Rediscovering Americans: Roger Sherman

Written by Samuel Postell, director of the Center for Liberty and Learning

Thomas Jefferson argued that the Declaration of Independence signalled “the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of god.” Roger Sherman, without whom we may have never gotten our Constitution, is perhaps the best example of what man may accomplish with the freedom to pull himself up by his bootstraps.

Roger Sherman was born in Newton Massachusetts in 1721. His family were poor farmers and he didn’t have an education beyond what his father had on his bookshelves and the local grammar school. At a young age, Sherman became a shoe maker to help his family make ends meet. Luckily, the local minister who had a Harvard education noticed Sherman’s love of learning and quenched the boy’s thirst.

When his father died in 1743, Roger moved in with his mother and siblings in New Milford, CT. He and his brother opened a store and he became involved in the town’s political affairs. He became the town clerk, and then the county surveyor.

He studied law and was admitted to the state bar in 1754 and served in the state legislature from 1755 to 1766. Sherman was chosen for the Second Continental Congress and he signed the Declaration of Independence. In the Continental Congress he also helped draft the Articles of Confederation.

However, Sherman’s most important contribution came at the Constitutional Convention where he was the second eldest member (he was 66, and Benjamin Franklin was 81). Sherman was not a supporter of the Virginia Plan (the plan that would later become the Constitution; see our videos on the VA plan here) and made motions or seconds 160 times. This is second only to James Madison who made motions or seconds 177 times.

Sherman did not like the Virginia Plan because he believed that the legislature should not be a bicameral one, and that the only deficiency of the Articles of Confederation was that the congress could not enforce its laws. He said “The problem with the old government was not that it had acted foolishly or threatened anybody's liberties, but that it had simply been unable to enforce its decrees.”

However, Sherman realized that he was fighting a losing battle. The Virginia Plan established a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in each chamber. The New Jersey plan, modelled upon the Articles of Confederation, established a unicameral legislature with equal representation. After the supporters of each plan could not come to agreement, Sherman brokered what would become known as the Connecticut Compromise. In this compromise, the House would be elected by the people of the states and have proportional representation, and the Senate would be chosen by state legislatures and have equal representation.

Ultimately, Sherman’s compromise is responsible for getting the two sides to come to agreement. If it were not for his efforts, the convention may have disbanded like the Annapolis Convention had, and we may have never adopted the Constitution.

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