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Sherman, Roger (1721–1793), merchant and revolutionary politician in America, was born on 19 April 1721 at Newton, Massachusetts, the fourth child, and third son, of William Sherman (1692–1741), farmer and cordwainer, and his second wife, Mehetabel Wellington (1688–1776). As a young man Roger worked on the farm, learned how to work leather, and probably attended the local grammar school in the family's home town of Stoughton; he never went to college.

The family was not well-to-do; when William Sherman died in March 1741 his intestate estate was so small that it ‘cannot admit of a division among all his [seven] children without great damage thereto’ (Sherman, 140). But there were better prospects on the frontier, and so in June 1743 Roger moved the family to New Milford, in the newly settled north-west quadrant of Connecticut, to where his elder half-brother William had emigrated three years earlier. Sherman embarked on a career as a merchant and store owner, in partnerships until April 1759 and thereafter on his own. In his spare time he taught himself to be a surveyor and made enough connections with important people to receive from the colony's assembly in October 1745 an appointment as the public surveyor for that part of the colony. As his retail business grew, his work as a surveyor—a job he would hold until May 1758—provided a steady income, allowed him to evaluate land for possible purchase, and brought him into contact with prominent people beyond New Milford. Increasingly prosperous, he married Elizabeth Hartwell of Stoughton (1726–1760) on 17 November 1749. With a growing family—the couple had seven children over the next eleven years—Sherman could not waste an opportunity. He parlayed his interest in mathematics into a series of almanacs that he published in New York, New Haven, New London, and Boston from 1750 to 1761. With the same curiosity and enlightened self-interest he had used to master surveying, he undertook the study of the law (the younger but better educated William Samuel Johnson was his mentor), was admitted to the local Litchfield county bar in February 1754, and soon had a thriving law practice.

Sherman's evident abilities brought him increased public responsibilities. Having tested him in various local offices, in May 1755 the voters of New Milford elected him as one of their two deputies to the general assembly, the lower house of the Connecticut legislature; they re-elected him eight more times in the next six years. His peers in the assembly also recognized his abilities and immediately appointed him a justice of the peace; in May 1759 they promoted him to the Litchfield county court bench. He also began to assume leadership roles in the local Congregationalist church, rising to the position of deacon in March 1755. He was not a controversialist in religious matters. Judging by a statement in his New Haven almanac for 1758 defending the inclusion of ‘the observable days of the Church of England’ and denying that he was therefore an Episcopalian, he was an advocate of toleration: ‘as I take liberty in these matters [of religious belief] to judge for myself, so I think it reasonable that others should have the same liberty’ (Sherman, 161–2).

By 1760 Sherman was a respected inhabitant of New Milford. He had prospered in business, having received a commission to supply Connecticut troops at Albany, New York, in 1759, and had even opened a branch store at New Haven in July 1760. He was also rising in public esteem; in October 1760 he garnered enough votes to rank eighteenth on the list of men nominated for the governor's council, the upper house of the legislature.

The death of his wife on 19 October, less than a month after the birth of their seventh child, seems to have changed his life. If he had already been thinking about moving to a larger town, the death of his wife hastened his decision. For the second time in his life, now as a forty-year-old widower with five surviving children, he picked up his family and moved, to New Haven on 30 June 1761, where he settled in and prospered with the same skill he had shown at New Milford. On a trip to visit his younger brother, Josiah, then minister at Woburn, Massachusetts, he met Rebecca (or Rebekah) Prescott (1742–1813) of Danvers, the niece of his brother's wife. Sherman appears to have been smitten, and the couple married on 12 May 1763. They had eight children in the next twenty years, the last when Sherman was nearly sixty-two.

Sherman spent the last thirty years of his life in public service. He undertook a profusion of new responsibilities in the mid-1760s. New Haven voters returned him to the assembly in October 1764, and again in May and October 1765 and May 1766. His assembly colleagues appointed him a New Haven county justice of the peace in May 1765, and a member of the county court bench in October 1765. Yale College named him college treasurer that year, a position he held until December 1776, and gave him an honorary MA degree at commencement in 1768. The Anglo-American crisis set off by the Stamp Act (1765), by which parliament attempted to raise revenue in the colonies, gave him the opportunity to begin playing a larger role in Connecticut politics. Already in October 1764 the chairman of an assembly committee formed to seek alternative and acceptable forms of taxation, he firmly opposed the act as ‘inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution, and an infringement of the essential liberties of the colonists’ (Collier, 51). But he disliked the extra-legal violence the radical association, the Sons of Liberty, directed at supporters of the act, and it is this combination of firm adherence to principles with restraint, moderation, and respect for legal procedure that was the bedrock of his political success. When the voters in May 1766 turned out Governor Thomas Fitch and four assistants for being too willing to accommodate British control, the changes included the election of Sherman to the council, a position to which he was re-elected for the next nineteen years. The assembly followed by elevating him to the superior court bench, where he rode circuit amid a heavy slate of other public duties for the next twenty-three years. Sherman completed his transformation into public servant in December 1772, when he turned the running of his store over to his son William and retired from business.

