Roger Sherman, the subject of the present article, was a native of Newton, Massachusetts, where he was born on the 19th of April 1721. His ancestors were from Dedham, in England, whence they removed to America about the year 1635, and settled at Watertown in the same state. The father of Mr. Sherman, whose name was William, was a respectable farmer, but from his moderate circumstances was unable to give his son the advantages of an education, beyond those which were furnished by a parochial school.
He was early apprenticed to a shoemaker, which occupation he followed for some time after he was twenty-two years of age. It is recorded of him, however, that he early, evinced an uncommon thirst for knowledge, and was wont, even while at work on his seat, to have a book open before him, upon which he would employ every moment, not necessarily devoted to the duties of his calling.
The father of Mr. Sherman died in the year 1741, leaving his family, which was quite numerous, in circumstances of dependence. The care of the family devolved upon Roger, his older brother having sometime before removed to New-Milford, Connecticut. This was a serious charge for a young man only nineteen years of age. Yet, with great kindness and cheerfulness did he engage in the duties which devolved upon him. Towards his mother, whose life was protracted to a great age, be continued to manifest the tenderest affection, and assisted two of his younger brothers to obtain a liberal education. These, afterwards, became clergymen of some distinction in Connecticut.
It has already been observed, that an older brother had established himself in New-Milford, Connecticut. In 1743, it was judged expedient for the family, also, to remove to that place. Accordingly, having disposed of their small farm, they became residents of New-Milford, in June of that year. This journey was performed by young Roger on foot, with his tools on his back.
At New-Milford, he commenced business as a shoemaker but not long after he relinquished his trade, having entered into partnership with his older brother, in the more agreeable occupation of a country merchant.
Mr. Sherman early evinced, as has already been observed, an unusual thirst for knowledge. This led him to seize with avidity every opportunity to acquire it. The acquisitions of such a mind, even with the disadvantages under which he labored, must have been comparatively easy, and his improvement was rapid. The variety and extent of his attainments, even at this early age, are almost incredible. He soon became known in the County of Litchfield, where he resided, as a man of more than ordinary talents, and of unusual skill in the science of mathematics. In 1745, only two years after his removal into the above county, and at the age of twenty-four, he was appointed to the office of county surveyor. At this time it appears, also, he had made no small advance in the science of astronomy. As early as 1748, he supplied the astronomical calculations for an almanac, published in the city of New-York, and continued this supply for several succeeding years.
In 1749, he was married to Miss Elizabeth Hartwell, of Stoughton, Massachusetts. After her decease, in 1760, he married Miss Rebecca Prescot, of Danvers, in the same state. By these wives he had fifteen children, seven by the former, and eight by the latter.
In 1754, Mr. Sherman was admitted as an attorney to the bar. It is a trite remark, that great effects often proceed from small causes, and that not infrequently some apparently trivial occurrence, exercises a controlling influence over the whole after life of an individual. Both these remarks are eminently verified in the history of Mr. Sherman. While yet a young man, and, it is believed before he had relinquished his mechanical occupation, he had occasion to go to a neighboring town to transact some business for himself. A short time previous to this, a neighbor of his, in settling the affairs of a person deceased, became involved in a difficulty which required the assistance of legal counsel. The neighbor stated the case to young Sherman, and authorized him to seek the advice of the lawyer of the town to which he was going.
As the subject was not without intricacy, Sherman committed the case to paper, and on his arrival in the town, proceeded with his manuscript to the lawyer’s office. In stating the case to the lawyer, he had frequent occasion to recur to his manuscript. This was noticed by the lawyer, and, as it was necessary to present a petition in the case to some court, Sherman was requested to leave the paper, as an assistance in framing the petition. The modesty of young Sherman would scarcely permit him to comply with this request. “The paper,” he said, “was only a memorandum drawn by himself to assist his memory.” He gave it, however, into, the hands of the lawyer, who read it with surprise. He found it to contain a clear statement of the case, and remarked, that with some slight verbal alterations, it would be equal to any petition which he himself could draft.
