“‘Learn when to speak and when to silent sit.
Fools often speak and shew their want of wit.’
This was a favorite maxim of Connecticut’s homeliest, plainest-spoken, most practical statesman during the Revolution, who held every public office of any importance except the governorship, and the only American to take part in the making of four great documents: the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
Roger Sherman was born in Newton, Mass., but at the age of 22 moved to New Milford, where he plied the shoemaker’s trade. Tradition has it that he walked the entire distance with his cobbler’s tools on bis back. Lacking formal education he nevertheless began early to read widely in theology, history, mathematics, law, and science.
It soon became clear to him that shoemaking was an honest but not lucrative occupation, and he turned to land surveying. Settlement on a frontier required good surveyors. Sherman found himself in demand, especially with the forming of Litchfield County in 1752. He prospered, bought and sold land, became sole owner of New Milford’s first store and active in local affairs. For the average man these would have been obligations enough. Not so for Sherman. He applied his knowledge of astronomy to the publication of almanacs patterned after Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’. These appeared each year for more than a decade, up to 24 pages in length and containing quotations from English poets and his own aphorisms.
At the age of 33 he was admitted to the bar and the next year began a successful political career that stretched almost four decades. New Milford sent him to the General Assembly, where he learned about military finance and supply. Steadily, calmly, he advanced to higher office: a member of the Council or Upper House (1766-85), and simultaneously, a judge of the Superior Court (to 1789). He moved to New Haven and became treasurer of Yale College. In his 51st year the-pressure of public duties compelled his retirement from business.
As a merchant Sherman opposed England’s taxation of the colonies but gave only grudging support to the Sons of Liberty, whose radicalism he feared. Benedict Arnold, who also lived in New Haven and whose arrest as the result of a private quarrel Sherman had once ordered, particularly irritated Sherman. Conservative though he might be, Roger Sherman still was one of the first to deny the supremacy of Parliament. Echoing Thomas Hooker, he took the position that ‘no laws bind the people but such as they consent to be governed by, therefore, so far as the people of the colonies are bound by laws made without their consent, they must be in a state of slavery…’
As a delegate to the Continental Congress for eight years he served on more committees than any other member. With tireless energy, he applied himself to the mundane details of conducting the civilian side of the war. John Adams spoke of him as ‘an old Puritan, as honest as an angel and as firm in the cause of American independence as Mount Atlas.’ He was an adroit manager of legislation. Many considered him the most influential figure. Toward the end he drew up a series of amendments designed to strengthen what had admittedly been the weakest kind of confederation, including the power to regulate commerce, levy duties and establish a supreme court.
Next to Franklin, Sherman was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention. In her stirring book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote: ‘At sixty-six he was tall, lean, sharp-nosed … plainly dressed … his gestures, someone noted, ‘rigid as buckram’.’ This archetype of the Connecticut Yankee had a reputation for taciturnity. One of his political mottoes was: ‘When you are in a minority, talk, when you are in a majority, vote!’ In his country drawl, daughter came out as ‘dat-ter’ and applesauce sounded like ‘ap-plesass.’ But Jefferson remarked that however awkward his manner Sherman ‘never said a foolish thing in his life.’ And he was by no means silent. During the Convention he spoke 138 times, each speech short but pithy, only three others were more vocal.
Jeremiah Wadsworth of Hartford harbored suspicions as to whether Sherman favored a real national government or merely wanted to patch up the Confederacy. In his opinion Sherman was ‘as cunning as the Devil.’ Although he evidenced little faith in Jeffersonian democracy or popular elections, Sherman did conceive and put forth the compromise which settled the thorny question; of how the small states and the large ones could be most fairly represent-ted in the new Congress.
On the very warm morning of June 11, 1787, Roger Sherman stood up and, according to Madison, ‘proposed that the proportion of suffrage in the 1st branch (the House) should be according to the respective numbers of free inhabitants; and that in the second branch or Senate, each state should have one vote and no more.’ This idea had first been mentioned by him 11 years before at the Continental Congress. A month after his speech the Convention adopted his solution.
Upon signing the Constitution, Sherman launched a vigorous campaign Connecticut for its adoption. During this; period, moreover, he had often doubling in brass as mayor of New Haven, and he continued in this post even after his election to Congress in 1789. He fought for a sound credit system, favoring the establishment of a national bank and the assumption of all state debts incurred during the Revolution, as suggested by Hamilton. Two years later he replaced William Samuel Johnson in the Senate. This able old politician died, as he must have wished, still discharging his public duties both at home and in Congress.”
-Excerpt and (top) image courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Hartford Courant, “They Gave Us Liberty: Roger Sherman, (This is the third of 13 daily historical accounts of the lives of outstanding Connecticut leaders in Revolutionary War days. The series will conclude July 4,)” by Ellsworth S. Grant, Thursday, June 24, 1976