Sherman, like most colonists, spent the early 1770s thinking through how to respond to Britain's attempts to increase imperial regulation. Although it was bound to hurt his business, he supported the non-importation of British goods to drive home the fact of colonial unhappiness, and regretted the failure of the boycott in 1771. John Adams, who met Sherman in New Haven while both men were on their way to Philadelphia as delegates to the first continental congress in 1774, recounted that when Sherman told him ‘that the Parliament of G[reat] B[ritain] had authority to make laws for America in no Case whatever’, he also said that it was an opinion he, Sherman, had held since 1764 (Diary and Autobiography, 2.100).

Between September 1774 and November 1781 Sherman was actively engaged in congressional business for about six months in each year, and played a role in many of congress's most important decisions. He helped write the declaration of rights and supported the non-importation and non-consumption association among the colonies. In the second congress, beginning on 10 May 1775, he worked on issues involving the provisioning of the American army, colonial trade, and foreign aid. An avowed advocate of independence—a position he had favoured as early as perhaps 1772—he was appointed on 11 June 1776 to the committee to prepare a declaration. He played no part in writing the document, but he was fully in accord with its sentiments, and signed it on 2 August 1776. At the same time he was Connecticut's member on the grand committee to draft articles of confederation, and on 1 August asserted that voting in congress ought to be done on the principle of one state, one vote: ‘We ought not to vote according to numbers. We are representatives of states, not individuals’ (Diary and Autobiography, 2.247). This method prevailed in the final articles of confederation, which would govern the former colonies until the ratification of the federal constitution.

This self-educated, plainly dressed, unpolished delegate from Connecticut made an impression on his distinguished colleagues by applying to federal issues the pragmatism honed in the rough-and-tumble of a Connecticut political culture of biennial elections. He had a significant impact because he was present more frequently than all but a handful of other delegates, because his real métier was working on committees such as the board of war and the board of the treasury, where his compromising temperament and taste for expediency had their fullest opportunity for expression, and because he was a ceaseless advocate of issues that were important to the smaller member states of the coalition that eventually became the United States, such as how to vote in congress, how to keep wartime expenses as low as possible, and how to preserve a share in western lands. His willingness to step forward, his firmly pro-patriot principles, his attention to detail, and what Adams called ‘a clear head and sound judgment’ more than compensated for the fact that in debate he spoke ‘very heavily and clumsily’ and carried himself with a demeanour that was ‘stiffness, and aukwardness itself, rigid as starched linen or buckram’ (Diary and Autobiography, 2.150, 173).

Sherman's wartime public service also embraced Connecticut as well as congress. From 1777 to 1779, and again in 1782, he was a member of the council of safety, which advised Governor Jonathan Trumbull between sessions of the legislature, and he was a delegate to two important regional conventions on vital economic issues in 1777 and 1778, at which he favoured stabilizing the inflated currency by ‘taxing high and often to defray the expenses of the war’ (Collier, 164) and imposing wage and price regulations to spread the financial burden equitably across society.

War-weariness in a state reeling under fiscal problems, plus the voters' inherent suspicion of allowing one man to represent them for too long, led to Sherman's eclipse. The bulk of his service in the continental and confederation congresses was over by November 1781; he returned for the first six months of 1784 only because his successors were disqualified by a provision in the articles of confederation that limited delegates to three years of service in every six. He spent his time at home repairing his own finances, helping to revise Connecticut's statute laws, serving as New Haven's first mayor (from 10 February 1784), sitting on the superior court bench, and serving as an assistant until forced to resign in May 1785 by the terms of an act limiting multiple office-holding in Connecticut.