The conversation now passed to the situation and circumstances of young Sherman. The lawyer urged him seriously to think upon the profession of law. At this time, he was deeply involved in the care of his father’s family, which, as before noticed, were left in a great measure destitute at his decease. The suggestion, however, appears not to have been lost upon him. A new direction was given to his thoughts. A stronger impulse was added to his energies. His leisure hours were devoted to the acquisition of legal knowledge, and in 1754, as already remarked, he entered upon a professional career, in which few have attained to greater honor and distinction.
From this date, Mr. Sherman soon became distinguished as a judicious counselor, and was rapidly promoted to offices of trust and responsibility. The year following his admission to the bar, he was appointed a justice of the peace for New-Milford, which town he also represented the same year in the colonial assembly. In 1759, he was appointed judge of the court of common pleas for the county of Litchfield, an office which he filled with great reputation for the two following years.
At the expiration of this time that is in 1761 he became a resident of New-Haven, of which town he was soon after appointed a justice of the peace, and often represented it in the colonial assembly. To these offices was added, in 1765, that of judge of the court of common pleas. About the same time he was appointed treasurer of Yale College, which institution bestowed upon him the honorary degree of Master of Arts.
In 1766, he was elected by the freemen of the colony a member of the upper house, in the general assembly of Connecticut. The members of the upper house were called assistants. This body held their deliberations with closed doors. The precise rank, therefore, which Mr. Sherman held among his colleagues, or the services which he rendered his country, cannot now be ascertained. Few men, however, were better fitted for a deliberative assembly. During the same year, the confidence of his fellow-citizens was still further expressed, by his appointment to the office of judge of the superior court. The offices, thus conferred upon him, during the same year, were not then considered as incompatible. He continued a member of the upper house for nineteen years, until 1785, at which time the two offices which he held being considered as incompatible, he relinquished his seat at the council board, preferring his station as a judge. This latter office he continued to exercise until 1789, when he resigned it, on being elected to congress under the federal Constitution.
At an early stage of the controversy between Great Britain and her American colonies, Mr. Sherman warmly espoused the cause of his country. This was to be expected of him. The man of so much integrity and consistency of character, of such firmness and solidity, would not be likely to be wanting in the day of trial. It was fortunate for America that she had some such men in her councils, to balance and keep in check the feverish spirits which, in their zeal, might have injured, rather than benefited the cause. Mr. Sherman was no enthusiast, nor was he to be seduced from the path of duty by motives of worldly ambition, or love of applause. He early perceived that the contest would have to be terminated by a resort to arms. Hence, he felt the paramount importance of union among the colonies. He felt the full force of the sentiment, “United we stand, divided we fall.” From the justice or clemency of Great Britain, he expected nothing; nor, at an early day, could he perceive any rational ground to hope that the contest could be settled, but by the entire separation of American and British interests. He was, therefore, prepared to proceed, not rashly, but with deliberate firmness, and to resist, even unto blood, the unrighteous attempts of the British parliament to enthrall and enslave the American colonies.
Of the celebrated congress of 1774, Mr. Sherman was a conspicuous member. He was present at the opening of the session; and continued uninterruptedly a member of that body for the long space of nineteen years, until his death in 1793.
Of the important services which he rendered his country, during his congressional career, it is difficult and even impossible to form an estimate. He served on various committees, whose deliberations often involved the highest interest of country. During the continuance of the war of the revolution, the duties of committees were frequently arduous and fatiguing. No man adventured upon these duties with more courage; no one exercised a more indefatigable zeal than did Mr. Sherman. He investigated every subject with uncommon particularity, and formed his judgment with a comprehensive view of the whole. This, together with the well known integrity of his character, attracted universal confidence. He naturally became, therefore, one of the leading and most influential members of congress, during the whole period of his holding a seat in that body.
Of the congress of 1775, Mr. Sherman was again a member; but of this day of clouds and darkness, when the storm which had long lowered, began to burst forth on every side, we can take no further notice than to mention, with gratitude and admiration, the firmness of those assembled sages who with courage, breasted themselves to the coming shock. They calmly and fearlessly applied themselves to the defense of the liberties of their country, having counted the cost, and being prepared to surrender their rights only with their lives.
