Roger Sherman

1721-1793

Roger Sherman
Roger Sherman
National Statuary Hall Collection
Washington, D.C.

The Sherman family immigrated to America from Dedham, England in about 1635 and settled near Watertown, Massachusetts.  Roger Sherman was born in Newton, Massachusetts on April 19, 1721.

In 1723, when he was 2 years of age, his family moved from Newton to Dorchester (since renamed Stoughton).  William Sherman, Roger’s father, supported his family by farming a small tract of land there.

From an early age, Roger displayed an unusual thirst for knowledge, but his father was a man of modest means and was unable to give his children many of the advantages of formal education.  Roger received some formal schooling from a local parochial school, then became a shoemaker’s apprentice.

William Sherman died in 1741 and left his family nearly destitute.  Roger had an older brother who was a merchant in New Milford, Connecticut, almost 175 miles away.  Since Roger was the next eldest and was still at home, the care of the family devolved upon him, even though he was only nineteen years old.

But Roger accepted these daunting new responsibilities, and cared for his mother and younger siblings with kindness and cheerfulness.  He took very good care of his family, including helping two of his younger brothers obtain formal education.  Both subsequently became clergymen of some distinction in Connecticut.

About two years after his father died, Roger and the family decided to move to New Milford.  Once settled, Roger went into business as a shoemaker.  Not long after the move, he had business in a neighboring town.  A short time before, a neighbor had told Roger of a pending legal difficulty.  As there was an attorney practicing in the town that Roger intended to visit, he agreed to visit the attorney on his friend’s behalf, convey the points in the dispute, and obtain some legal advice.

Because the subject was complex, Roger had written some fairly detailed notes to assist his memory.  When he arrived at the attorney’s office, he stated the case while referring to the notes he had written.  The attorney was impressed with the clarity and style of Roger’s manuscript, and said that, with just a few minor changes, it would be equal to any statement of the case he could write himself.  The attorney then encouraged young Roger to seriously consider becoming an attorney.  At about that time, Roger began a personal study of the law, though he was still very much occupied with the responsibilities of caring for his mother and younger siblings.  Not long after, he thought it advisable to leave the shoemaking trade and enter into a business partnership with his older brother, who ran a general store.

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic by Mark David Hall

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic by Mark David Hall

Roger took advantage of almost every opportunity to acquire knowledge.  As a result, he soon became known throughout the county as a man of extraordinary ability.  He was particularly skillful in mathematics.

At the age of 24 he was appointed to the position of county surveyor for Litchfield county.  As an avid astronomer, he made astronomical calculations for an almanac that was published in New York.  He continued this endeavor for several years.  His leisure hours were devoted to self-education, and much of this study was in the area of law.

In 1749, at the age of 28, he married Elizabeth Hartwell of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and in the following years she bore him seven children, two of whom died in infancy.

In 1754, he became an attorney and was admitted to the bar.  He distinguished himself as a judicious counselor and was rapidly promoted to offices of increasing trust and responsibility.  In the year following his admission, he was appointed a justice of the peace for New Milford.  That same year, he also represented the town in the colonial assembly.  In 1759, he was appointed judge of the court of common pleas for Litchfield County, an office which he filled honorably for the next two years.

His wife Elizabeth died in 1760.  The following year, he closed his law practice, resigned his judgeship, and moved to New Haven.  There, he managed two stores; one that catered to Yale students, and another in nearby Wallingford.  He was appointed a justice of the peace in New Haven and often represented the town in the colonial assembly.

In 1763 he married Rebecca Prescott of Danvers, Massachusetts.  In the following years, they had eight more children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

In 1765 he became a judge in the Court of Common Pleas.  He was a benefactor and the treasurer of Yale College, from which he received the honorary degree of Master of Arts.

In 1766, he was elected to the upper house of Connecticut’s general assembly.  The members were called Assistants and, because their deliberations were not public, little is known of Roger’s contributions.  However, few men were better fitted for such responsibilities.  That same year, he was appointed to a judgeship in the superior court.

He remained a member of the upper house for nineteen years, until 1785.  Having one man engaged in both legislative and judicial activities was seen as conflicting with the idea of separation of powers, and while Roger was certainly above suspicion of any inappropriate use of his political authority, it was probably viewed as setting a dangerous precedent.  So Roger resigned his seat in the assembly, but remained on the Superior Court bench until 1789.  At that time, he was elected to represent his district in the House of Representatives under the newly ratified U.S. Constitution.

At an early stage of the controversy that resulted in the colony’s war for independence, he perceived that the issue would have to be ultimately resolved by armed conflict.  He expected neither justice nor clemency from the mother country, and earnestly enjoined his fellow colonists to unity in the cause.  He was under no delusion that “the causes which impelled them to the separation” could be resolved by anything other than the complete separation of American and British political interests.

