July 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
The unsung co-author of the Declaration of Independence who did not own slaves
Spare a thought for New Haven's Roger Sherman.
As I was watching fireworks last night, my mind drifted off to thoughts of Roger Sherman, the first mayor of New Haven and the only one of the founders to sign all four of our founding documents. He was, in fact, the oldest representative to the Continental Congress, second only to Ben Franklin. But he’s not nearly as famous.
I’d like to how that came to be, especially given that Roger Sherman and John Adams, a future president and patriarch of a political dynasty, did not own slaves. Of the five men who drafted the Declaration of Independence, three of them—Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston and Ben Franklin—owned human beings as legal property. (In fairness to Franklin, he owned two, not hundreds, and freed them, because, he said, slavery was incompatible with the political principles of the American revolution.)
Hearst Connecticut Media owns nearly all the newspapers up the Connecticut shoreline. Its editorial board wrote the following piece. It’s what I was thinking about during fireworks last night. It’s a nice piece for a federal holiday. I hope you enjoy!
Let us now praise the overlooked Connecticut man who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Roger Sherman, born 300 years ago, deserves far more credit than he gets.
Jefferson, Adams and Franklin are household names. But the lesser-known Sherman is the only person who signed all four of the nation’s founding documents: the Declaration, the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and the Articles of Association, which cut off trade with Britain in 1774.
He should have his own Broadway show.
Roger Sherman is often described as “dour,” but he had almost magical influence. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he “never said a foolish thing in his life.”
The son of a farmer, Sherman never got beyond grammar school but earned an honorary degree from Yale. With his adroit political skills, he rose from New Milford selectman to the state’s General Assembly and eventually to the Continental Congress, the 13 Colonies’ makeshift government, where he served on more committees than anyone else. His many other jobs included mayor of New Haven, treasurer of Yale College and Superior Court judge.
Does it surprise anyone that Sherman served in both the U.S. House and Senate? By the time he died, he’d spent “more days in United States congresses than any man in America,” the late Connecticut State Historian Christopher Collier wrote the New York Times in 1987.
Sherman is often described as “dour,” but he had almost magical influence. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he “never said a foolish thing in his life.” A fellow delegate to the Continental Congress said that if he didn’t know how to vote, “I always look to Roger Sherman.”
And so Sherman was entrusted with drafting the Declaration with Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Robert R. Livingston of New York. He’s one of the Committee of Five shown in the famous painting “Declaration of Independence” by Connecticut’s Jonathan Trumbull. Sherman is the one with the weary eyes.
No wonder he looks tired. The man never rested. A decade after working on the Declaration, he was a prime mover behind the Great Compromise, also known as the Connecticut Compromise, at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
The fight was over whether states should be equally represented in Congress or whether larger states deserved a bigger say. The Connecticut Compromise did both: It gave each state an equal vote in the Senate and assigned seats based on population in the House. He broke the impasse.
Art lovers can see “Declaration of Independence” at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. Don’t try to go July 4, however. The museum is taking the day off, like the rest of us. A much larger version hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., which is also closed on Independence Day — which seems ironic, considering how hard Sherman worked for this day.
Go next weekend instead, and marvel at how lucky Connecticut is to lay claim to the man who had what his eulogizer called the “happy talent of judging what was feasible and what was not feasible, or what men would bear and what they would not bear in government.” Happy 300th birthday, Roger Sherman.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.