If James Madison offered the American republic a five-course meal of epicurean excellence, Roger Sherman was the short-order fry cook in the nearest greasy spoon, a block or two away from Independence Square…
The Collected Works of Roger Sherman ed. Mark David Hall (840 pages, Liberty Fund, 2016)
“Sherman’s air is the reverse of grace; there cannot be a more striking contrast to beautiful action, than the motions of his hands,” Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, John Adams, recorded of Connecticut’s delegate, Roger Sherman. “Generally he stands upright, with his hands before him, the fingers of his left hand clenched in a fist, and the wrist of it grasped with his right. But he has a clear head and sound judgment.” Let no one ever accuse Adams of being charitable in his descriptions of others! And, yet, what a vital description it is.
When perusing James Madison’s massive two-volume Notes on the Constitutional Convention, one would have to be blind not to notice how frequently Sherman proposes, disposes, debates, and lectures. As it turns out, only three other men spoke more than did Sherman. Still, almost no one in popular memory or mythology thinks too much or too often—or, sometimes, even at all—about Roger Sherman. His contributions, however vital, seem mechanical, lifeless, and… well, devoid of high political thought. Where is the eloquence on Natural Law, Natural Rights, patriotism, the dignity of the human person, or the deepest and most profound meaning of a republic? Sherman believed in all of these things, but he lacked the ability to express them with anything even resembling poetic language. If Madison offered the American republic a five-course meal of epicurean excellence, Sherman was the short-order fry cook in the nearest greasy spoon, a block or two away from Independence Square.
The second oldest man at the constitutional convention, Sherman, born in 1721, was, in so many ways, the ultimate Connecticut Yankee. Rooted in the Reformed theology of his day and gifted with seemingly unlimited energy for practical politics, Roger Sherman signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Only two other men could make the same claim. Even before the Revolution began, he had been active, signing the Articles of Association and the Declarations and Resolves, each in 1774. He served as the not-so-quiet patriot, but one that did the actual hard work of day-to-day politics.
Sometimes (more often than not), it wasn’t pretty, but it was absolutely necessary. He never elaborates on his love or admiration for natural law or natural rights. Rather, he takes them for granted as he works on securing such rights through the rule of law. Perhaps his most original contributions come from his admiration and extension into America of the common law, against the usurpations of admiralty law. Additionally, Sherman warned Americans repeatedly against the twin dangers of the “demos” and the “monarch.” Even the most restricted executive will abuse his power, he sagaciously noted, again and again. A “people” must trust its legislative branch to lead a republic, recognizing the legislative branch as the best—but never the perfect—embodiment of public sentiment and the sense of things. Further, as a good republican, Sherman argued for few laws, strongly and energetically enforced. Should a legislature pass laws merely for the sake of passing laws and frequently overturn its own laws after a year or two, the public will lose confidence in its ability to govern. In other words, Americans at every level should see laws as reflections of the natural and divine will, not playthings to be molded by human will.
The papers and works of Roger Sherman should also remind us that the founding was not about the establishment of libertarianism. Sherman not only wanted law to prohibit gambling and card-playing, but, as late as 1784, he believed that the state should brand an “A” on the forehead of convicted adulterers. Phew. And, I worry about spanking my misbehaving children!
In 2016, Liberty Fund Books published The Collected Works of Roger Sherman, edited by Mark David Hall. As I wrote proudly on the title page of my own hardback copy: “I have immense respect for MDH—this is beautifully edited and crafted. The whole book is a work of art.” From the wise selection of writings to the meticulous footnotes, edits, and indexing, this book really was crafted by a lover of books for other lovers of books. I’ve been impressed—to say the least—with Dr. Hall’s work over the years. If you’ve seen his extraordinary, two-volume, Collected Works of James Wilson (also published by Liberty Fund), you somewhat know what to expect. In comparison with this book, though, the two volumes on Wilson are only “essays in the craft” as Tolkien might say. I would not have the patience to edit books in this way, but I thank the Good Lord Above that He gifted others with such talent. No doubt, God graced Dr. Hall with innumerable gifts—but certainly with the gift of editing. Though a devout Protestant, Dr. Hall could’ve been a monk at Lindisfarne, graciously and painstakingly illuminating the Holy Word.
Part of what makes Dr. Hall such a great editor, though, is his mastery of the era and the subject. In the line of Dumas Malone, Lance Banning, Forrest McDonald, Kevin Gutzman, Rob McDonald, and others, Dr. Hall lives and breathes the American founding and its life and times. His own original scholarship on the era—such as his scholarly biography of Sherman, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (Oxford University Press, 2012)—informs his editing to the nth degree.
If you love books as works of art, the American founding, or history, you owe it to yourself to buy a copy of this work and have it sit proudly on your shelf (better yet, in your hands as you pour over it).
Even after reading The Collected Works of Roger Sherman, you won’t be convinced that Sherman is a great man or the equal of a John Adams, a Thomas Jefferson, or a James Madison. He was no demi-god of the republic. Yet, he mattered. Indeed, he mattered immensely.
The author wishes to thank Mark David Hall, Hans Eicholz, Liberty Fund, and the participants of the Liberty Fund Colloquium, April 19-22, 2018, Indianapolis, Indiana, for their many brilliant insights. If any such insights made it into this short review without their consent, he apologizes profusely!
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