Sherman was first elected to Congress in 1774, two years before the war.  In the Congress of 1776, he assisted on committees appointed to give instructions for the military operations of the army in Canada; to establish regulations and restrictions on the trade of the United States; to regulate the currency of the country; to furnish supplies for the army; to provide for the expenses of the government; to prepare articles of confederation between the several states, and to propose a plan of military operations for the campaign of 1776.  He was also on the drafting committee for the Declaration of Independence, with Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston.  During the war, he belonged to the governor's council of safety.  He was also the mayor of New Haven from 1784 until his death.

In Connecticut, few men were ever more highly esteemed than was Roger Sherman.  He was greatly respected for his abilities, but even more for his honesty and integrity.  No man, probably, ever stood more aloof from the suspicion of either a selfish bias or sinister motives.  In both his public and private conduct he was guided by principle, apparently uninfluenced by passion, prejudice, or personal interest.

He was appointed to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787, along with Dr. William Samuel Johnson and Mr. Oliver Ellsworth, who subsequently served as the third Chief Justice of the United States.  While not totally satisfied with every feature of the finished Constitution, he nonetheless advocated its adoption, believing it would probably provide as much civil liberty and political prosperity as would be compatible with the lapsed condition of the human race.  In any event, it most certainly was the best that the convention could have framed under the circumstances.

Under this new Constitution, he was elected a representative to Congress from the state of Connecticut.  After two years, there was a vacancy in the Senate and he was elected to fill it (at that time, Senators were chosen by the State Legislature, rather than by popular vote).  He served in the Senate for the remainder of his life.  Roger Sherman died on July 23, 1793 in New Haven, Connecticut at the age of 72.

The following is from Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, by the Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, which was published in 1829:

OF THE PRACTICAL WISDOM of Mr. Sherman, we might furnish many honourable testimonies and numerous illustrations. We must content ourselves, however, with recording a remark of President Jefferson, to the late Dr. Spring, of Newburyport. During the sitting of Congress at Philadelphia, the latter gentleman, in company with Mr. Jefferson, visited the national hall. Mr. Jefferson pointed out to the doctor several of the members, who were most conspicuous. At length, his eye rested upon Roger Sherman. "That," said he, pointing his finger, "is Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life." Not less complimentary was the remark of Mr. Macon, the aged and distinguished senator, who has recently retired from public life: "Roger Sherman had more common sense than any man I ever knew."

It was probably owing to this trait in his character, that he enjoyed such extraordinary influence in those deliberative bodies of which he was a member. In his speech, he was slow and hesitating. He had few of the graces of oratory; yet no man was heard with deeper attention. This attention arose from the solid conviction of the hearers, that he was an honest man. What he said, was indeed always applicable to the point, was clear, was weighty; and, as the late President Dwight remarked, was generally new and important. Yet the weight of his observations, obviously, sprung from the integrity of the man. It was this trait in his character, which elicited the observation of the distinguished Fisher Ames. "If I am absent," said he, "during the discussion of a subject, and consequently know not on which side to vote, I always look at Roger Sherman, for I am sure if I vote with him I shall vote right."

To the above excellent traits in the character of Mr. Sherman, it may be added, that he was eminently a pious man. He was long a professor of religion, and one of its brightest ornaments. Nor was his religion that which appeared only on occasions. It was with him a principle and a habit. It appeared in the closet, in the family, on the bench, and in senate house. Few men had a higher reverence for the Bible; few men studied it with deeper attention; few were more intimately acquainted with the doctrines of the gospel, and the metaphysical controversies of the day. On these subjects, he maintained an extended correspondence with some of the most distinguished divines of that period, among whom were Dr. Edwards, Dr. Hopkins, Dr. Trumbull, President Dickenson, and President Witherspoon, all of whom had a high opinion of him as a theologian, and derived much instruction from their correspondence with him.

We have room only to add the inscription, which is recorded upon the tablet which covers the tomb of this truly excellent man:
    

In memory of
THE HON. ROGER SHERMAN, ESQ,
Mayor of the city of New-Haven,
and Senator of the United States.
He was born at Newton, in Massachusetts,
April 19th, 1721,
And died in -New-Haven, July 23d, A, D. 1793,
aged LXXII.
Possessed of a strong, clear, penetrating mind,
and singular perseverance,
he became the self-taught scholar,
eminent for jurisprudence and policy.
He was nineteen years an assistant,
and twenty-three years a judge of the superior court,
in high reputation.
He was a Delegate in the first Congress,
signed the glorious act of Independence,
and many years displayed superior talents and ability
in the national legislature.
He was a member of the general convention,
approved the federal constitution,
And served his country with fidelity and honour,
in the House of Representatives,
and in the Senate of the United States.
He was a man of approved integrity;
a cool, discerning Judge;
a prudent, sagacious Politician;
a true, faithful, and firm Patriot.
He ever adorned
the profession of Christianity
which he made in youth;
and distinguished through life
for public usefulness,
died in the prospect of a blessed immortality.


 

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Colonial Hall biography of Roger Sherman

Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic — Professor Hall gracefully explains how one of the Founding Era's best politicians fully integrated his religious faith into a life of pragmatic and effective public service.  This book is a must-read for anyone engaged in legal debates about the nature of the U.S. Constitution.