Roger Sherman was one of the most significant of our Founding Fathers but is little known and appreciated today. He was deeply involved in national affairs from 1774-1793 and signed five of our nation’s most important founding documents. No other early American leader signed as many. His rise from humble beginnings to a position of prominence among our nation’s finest is remarkable.
Sherman was born on April 19, 1721 in Newton, Massachusetts. His father, William, was a farmer and cordwainer (shoemaker) and taught Roger, his second oldest son, his profession. As was common with tradesmen’s children, Roger did not receive much formal education, only completing grammar school.
That said, William Sherman had an extensive library and Roger spent much of his free time reading and educating himself. Sherman showed a natural gift for mathematics and was able to teach himself surveying.
When Sherman’s father died in 1743, Roger moved the family to Connecticut where he was hired as the surveyor for New Haven County in 1745 and, later, for Litchfield County. He also met Elizabeth Hartwell and the couple was married on November 17, 1749. They had seven children together and their three oldest sons all served as officers in the Continental army.
The ever-aspiring Sherman next decided to study law on his own. By 1754, he was admitted to the bar and just a year later was appointed Justice of the Peace for Litchfield County and won an election to Connecticut’s General Assembly.
Elizabeth died in 1760, leaving Roger a widower with seven children. He soon met Rebecca Prescott, a twenty-year-old niece of his brother’s wife. They married in 1763 and had eight children together.
Over the next decade, as things started to heat in the colonies, Sherman held several political positions including Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut, and became an advocate for the patriotic cause. The combination of his excellent record of service and his stance on the issues of the day led to his election as a delegate for Connecticut to the First Continental Congress in 1774, thus beginning his time on the national stage.
This legislative body met in Philadelphia to discuss their collective grievances with Parliament, primarily the recently enacted Coercive Acts which imposed harsh penalties on the colony of Massachusetts for their continued mischief. At this convention, Sherman agreed with and signed the two key documents created by this legislative body which signaled to King George that the colonists were not happy subjects.
One of these was a “Petition to the King” which outlined grievances against Parliament but largely held the King blameless, and the other was the Articles of Association (sometimes called the Continental Association) which implemented a boycott on English trade.
Congress adjourned in late October 1774 and Sherman returned home, but not for long. By May 1775, the relationship with England was getting worse and the fight at Lexington and Concord had already happened. Consequently, the colonies convened the Second Continental Congress and, once again, Sherman was chosen by Connecticut to represent the state.
A year into this convention, with no hope for a reconciliation with England, a Committee of Five was selected by Congress to draft what became our Declaration of Independence. This team comprised most of the heavy hitters of that era: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, as well as Roger Sherman. His selection gives clear indication of the respect Sherman’s peers had for him. Congress approved their draft and Sherman became one of its 56 signatories on July 4, 1776.
Another year passed and the war continued. Congress, on November 15, 1777, finally finished the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, essentially our first Constitution, which Sherman signed along with forty-eight others. Unfortunately, this system of government proved to be a failure and, in 1787, it was decided by our country’s leaders to convene a conference with the intention of improving it.
Sherman was selected to represent Connecticut at the Constitutional Convention and it was here he made his most significant mark. The conference was in danger of breaking down due to a conflict regarding how to determine representation in Congress. Large states like Virginia favored apportionment based on population and small states such as New Jersey wanted all states to have the same representation.
To break the impasse, Sherman crafted what came to be known as the Connecticut Compromise. It called for a lower house with representation based on population (the House of Representatives) and an upper house with equal representation (the Senate). Sherman’s plan was brilliant and quickly approved.
Finally, after much work, the delegates created and signed our current Constitution on September 17, 1787. By now, Sherman was 66 years old, the second oldest delegate at the Convention (Benjamin Franklin was the oldest), but there was no rest in sight.
After the new Constitution was ratified, Sherman was chosen to represent Connecticut in the House of Representatives in the first session of the new United States Congress in 1789. After serving two years, Sherman received his final political honor, being selected to serve as United States Senator for Connecticut, a position he held until his death on July 23, 1793.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should Roger Sherman and all he did for America matter to us today?
Roger Sherman is representative of the many great Americans who sacrificed and worked so diligently to create America. While our schoolbooks typically teach us about a few monumental figures like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams, the yeoman’s work of creating this wonderful country of ours was done by so many forgotten figures.
Moreover, Roger Sherman, a farmer’s son with limited formal education, is a shining example of what people from modest circumstances and with few opportunities can accomplish in this great country of ours by applying themselves. This sort of rags-to riches story can only happen in America and we need to be reminded of that fact.
SUGGESTED READING: “Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic” is an excellent book written by Mark Hall. Published in 2012, it details both Sherman’s life and the role religion played in the founding of our country.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.
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