Founding Fathers - Roger Sherman

Roger Sherman

Born: April 19, 1721 (Newton, Massachusetts)

Died: July 23, 1793 (New Haven, Connecticut)


This week we will take a look at one of the most significant names found on the Declaration of Independence, and in doing so we'll learn about a man whose name made it onto nearly all of our young nation's most important founding documents.  Roger Sherman was born just outside of Boston, MA in 1721, the second son of a cobbler named William and his wife, Mehetabel.  While only two years old the family moved south to a town that was little more than a frontier post, and Roger grew up in a strict Puritan environment with few creature comforts as his father worked hard to succeed as a farmer.  The young boy had access to his father's library, however, and showed an understanding of numbers and a thirst for knowledge early in life that led him to trudge long distances for regular school classes at the nearest school that was built when he was 13 years old.  Shortly before Roger's 20th birthday, his father died and since his older brother, William Jr., had left for Connecticut it was up to the young man to manage the estate and provide for his widowed mother and younger siblings.  In 1743 he moved the remaining family to New Milford, CT to join William, and he quickly expanded his expertise from farming and shoemaking to the more profitable pursuits of mercantile and surveying.  By 1745 he was named county surveyor, and the additional income allowed him to be able to purchase significant amounts of his own land.

Before long Roger Sherman was known and respected throughout the county, but he continued to visit the town where he had grown up, which had since been named Stoughton, and in 1749 he married a young lady he had met there by the name of Elizabeth.  The couple would have seven children together, and while his family grew Sherman's interests also expanded into new ventures, including opening a retail store and publishing almanacs for the following 11 years.  After being encouraged by a prominent attorney in nearby New Haven, he began teaching himself law and was admitted to the bar in 1754 despite not having any formal education.  A life of public service was soon to follow, as Sherman was elected to represent New Milford in the General Assembly the following year while also serving as a town selectman and justice of the peace.  Sadly, however, Elizabeth died at the age of 34 and the following year Sherman resigned his seat in the Assembly and moved to New Haven, CT.  Although he was no longer publishing his almanacs or holding office, he remained busy by opening a large general store and becoming actively involved in Yale College, where he served as both treasurer and professor while also helping fund the construction of a chapel on campus.  In 1962, while traveling from Stoughton to New Haven, a chance encounter along the road introduced Sherman to Rebecca Prescott, who became his second wife the following year.  The couple would have eight children together, and in little time Roger once again found himself involved in politics.

Throughout the 1760s Roger Sherman had become increasingly dissatisfied with British rule over their American colonies.  Believing that citizens needed to consent to the government over them, he objected to laws that were passed without legislative representation.  He supported non-violent protests such as boycotts, and retired from his business ventures in 1772 in order to focus on the cause of liberty.  As a representative during the First Continental Congress, Sherman signed the Continental Association which unified the colonies in an effort to financially pressure Parliament to repeal the Intolerable Acts by refusing to import, consume, or export certain goods.  Once fighting broke out between colonists and British troops shortly before the Second Continental Congress convened, the issue of independence became unavoidable.  Sherman's position that Parliament was not supreme likely contributed to his selection as a member of the five-man committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, which  soon became the second major document he would sign.  Just one day after being appointed to that group, Sherman was also placed on a committee that would draw up a form of government to unify the 13 colonies.  The Articles of Confederation that the men finalized the following year dismissed many of Sherman's ideas, but he nevertheless supported and signed the document.  He remained active in Congress, participating in committees such as Ways and Means, Board of War, and Treasury Board, until the war ended in 1781 and the Articles were finally ratified.

Returning home to New Haven, which was newly incorporated, Roger Sherman began serving a term as the city's first mayor in 1784, but he was also sent back to Congress that same year to complete the term of another delegate who had died while in office.  Perhaps his most notable contribution to our nation, however, came when he was sent to the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  With the state delegations unable to agree to a system of representation in Congress, Sherman submitted the Connecticut Compromise which proposed the formation of two houses - one with equal representation for all states and the other providing for increased representation for states having larger populations.  Although he personally didn't prefer such a bicameral form of government, the resulting agreement it created allowed for widespread support for the Constitution.  When chosen as one of Connecticut's representatives to sign the document, Sherman became the only person to affix his name to all four of the original founding documents.  Although he had been serving on the state's Superior Court, he decided to step down in order to became a member of the very first House of Representatives in 1789.  Two years later he was chosen to take a seat in the Senate as a replacement for another man who had chosen to resign.  Sherman was unable to complete the term, however, as deteriorating health forced him home after just two years.  He died in the summer of 1793, likely from typhoid fever, at the age of 72.

The signature of Roger Sherman can be found as the ninth name on the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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