teachers, and students who wish to understand America’s founding cannot afford to ignore the contributions of that old Connecticut Puritan, Roger Sherman.