Roger Sherman-Stern and Vocal Hero

Portrait of Roger Sherman
Roger Sherman

Roger Sherman of Connecticut was the only founding father to sign all four of the American founding documents: The Continental Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Sherman served in local, colonial, state, and federal positions. After ratification of the Constitution, he served in the US House of Representatives and Senate. Despite his lack of formal education, he was a major benefactor of Yale College where he received an honorary MA Degree and served as professor of religion. Roger Sherman was an American patriot and hero. 

The Shermans were farmers in Newton, Massachusetts where Roger was born on 19 April 1721. His parents, William and Mehetabel, moved the family to the frontier town of Stoughton when Roger was two years old. He was quite intelligent, but his education was limited to his father’s good library and a grammar school, which was built when he was about 13. The town, however, was fortunate to have a Harvard educated parish minister, Rev. Samuel Dunbar, who helped Roger gain some knowledge of math, science, literature, and philosophy. 

William Sherman died in 1743 and the family relocated to New Milford, Connecticut. Roger and his brother William opened the first store in the town and became leading citizens. Roger quickly became involved in civil and religious affairs. He served as town clerk and in 1745 became county surveyor. 

Roger Sherman married Elizabeth Hartwell on 17 November 1749. Elizabeth was the daughter of Deacon Joseph Hartwell and was born in Stoughton on 31 August 1726.  

Despite having no legal training, a local lawyer urged Sherman to read for the bar exam. He was admitted to the bar in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1754. He was then chosen to represent New Milford in the Connecticut House of Representatives from 1755 to 1758 and again in 1760 and 1761. 

Elizabeth Hartwell Sherman died on 19 October 1760. Elizabeth was known for her gentle nature and Christian character. Their union had resulted in seven children, two which did not survive infancy. Elizabeth was buried in the Center Cemetery in New Milford. 

By 1761, Roger Sherman was a successful landowner and businessman who had become an equally successful politician. He was fully integrated into the social and political fabric of New England. Political activists in New England, especially Boston, were leading the country toward revolution. Sherman opposed extremism but resented British interference in colonial affairs and embraced the patriot cause early. 

Sherman abandoned his law practice in 1761 and moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he managed two businesses. He also became a major benefactor of Yale College. He served as treasurer of Yale for 11 years, was awarded an honorary MA degree, and became a professor of religion. His close association with Yale continued until his death. 

Portrait Rebecca Prescott Sherman-Spouse of Roger Sherman
Rebecca Prescott Sherman

On 12 May 1763, Roger Sherman married Rebecca Prescott. Rebecca was born on 20 May 1742 in Salem, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Benjamin Prescott and Rebecca Minot and descended from a long line of distinguished men and women. She was beautiful and cultured. This union resulted in eight children, seven surviving to adulthood. 

Sherman had quickly become involved in New Haven politics. He was appointed justice of the peace in 1762 and judge of the court of common pleas in 1765. In 1766 he was elected to the Governor’s Council of the Connecticut General Assembly serving until 1785. He served as Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut from 1766 to 1789. 

By 1772, Sherman was wealthy enough to retire from business and devote his time to public affairs. He was appointed to the First Continental Congress, which produced the 1774 “Continental Association.” He was a signer of this document which established a boycott against Britain following the imposition of the “Intolerable Acts.” 

Sherman served in the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781 and again from 1783 to 1784. At first, many delegates laughed at his homemade clothing and lack of a wig (gentlemen wore wigs in those days), but Sherman’s words quickly won him respect. He was among the first to deny the supremacy of the British over the colonies. Sherman was a highly active and influential participant in debates, but he kept few personal records so historians must rely on what others recorded of his words and ideas. 

Painting of Committee of Five to Draft Declaration of Independence -Roger Sherman
Committee of Five

On 11 June 1776, Roger Sherman was appointed to the “Committee of Five,” which drafted the Declaration of Independence. The other members were Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston. Jefferson wrote the first draft, and the other members of the committee critically reviewed the draft suggesting minor changes. On 28 June, after only 17 days, the document was presented to the full Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence was passed by congress on 4 July 1776 and signing began on 2 August 1776. 