In the congress of 1776, Mr. Sherman took a distinguished part. He assisted on committees appointed to give instructions for the military operations of the army in Canada; to establish regulations and restrictions on the trade of the United States; to regulate the currency of the country; to furnish supplies for the army; to provide for the expenses of the government; to prepare articles of confederation between the several states, and to propose a plan of military operations for the campaign of 1776.
During this year, also, he received the most flattering testimony of the high estimation in which he was held by congress, in being associated with Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Livingston, in the responsible duty of preparing the Declaration of Independence.
The reputation of Mr. Sherman abroad, was cordially reciprocated in the state in which he resided. Few men were ever more highly esteemed in Connecticut. The people understood his worth. They respected him for his abilities, but still more for his unbending integrity. During the war, he belonged to the governor’s council of safety; and from the year 1784 to his death, he held the mayoralty of the city of New-Haven. In 1783, he was appointed, with the honorable Richard Law, both of whom were at this time judges of the superior court, to revise the statutes of the state. This service, rendered doubly onerous to the committee from their being instructed to digest all the statutes relating to the same subject into one, and to reduce the whole to alphabetical order was performed with great ability. Many useless statutes were omitted; others were altered to correspond to the great changes which had then recently taken place in the state of the country, and the whole reduced to comparative order and simplicity.
Another expression of the public confidence awaited Mr. Sherman in 1787. Soon after the close of the war, the inefficacy of the old confederation between the states was apparent. The necessity of a federal constitution, by which the powers of the state governments and of the general government should be more nicely balanced, became everyday more obvious. Accordingly, in 1787, a general convention of the states, for forming a new constitution, was called, and Mr. Sherman, in connection with the learned Mr. Ellsworth and Dr. Johnson, were appointed to attend it, on the part of Connecticut. In this assemblage of patriots, distinguished for their political wisdom, Mr. Sherman was conspicuous, and contributed, in no small degree, to the perfection of that constitution, under which the people of America have for more than forty years enjoyed as much civil liberty and political prosperity as is, probably, compatible with the lapsed condition of the human race. Many of the convention, who warmly advocated the adoption of the constitution, were not, indeed, well pleased with every feature of that instrument. To this number Mr. Sherman belonged. He was of the opinion, however, as were others that it was the best which, under existing circumstances, the convention could have framed. On his return to Connecticut, when the question respecting the adoption of the Constitution came before the convention of that state, its adoption, according to the testimony of the late Chief Justice Ellsworth was, in no small degree, owing to the influence of Mr. Sherman. On that occasion, he appeared before the convention, and, with great plainness and perspicuity, entered into an explanation of the probable operation of the principles of the Constitution.
Under this new Constitution, he was elected a representative to congress, from the state of Connecticut. At the expiration of two years, a vacancy occurring in the senate, he was elevated to a seat in that body, an office which he continued to hold, and the duties of which he continued to discharge with honor and reputation to himself, and with great usefulness to his country, until the 23rd day of July, 1793, when he was gathered to his fathers, in the 73d year of his age.
In estimating the character of Mr. Sherman, we must dwell a moment upon his practical wisdom. This, in him, was a predominant trait. He possessed, more than most men, an intimate acquaintance with human nature. He understood the springs of human action in a remarkable degree, and well knew in what manner to touch them, to produce a designed effect. This practical wisdom, another name for common sense, powerfully contributed to guide him to safe results, on all the great political questions in which he was concerned; and assisted him to select the means which were best adapted to accomplish the best ends. With the habits and opinions, with the virtues and vices, the prejudices and weaknesses of his countrymen, he was also well acquainted. Hence, he understood, better than many others, who were superior to him in the rapidity of their genius, what laws and principles they would bear, and what they would not bear, in government. Of the practical wisdom of Mr. Sherman, we might furnish many honorable testimonies and numerous illustrations. We must content ourselves, however, with recording a remark of President Jefferson, to the late Dr. Spring, of Newburyport. During the sitting of Congress at Philadelphia, the latter gentleman, in company with Mr. Jefferson, visited the national hall. Mr. Jefferson pointed out to the doctor several of the members, who were most conspicuous. At length, his eye rested upon Roger Sherman. “That,” said he, pointing his finger, “is Mr. Sherman of Connecticut, a man who never said a foolish thing in his life.” Not less complimentary was the remark of Mr. Macon, the aged and distinguished senator, who has recently retired from public life: “Roger Sherman had more common sense than any man I ever knew.”
