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Roger Sherman Biography

Early Life and Career Beginnings

Roger Sherman was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1721, into a modest family where his father William was a farmer and shoemaker. His early life was shaped by practical skills as he learned surveying and shoemaking. At the age of 19, after his father's death, Sherman moved the family to New Milford to join his oldest brother.

In New Milford by 1743, Sherman's knack for numbers and his self-taught knowledge led him to land a significant role as the surveyor for New Haven County and later Litchfield County. His career as a surveyor embedded him deeply into the community and its affairs. Here, his participation in local politics began to burgeon, powered by his vested interests in land speculation. 1749 marked Sherman's marriage to Elizabeth Hartwell, further cementing his commitment to community and starting a family of his own, which eventually included several children who would go on to serve as officers in the Continental Army.

Sherman's entrepreneurial spirit didn't stop at surveying. He ventured into retail, opening a store laden with varied yet essential goods ranging from household furniture to general merchandise across from Yale College in New Haven post-relocation in 1761. This move provided economic stability and placed him at a vantage point, near one of the colonies' key educational institutions, broadening his social networks.

Beyond business, Sherman was drawn to law, which he studied without formal education. By 1754, he was admitted to the bar, carving a path that saw him take up roles such as Justice of the Peace for Litchfield County. These roles were crucial in shaping his understanding of colonial law and governance, skills that proved vital in his later political undertakings.

His alignment with local politics strengthened over the years. He served as a Justice of the Peace in 1765 for New Haven County and then quickly ascended to roles impacting wider spheres, marked by engaging with revolutionary sentiments sweeping through the colonies. By the mid-1760s, Sherman participated actively in Connecticut's General Assembly, laid foundations as a treasurer at Yale College, and expressed increasingly strong stances against British impositions on the colonies such as through the Revenue Acts.

Between personal tragedies and professional shifts, including the death of his first wife and subsequent remarriage to Rebecca Prescott in 1763, Sherman's life reflected a blend of resilience and adaptability—traits that undergirded his political ethos. His upbringing, career beginnings, and legal pursuits equipped him uniquely as a leader whose contributions spanned drafting pivotal national documents and fostering state and national legislations.

Roger Sherman as a young man, working as a surveyor and studying law

Major Political Achievements

Throughout the unfolding drama of the American Revolution and the critical years that followed, Roger Sherman stood as a committed advocate and skilled architect in the foundational narratives of American independence and governance. By 1774, Sherman was elected to the first Continental Congress, an elite gathering destined to challenge British dominion over the American colonies. His propensity for clear thought and fidelity to colonial rights equipped him admirably to confront the complex negotiations that lay ahead.

During his tenure with the Continental Congress, Sherman's involvement deepened with every passing bill and debate. He became an instrumental figure in laying the groundwork for significant changes. His contributions transcended verbal articulations, finding resonance in his active role in drafting the Declaration of Independence. Alongside Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Sherman was part of the Committee of Five that was crucial in shaping this decisive document which eloquently articulated the colonies' case for sovereignty. His legislative creativity continued with his pivotal work on the Articles of Confederation, advocating for a structured yet flexible governance framework. His legal acumen, coupled with a solid understanding of compromise and collaboration, empowered him to handle these significant undertakings with precision.

Perhaps most prominently, Roger Sherman's political acumen shone during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In an era marked by fervent debates over the configuration of the United States government structure, Sherman advocated passionately for what would become one of this country's cornerstones—the Connecticut Compromise. This famed compromise offered a bicameral legislature framework, ingeniously balancing representation by providing equal votes in the Senate and apportioned representation in the House based on population.1 This deal quelled significant controversy between states with varying sizes and populations and crafted a dual-system of legislature that would ensure federal coherence and equality.

Sherman remains the sole historical figure to have etched his signature across all four major U.S. state papers:

  • The Continental Association
  • The Declaration of Independence
  • The Articles of Confederation
  • The United States Constitution

This singular achievement underscores his active participation and intrinsic commitment to American legislative evolution. Each document represented a cornerstone upon which the national identity and legal framework of America were built, capturing the essence of liberation, self-governance, unity, and constitutional order.

Roger Sherman at the Constitutional Convention, advocating for the Connecticut Compromise

Later Life and Legacy

Following his invaluable contributions during the Constitutional Convention, Roger Sherman continued to direct his energies toward nurturing the nascent government under the guidelines of the new Constitution. In 1789, the people of Connecticut elected Sherman to the United States House of Representatives, highlighting the entrustment of his legislative capabilities and wisdom in guiding the foundational phase of American governance. During his tenure in Congress, Sherman was known for pushing pragmatic legislation that reflected the economic interests of New England. He ardently supported protective tariffs which would shield local manufacturers, preaching the importance of a self-sufficient American industrial base.

Sherman staunchly backed the federal assumption of state debts, a cornerstone of Alexander Hamilton's financial plans for the federal government. His support of such fiscal policies played a substantial role in stabilizing the young nation's economy and determining the locus of financial power between states and the federal establishment.2 His economic acumen was instrumental in supporting the establishment of a national bank.

In 1791, Sherman filled the vacancy caused by William Samuel Johnson's departure from the Senate. His commitment to the upper chamber of Congress was short-lived. Roger Sherman's health began to falter only a few years into his term as a senator and he passed away in 1793 from typhoid fever.

The immediate aftermath of Sherman's passing reverberated through his immediate circle and the broader national context, where his contributions had set some of the key precedents for the governance of the republic. The foundational fiscal and economic policies he helped craft continued to shape American financial strategies and legislative frameworks well into the future.

The legacy of Roger Sherman extends beyond his immediate political career into familial lines intertwined with public service. His grandson, Roger Sherman Baldwin, retained and amplified this legacy by serving as the Governor of Connecticut and as a U.S. Senator. Descendants such as George F. Hoar and William M. Evarts later emerged as influential figures on the national stage—Hoar serving as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and Evarts as the Secretary of State under President Rutherford B. Hayes and also as a U.S. Senator.

Roger Sherman epitomizes a steadfast adherence to initially revolutionary and subsequently foundational principles that guided America through tumultuous early years and beyond. His contributions to creating a balance between state and federal powers, advocating for economic self-reliance, and shaping early American legal and political infrastructure remain potent symbols in contemporary U.S. politics. These efforts paint him as a pioneer of early American politics and as a perpetual figure of study for legal scholars, political scientists, and historians who seek to decipher the intricacies of legislation, governance, and state-building activities that helped define American democracy.

  1. Rakove JN. Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution. New York: Knopf; 1996.
  2. Chernow R. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press; 2004.