Congress acted as the national government during the Revolutionary War while they also began the challenging work of establishing a new and unique form of government. After much debate they adopted the Articles of Confederation on 15 November 1777. Roger Sherman had been a major contributor to the Articles and was a signer. The Articles were ratified by the states and became the law of the land on 1 March 1781. 

The Articles were a good first attempt, but soon proved to be mostly ineffective at governing the rapidly developing nation. It did not unite the states but gave them a mishmash of powers. The national congress was generally powerless. It became obvious that the Articles would have to be extensively amended to become an effective document. On 25 May 1787 what became known as the Constitutional Convention was convened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

Once again, Roger Sherman was one of the most influential members of the convention, but he did not become well-known to the public because he was a “terse and ineloquent speaker” who kept few personal records. According to other delegates he spoke often and made many motions. He was also the second oldest delegate at 66 years of age following Benjamin Franklin who was 81.  

A new constitution was not what Sherman believed was needed. He was concerned that the people would be reluctant to accept a new form of government and he felt the Articles of Confederation just needed to be amended. He believed all that was really needed was a way to raise revenue, regulate commerce, and the ability to enforce decrees. He definitely wanted to retain a one-chamber (unicameral) legislature rather than two-chambers (bicameral) proposed by the “Virginia Plan.” 

Sherman championed the welfare of small states such as his state of Connecticut, which was a very “isolationist” state. It successfully operated with little cooperation with other states which influenced Sherman’s opinions on governing. He believed that national government office holders should be elected by state officials because he did not believe the people possessed the wisdom to govern themselves. Sherman stated that the people “should have as little to do as may be about the Government. They want information and are constantly liable to be misled.”  

During the heated debate among the Convention delegates, sectional disputes arose and were dealt with through compromise. Much debate, however, centered on the critical choice between unicameral and bicameral organization of the legislative branch. When Sherman realized that the bicameral proposal was probably going to be adopted, he began organizing compromises on the details.  

By late 1787 the convention had reached a stalemate on the big questions about the make-up of a legislature and how its members would be elected. Sherman proposed a compromise that the bicameral organization be adopted and that each state legislature would elect those in the upper house, and that the number of those in the lower house would be determined by the “numbers of free inhabitants.” This proposal broke the stalemate and was accepted by the Convention. This was known as the “Connecticut Compromise.” 

The final sections about the legislative branch were drafted to be acceptable to all states no matter their size. The people would be represented proportionally in one branch of the legislature called the House of Representatives. The states would be represented in another branch called the Senate with each state having two senators regardless of size. Representatives would be elected by the people and senators would be elected by state legislatures. The method of electing senators did not change until ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution on 8 April 1913. 

Sherman was against giving the Executive Branch much power. He said the Executive was “nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect.” Obviously, he did not carry the day on this subject. 

The use of paper money was an issue during the convention and Sherman was opposed to the use of paper. He authored Article I, Section 10 of the US Constitution, which plays a key role in the American system of federalism by limiting the power of the states. It forbids the states from printing or coining their own money. Article I also forbids the states from entering into treaties with foreign nations reserving that power to the President and Senate, and states cannot grant titles of nobility. 

The establishment of the federal judicial system is obviously an especially important part of the Constitution, but my research did not find much about individual delegate input and debate. I know it must exist, but I didn’t find it. I do know that many of the delegates were lawyers, so I am sure they all had strong opinions. Also, American colonial law obviously followed British law so that would have been the starting point. Much of the delegate input concentrated on making the judicial branch independent so that it could not be used to suppress the rights of the people. Based on what I have read I believe James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and probably Roger Sherman were the major contributors to the debate. 

The convention created the federal judicial system in Article III of the Constitution. The federal system centers on the Supreme Court, which is the highest court in the nation. Lower federal courts were to be created by congress. Article III does not specify the number of supreme court justices but does create the position of Chief Justice. It also states that justices do not face term limits. 

