Today in 1721, Roger Sherman was born. A pivotal figure of the American founding period, he was only one of only two people to sign the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, and the United States Constitution.
From humble beginnings as a shoemaker in Connecticut, Sherman’s doings influenced American republicanism to an extent few matched. Thomas Jefferson once praised the man, commenting that he had “never said a foolish thing in his life.”
During the Philadelphia Convention, he organized the Connecticut Compromise, a successful measure of conciliation in regard to apportionment between larger and smaller states. While nationalists such as Edmund Randolph and James Madison proposed a framework that featured two houses, both of which were to be filled on the basis of state population, William Paterson’s New Jersey plan maintained one vote for each state, similar to that which existed under the Articles of Confederation. The deal that Sherman brokered led to a system in which one house would be apportioned by state population, and the other to be equally represented by each state.
During the 1770s and 1780s, a money catastrophe consumed the fledgling republic. As the debasement of money became a pressing issue in the Critical Period, Sherman maintained a hardline dedication to bullion. A noteworthy hard money warrior, the New Englander proposed a clause in the Philadelphia Convention that prohibited the printing of paper money at both a state and federal level. While some clung to the belief that fiat should be embraced at the will of the states, it was Sherman’s vision that won out.
Perhaps most importantly, Sherman considered the proper role of the American president as “nothing more than an institution for carrying the will of the Legislature into effect.” Believing that the executive should carry a subdued role as the general agent of the states, he shunned the notion that a singular executive should possess as much power as a hereditary monarch. He also joined George Mason in backing a proposal that gave the states a mechanism to alter the Constitution in a manner that would bypass the general government entirely.
During the ratification campaign, Sherman insisted that the states retained all powers not expressly delegated.
“The powers vested in the federal government are only Such as respect the common interest of the Union, and are particular defined,” he declared. During the ratification campaign, he also professed that “each State retains its Sovereignty in what respects its own internal government.” When the general government engaged in overreach, and “leaps over those bounds and interferes with the rights of the State governments,” he wrote, those states “will be powerful enough to check it.”
Several years later, Sherman supported the 10th Amendment on the grounds that such a principle had already been guaranteed implicitly through the ratification of the unamended Constitution. While he initially believed that a bill of rights was unnecessary, he played an active role in ensuring its adoption in the First Congress. Instead of aligning with Madison’s original proposal to incorporate the amendments into the main body of the Constitution, Sherman persuaded Congress to enumerate them in a list at the end of the document.
Because Sherman died early in Washington’s second term, and his notoriety was overshadowed by many other characters in his generation, he is almost completely forgotten today. A northerner that generally believed in decentralized political power, he was an incredibly instrumental figure in a crucial era.