Founding Fathers Friday: Roger Sherman

by Derrick G. Jeter

Few men could fill Roger Sherman’s shoes, though he filled many a man’s shoes . . . filled their orders for footwear. He was a cobbler—a shoemaker. Born in Stoughton, Massachusetts, on April 30, 1721, Sherman learned the shoemaking trade from his father. Sherman was so busy learning how to make shoes he had little time for formal education, as was common for many of the Founders. But he had a ready mind and cobbled together an education by reading books. One story has it that Sherman propped up books on his cobbler’s bench and studied while cutting leather and hammering nails into soles.
Sherman’s father died around 1741, leaving the young man with the responsibility to care for a large family. Perhaps it was this burden that motivated Sherman to pull of stakes and move to New Milford, Connecticut, where an older brother was living. In any case, Sherman moved his family, and he—if the story is true—walked the 150 miles from Stoughton to New Milford carrying his cobbler’s kit. No one knows whether he walked those miles in shoes he made, but if they held up they’d be great advertising: “Walk 150 miles in my shoes and you could walk 150 more.”
Once in New Milford, Sherman set right to work making shoes. Eventually, his mathematical aptitude landed him a position as county surveyor. And his love of writing led to the publication of journals and an almanac. He and his older brother also decided to open a store in New Milford (the first ever in that little village). And through his good-hearted nature in seeking to help a friend with a legal matter, Sherman wound up reading law books and passing the bar exam.
Not bad for a cobbler!
Now in his early thirties, this accomplished man of trade, business, mathematics, letters, and law—with his sweetheart, Elizabeth Hartwell and their seven children by his side—decided to enter public service. He was a justice of the peace, county judge, and in 1755 was elected to the Connecticut colonial legislature.
But tragedy stuck in 1760—his beloved Elizabeth died. Within the year, Sherman decided to move his family to Chapel Street in New Haven, across the from Yale. There he opened a bookstore and socialized with professors and students. Business was good. And then he fell in love again, marrying Rebecca Prescott (and produce eight more children). Managing his bookstore, and a brood of fifteen, somehow Sherman found time to serve in the legislature, as judge, and even treasurer of Yale for awhile, which honored him with an honorary degree.
Like many other Founders, Sherman was outraged by the passage of the Stamp Act. And when a convention was organized in Philadelphia, Sherman became a natural choice to represent Connecticut. He served in the First and Second Continental Congress from 1774 to 1781, and returned to serve from 1783 to 1784. As a member of Congress, Sherman also continue to serve locally—as judge and as a member on the committee of safety.
Sherman doesn’t have the sole distinction of taking part in the drafting of more than one significant document which formed the United States, but he was one of the few. He was on the Committee of Five that drafted the Declaration of Independence, along with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Livingston. He helped shape the Articles of Confederation and was a major player in the Constitutional Convention. During the Constitutional debates, it was Sherman who offered the great compromise to divide the legislative body into two branches: the Senate to be made up of two members from each state and the House of Representatives to be determined by proportion of population within each state. And so it has been for more than two hundred years. Where Sherman does have the sole distinction is in the fact that he alone signed four of the most important American documents: the Articles of Association (an agreement among the colonies to cease exportation of goods to Great Britain, Ireland, and the West Indies), the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
After the Constitution was signed and ratified, Sherman was elected as a representative and served in the House from 1789 to 1791. Then, he was elected as one of Connecticut’s senators. He served in the Senate until his death in 1793.
Thomas Jefferson had high praise for the cobbler of New Haven, writing that Sherman “never said a foolish thing in his life.” Wow! Now those are large shoes to fill . . . and if you don’t think so, then you’re just foolish.