Article III empowered the Supreme Court to handle controversies concerning federal law, established the separation of powers between the three branches of government, and defined treason. It delineated judicial power and jurisdiction but did not give the Supreme Court the power of judicial review. Judicial review was added through a lawsuit heard by the Supreme Court in 1803. Article III also established that all federal crimes must be tried before a jury, which is not the case with most governments.  

Painting of Signing the Constitution-Roger Sherman
Signing the Constitution

The final Constitution was signed on 17 September 1787 and was presented to the states for ratification. There was, however, considerable opposition by some states who demanded a declaration protecting individual rights. Only when James Madison pledged to draw up such amendments was the Constitution ratified on 21 June 1788. 

True to his word, Madison drew up amendments and presented them to the new US Congress, which was indifferent and, in some cases, openly hostile. Sherman opposed the amendments because he thought they would diminish the power of the states over the people. This was another example of his belief that the people were incapable of governing themselves. 

Congress finally accepted the proposed amendments in September 1789. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights,” was ratified on 15 December 1791. 

The constitutional debates were a true exercise in democracy. Each delegate had strong opinions and prejudices, but they were able to disagree, stand on principle, respect other opinions, and compromise to “form a more perfect union.” 

The Convention had produced a very comprehensive Constitution, which with the addition of the Bill of Rights, established our three branches of Government, the separation of powers, set checks and balances, and delineated rights and responsibilities. It reinforced the principles and ideals of freedom found in the Declaration of Independence. 

I have read the Constitution several times and am always amazed by our founders’ ability to draft such an enlightened governing document. Despite attacks on the Constitution by some it remains our guide and rule book for government and for the protection of individual rights. 

An interesting side fact that demonstrated Sherman’s character and strong sense of moral beliefs is that he opposed the appointment of fellow signer Gouverneur Morris to be Minister to France. He considered the high-living fellow patriot to be of an “irreligious nature.” 

After the establishment of the United States of America, Roger Sherman was elected to the House of Representatives serving from 1789 to 1791. He was elected by the Connecticut Legislature to the US Senate in 1791 and served until his death in 1793. He was concurrently serving as the first mayor of New Haven having been elected to that position in 1784. 

In 1790, Roger Sherman and Richard Law were appointed to review and revise the confused and archaic Connecticut statutes. They completed that arduous task that same year. 

Sherman’s health had started to deteriorate in 1776 while he was serving in the Continental Congress and he had asked the Connecticut Governor to relieve him from his state duties. Despite this relief, he maintained a very heavy workload. 

Roger Sherman died in his sleep on 23 July 1793 following a two-month illness diagnosed as Typhoid Fever. He was buried in New Haven Green. In 1821, the cemetery was relocated, and his remains were moved to the Grove Street Cemetery. 

Roger Sherman spent most of his life building, defending, and defining this nation. He was always one of the most vocal and persistent members of the bodies that produced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States. Adams, Jefferson, and Madison expressed deep admiration for Sherman and his work. They found him to be stern, taciturn, spare with his words, direct in his speech, and never hesitant to stand and stand again for his principles. He also knew how to listen, negotiate, and compromise to improve outcomes. 

Statue of Roger Sherman- US Capitol
Statue of Roger Sherman- US Capitol

The state of Connecticut honored Sherman by placing a statue of him in The National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol where each state is allowed only two statues. The town of Sherman, Connecticut is named after him, and the “Committee of Five” are sculpted into the pediment of the Jefferson Memorial. Although not well known, he was one of the most important and effective of our founding fathers. Roger Sherman was an American patriot and an American hero. 

I want to end this post with the Preamble to the Constitution. I remember memorizing it in grade school. My teacher was Mrs. Huffman who emphasized over and over that the first three words of this document, “WE THE PEOPLE,” are unique in the world’s governments. She was a proud American and she wanted her students to be patriots. God bless Mrs. Huffman. She has been dead for many years but because of her I have never forgotten the words of the Preamble nor the importance and uniqueness of them: 

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  

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