Sherman's most important public service began in May 1787, when he was appointed a delegate to a convention called to see if and how the cumbersome structure of federal government under the articles of confederation might be repaired. Among the men who convened at Philadelphia at the end of May, only Benjamin Franklin had more political experience; only Franklin, too, at the age of eighty-one, was older. William Pierce of Georgia recorded a character sketch which captures Sherman's strengths and weaknesses:
He is awkward, un-meaning, and unaccountably strange in his manner. But in his train of thinking there is something regular, deep and comprehensive; yet the oddity of his address … and that strange New England cant [in his speaking] … make everything that is connected with him grotesque and laughable; and yet he deserves infinite praise—no Man has a better Heart or a clearer Head. (Farrand, 3.88–9)
Sherman participated extensively in the debates of what came to be called the constitutional convention—only James Madison spoke more—and, sensitive as always to the wishes of his constituents, sought to strengthen the union of the states while doing as little as possible to weaken the power and integrity of the existing state governments. His best-known and most important contribution was as the prime architect of what became known as the Connecticut compromise. With smaller states threatening to abandon the union if voting in congress were made proportional to a state's population or wealth, on 11 June he proposed that the legislature be bicameral, that representation in the lower house be based on relative population, and that in the upper house each state have one vote. His arguments eventually held sway, and the delegates, including Sherman and William Samuel Johnson, signed an engrossed copy of the constitution on 17 September 1787. After six days of consideration, the Connecticut ratifying convention approved the constitution on 9 January 1788, thanks in part to the ‘genuine good sense and discernment’ of Sherman (Hoadley and Labaree, 6.564). In October 1788 the legislature elected the younger, better-educated, and more polished Johnson and Oliver Ellsworth as senators; Sherman was chosen as one of five representatives, a mixed blessing since it forced him to give up the seat on the superior court on which he had sat since 1766. In congress from March 1789 to March 1791 he spoke in favour of using high import duties to create a national revenue, supported the full funding of the federal debt and assumption of the states' debts, and insisted that, if a bill of rights were thought necessary, it be appended to, not included in, the constitution. When Johnson resigned from congress in May 1791 the Connecticut assembly elected Sherman to the senate, where he served until 9 March 1793; his efforts there are difficult to discern since senate debates were secret. In deteriorating health for several years, he died of typhoid fever at New Haven on 23 July 1793.

Often overlooked today, Sherman had a major role in the transition of the American colonies into a nation of united states. He signed more important documents than any other of the founding fathers.

Harold E. Selesky

Sources  

J. H. Trumbull and C. J. Hoadly, eds., The public records of the colony of Connecticut, 15 vols. (1850–90), vols. 9–15 · C. J. Hoadly and others, eds., The public records of the state of Connecticut, 11 vols. (1894–1967), vols. 1–8 · Diary and autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, 1–4 (1961) · P. H. Smith and others, eds., Letters of delegates to congress, 1774–1789, 26 vols. (1976–2000), vols. 1–18, 21 · W. C. Ford, ed., Journals of the continental congress (1904–36) · M. Farrand, ed., Records of the federal convention of 1787, revised edn (1937) · L. G. DePauw and C. B. Bickford, eds., Documentary history of the first federal congress of the United States of America, 14 vols. (1972–98) · C. Collier, Roger Sherman's Connecticut: Yankee politics and the American revolution (1971) · J. P. Boyd, ‘Sherman, Roger’, DAB · R. S. Boardman, Roger Sherman: signer and statesman (1938) · T. T. Sherman, Sherman genealogy (1920) · J. G. Rommel, Connecticut's Yankee patriot: Roger Sherman (1979) · O. Zeichner, Connecticut's years of controversy, 1750–1776 (1949) · R. L. Bushman, From puritan to Yankee: character and the social order in Connecticut, 1690–1765 (1967)

Archives  

American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, papers · Connecticut State Library, corresp. · Litchfield Historical Society, Connecticut · Yale U., Beinecke L., papers |  Connecticut Historical Society, American Revolution · Connecticut Historical Society, Jonathan Trumbull papers · Connecticut Historical Society, William Williams papers · Connecticut Historical Society, William Samuel Johnson papers · Connecticut State Library, Church records · Connecticut State Library, Connecticut archives · Connecticut State Library, Jonathan Trumbull papers · Connecticut State Library, Superior Court records · L. Cong., Peter Force transcripts · L. Cong., Jeremiah Everts papers · New York Historical Society, Horatio Gates papers · NYPL, Bancroft collection · Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, Baldwin family collection


Likenesses  

R. Earle, oils, 1775, Yale U. Art Gallery · J. Trumbull, group portrait, oils, c.1791, Yale U. Art Gallery · C. B. Ives, statue, c.1870, Statuary Hall, US Capitol · C. B. Ives, statue, c.1870, State Capitol, Hartford, Connecticut

Wealth at death  

approx. £4470 [probably Connecticut pounds]: probate inventory, quoted in Sherman, Sherman genealogy, 196