Another distinguishing trait in the character of Roger Sherman was his unbending integrity. No man, probably, ever stood more aloof from the suspicion of a selfish bias, or of sinister motives. In both his public and private conduct, he was actuated by principle. The opinion which appeared correct, he adopted, and the measure which appeared the best, he pursued, apparently uninfluenced by passion, prejudice, or interest. It was probably owing to this trait in his character, that he enjoyed such extraordinary influence in those deliberative bodies of which he was a member. In his speech, he was slow and hesitating. He had few of the graces of oratory; yet no man was heard with deeper attention. This attention arose from the solid conviction of the hearers, that he was an honest man. What he said, was indeed always applicable to the point, was clear, was weighty; and, as the late President Dwight remarked, was generally new and important. Yet the weight of his observations, obviously, sprung from the integrity of the man. It was this trait in his character, which elicited the observation of the distinguished Fisher Ames. “If I am absent,” said he, “during the discussion of a subject, and consequently know not on which side to vote, I always look at Roger Sherman, for I am sure if I vote with him I shall vote right.”
To the above excellent traits in the character of Mr. Sherman, it may be added, that he was eminently a pious man. He was long a professor of religion, and one of its brightest ornaments. Nor was his religion that which appeared only on occasions. It was with him a principle and a habit. It appeared in the closet, in the family, on the bench, and in senate house. Few men had a higher reverence for the Bible; few men studied it with deeper attention; few were more intimately acquainted with the doctrines of the gospel, and the metaphysical controversies of the day. On these subjects, he maintained an extended correspondence with some of the most distinguished divines of that period, among whom were Dr. Edwards, Dr. Hopkins, Dr. Trumbull, President Dickenson, and President Witherspoon, all of whom had a high opinion of him as a theologian, and derived much instruction from their correspondence with him.
If the character of a man’s religion is to be tested by the fruits it produces, the religion of Mr. Sherman must be admitted to have been not of this world. He was naturally possessed of strong passions; but over these he at length obtained an extraordinary control. He became habitually calm, sedate, and self-possessed. The following instance of his self-possession is worthy of being recorded.
Mr. Sherman was one of those men who are not ashamed to maintain the forms of religion in his family. One morning he called them together, as usual, to lead them in prayer to God: the “old family Bible” was brought out, and laid on the table. Mr. Sherman took his seat and beside him placed one of his children, a small child, a child of his old age; the rest of the family were seated round the room; several of these were now grown up. Besides these, some of the tutors of the college, and it is believed, some of the students, were boarders in the family, and were present at the time alluded to. His aged, and now superannuated mother, occupied a corner of the room, opposite to the place where the distinguished judge of Connecticut sat. At length he opened the Bible, and began to read. The child which was seated beside him, made some little disturbance, upon which Mr. Sherman paused, and told it to be still. Again he proceeded, but again he paused, to reprimand the little offender, whose playful disposition would scarcely permit it to be still. At this time, he gently tapped its ear. The blow, if it might be called a blow, caught the attention of his aged mother, who now with some effort rose from her seat, and tottered across the room.
At length, she reached the chair of Mr. Sherman, and in a moment most unexpected to him, she gave him a blow on the ear, with all the power she could summon. “There,” said she, “you strike your child, and I will strike mine.”
For a moment, the blood was seen rushing to the face of Mr. Sherman; but it was only for a moment, when all was as mild and calm as usual. He paused — he raised his spectacles — he cast his eye upon his mother — again it fell upon the book, from which he had been reading. Perhaps he remembered the injunction, “honor thy mother,” and he did honor her. Not a word escaped him; but again he calmly pursued the service, and soon after sought in prayer ability to set an example before his household, which should be worthy their imitation. Such self-possession is rare. Such a victory was worth more than the proudest victory ever achieved in the field of battle.