Roger Sherman's public career reflected the heritage and concerns of his native New England. He attributed his rise from humble beginnings to the twin virtues of hard work and honesty, virtues that he assiduously applied to the service of the republic. John Adams, himself an heir to the same tradition, described Sherman as "an old Puritan, as honest as an angel and as firm in the cause of American Independence as Mount Atlas." Sherman was the only Founding Father to sign the four major documents of the era: the Articles of Association (1774), a Patriot call for the boycott of British goods; the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation; and the Constitution.
CAREER BEFORE THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Sherman was a descendant of Captain John Sherman, who settled in Massachusetts in 1636, and the son of a Newton cobbler. Destined to follow his father's trade, Sherman received little formal education, but he read widely, especially in theology, history, mathematics, law, and politics. Tradition pictures the young Sherman at the cobbler's bench, always with a book open in front of him. Sherman moved to New Milford, Connecticut, in 1743, two years after his father's death, to live with his brother. His strong personality and dedication to the work ethic soon led to success. He purchased a store and became county surveyor, a lucrative position that enabled him in time to become a major landowner. He also assumed a variety of town offices, including juryman, town clerk, deacon, and school committeeman. He taught himself the law during this period and in 1754 was admitted to the bar, marking the beginning of a distinguished legal career.
Elected to serve his community in the colonial legislature (1755-61), Sherman was also justice of the peace for Litchfield County, county judge (1759), and commissary for Connecticut troops (1759), charged with organizing supplies for the militia during the decisive campaign of the French and Indian War. In addition to commercial and public pursuits, he found time to publish an essay on monetary theory, which, among other things, criticized the importation of luxuries as a serious drawback to the economic advancement of the colony.
In 1761 he abandoned his law practice and sold his various businesses, moving to New Haven where he operated a store that catered to Yale students. He soon became a friend and benefactor of Yale, serving as its treasurer (1765-76) and contributing to the construction of its chapel. (His commitment to the school earned him an honorary master's degree from Yale in 1768.) By 1772 he was prosperous enough to retire from business and devote himself full time to public office. He held a number of colonial and state offices throughout the Revolutionary period, sitting in the lower house (1764-66) and upper house (1766-85) of the Connecticut legislature. During most of these years he also served as an associate judge of Connecticut's superior court (1766-89).
Although he opposed extremism, Sherman resented Parliament's interference in colonial affairs and enlisted early in the Patriot cause. He supported nonimportation measures and advocated the boycott of New York merchants who did not participate in them. He was also the leader of the New Haven Committee of Correspondence, an extralegal political association that was part of a communications network among Patriot leaders in all thirteen colonies.
Sherman was an active and influential member of the Continental Congress (1774-81 and 1783-84). He was one of the first to deny the supremacy of Parliament, stating that Parliament had no right to make laws for America and, as a member of the committees that drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, he remained in the forefront of Revolutionary politics. Like Benjamin Franklin, Sherman proposed a plan of union of the North American colonies. John Adams said, "Mr. Sherman's [plan] was best liked, but very little was finally adopted from either."
Sherman served on several other congressional committees, including the Ways and Means Committee and those that dealt with Indian affairs, war and ordnance, and the Treasury Board. He advocated imposing higher taxes rather than borrowing or issuing paper money as solutions to the country's economic problems. His last important actions in Congress dealt with western lands.
This tremendous amount of activity, combined with worry about the well-being of several sons serving in the Continental Army, began to take their toll on Sherman's health. As early as 1777 he wrote, "I must leave Congress soon . . . for my constitution will not admit of so close an application to business much longer." He did not leave, however, and fellow delegate Jeremiah Wadsworth honored his effectiveness in concluding with some irony that he was "as cunning as the Devil in managing legislation." Toward the end of the war, he was the most influential figure in Congress.
Membership in the Continental Congress did not preclude other activities. He attended a convention of the New England states in 1777 to express his ideas on taxes, currency, and credit, and he was a delegate to the New Haven Convention on Prices in 1778.
CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Sherman had originally favored strengthening the Articles of Confederation. While in Congress, he had gone so far as to draft a series of amendments which would have given that body the power to levy imposts, to establish a supreme court, and to make laws binding on all the people. He went to the Convention "disposed to patch up the old scheme of Government;" but soon realized the need for a new one. Sherman was opposed to the democratic tendencies he saw among Convention delegates. He favored an executive dominated by the legislature, and the election of congressmen and senators in turn by the state legislatures. He also thought popular ratification of the new Constitution was unnecessary.
He played an important role at the Convention, attending almost every session and sitting on the Committee on Postponed Matters. He probably helped draft the New Jersey Plan, the proposal favored by the small states since it gave equal representation to all states in the new government. He was the prime mover behind the Connecticut Compromise, the basis for the so-called Great Compromise that finally solved the problem of representation. His plan called for the creation of a Senate that gave equal representation to all states and a lower House with representation based on population.
CAREER AFTER THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION. Sherman joined the fight for ratification of the new Constitution in Connecticut, enlisting support in a series of open letters in the New Haven Gazette entitled "To the People of Connecticut from A Countryman." He stepped down as a judge on Connecticut's superior court to serve as a representative in the First U.S. Congress (1789-91). There he advocated measures popular in New England: imposition of tariffs to protect local manufacturers, assumption of state debts by the federal government, and sale of western lands to finance the national debt. He also opposed amending the Constitution and locating the new national capital in the south (on the banks of the Potomac River). In 1791 he assumed fellow signer William Samuel Johnson's seat in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death two years later.
Perhaps the most notable of Sherman's personal characteristics was his firm religiosity. He opposed appointment of fellow signer Gouverneur Morris as minister to France because he considered that high-living Patriot to be of an "irreligious nature." He even published works that demonstrated his deep interest in theology, including A Short Sermon on the Duty of Self-Examination Preparatory to Receiving the Lord's Supper (1789).
BIRTH: 19 April 1721, in Newton, Massachusetts
DEATH: 23 July 1793, in New Haven, Connecticut
INTERMENT: Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut