A popular contemporary view of the U.S. Constitution holds that it established a strong national government, but this has not always been the accepted viewpoint. In the early days of our founding, many Americans feared a strong central government, which could destroy the sovereignty of the individual states. Among those was a particularly capable and determined man who recognized this threat and feared what might happen if the states became obsolete. He believed the future of American liberty was intertwined with the destiny of the states. One could not survive without the other. He fought valiantly to defend the states from being overpowered by the national government. His name was Roger Sherman. This is the story of how he defied the nationalists to defend the rights of the states.
At an early age Roger Sherman became aware of the fragility of liberty and the necessity of protecting it. He was born in April 1721 and grew up in Stoughton, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Boston, where a local minister helped educate him. The minister taught him the value of freedom and liberty and the responsibility of standing up against an unjust government. He took these lessons to heart and demonstrated it not long after moving to Connecticut when he wrote a letter denouncing seizure of private property. As a member of Connecticut’s General Assembly, he opposed Britain’s efforts to dominate the colonies through taxation. Sherman insisted that Britain had no right to exercise unchecked legislative power over the colonies. His dedication to liberty inspired his neighbors to elect him to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. Altogether he served 1,543 days. He was part of the committee that wrote the Declaration of Independence and later the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution. After independence was achieved in 1783, he continued to serve as a delegate in the Confederation Congress. He was one of Connecticut’s leading statesmen, and as such was also recognized as a champion of states’ rights.
Roger Sherman’s experience in the Continental and Confederation Congresses showed him to be an ardent defender of the powers enjoyed by each of the states. He fervently believed that the individual states most closely represented the rights and interests of each of its citizens. He also believed all states should be granted the same rights and privileges. It was this view that persuaded him to take up the cause of those living in Vermont. At the time the region was called the New Hampshire Grants and was claimed by both New Hampshire and New York. At the request of the region’s inhabitants, he petitioned Congress that the body recognize the state’s sovereignty. This was eventually done in March 1791. Despite the lengthy struggle, Sherman stayed the course in the belief that no state had the power to interfere with the affairs of other states. Under the Articles of Confederation, this domination by one state, or by a group of states, was prevented by limiting each state to one vote in Congress. The Articles also limited Congress in what powers it had over the states. The principle limitation was the inability of the body to levy taxes or other forms of revenue from the states. This ensured there would be no destruction of each state’s autonomy. His time in Congress exposed him to the views of James Madison of Virginia who argued for a stronger national government. He came to agree that the government needed to be given certain additional powers over those in the Articles of Confederation but not at the expense of the states.
Sherman intended to champion the cause of individual states at the 1787 convention, but it proved a battle from the start. He arrived in Philadelphia just in time to hear James Madison present his Virginia Plan calling for an entirely new government. In this new government, a new national legislature would have the power to act independently of the states. Sherman was shocked to hear that the legislature would have the ability to veto any state law that conflicted with national laws. Such oversight, Sherman feared, could destroy the independence each state enjoyed over its affairs. He believed if this proposal was adopted then it would only be a matter of time before the states became nothing but vassals of the national government. Addressing his fellow delegates, he vehemently denied Congress had authority over states except for defense, commerce and treaties. All other powers rested with the individual states. He insisted that it was the responsibility of state governments to keep the national government in line, not the other way around. The Virginia Plan ran counter to this line of thinking. Sherman further grasped how easy it would be for these new federal powers to grow since Madison’s proposal called for a new composition of the national legislature.
Despite his fear of the legislature’s new power, Sherman was more critical of how the basis for representation would place one group of states at the mercy of another group. Madison argued that the legislature should have two houses and that both houses should be based on the population of each state. Each state was to be divided into equal districts and each district would select a representative. This scheme undoubtedly favored large states like Virginia, which had greater populations, over small states like Connecticut. Sherman and other delegates believed one house needed to have equal representation, no matter what size the state’s population. He based his argument on the model of the Confederation Congress, which allowed one vote per state. If this model were abandoned, he feared it would not be long before only the larger states set national policy. It was critical that small states retain their independence and voice. On June 6, 1787 he supported a motion to allocate seats in one house equally among the states. He knew it was not enough just to give states an equal voice in the government though.
While the proposal to distribute seats in one house equally solved one problem, Sherman still feared the demise of state institutions as the national government was to be formed without the assistance of the states. Under Madison’s proposed government, one house, the House of Representatives, was to be elected directly by the American people while the second house, the Senate, was to be appointed by the first house. The only role the states enjoyed was the ability to select members for appointment. Sherman opposed this proposal on the fear that it would work “to abolish the State Gov[ernmen]ts.” He believed members of the Senate should be appointed by the state legislatures. In this manner senators would remain “vigilant in supporting their rights against infringement by the legislature or executive of the United States.” It also made good political sense since the state legislatures would have a better grasp of each member’s qualifications than the larger House of Representatives would. On June 7th, the day after the motion for equal representation, Sherman seconded a motion calling for U.S. Senators to be chosen by the state legislatures. In securing this important change, Sherman’s actions distinguished himself even more in the eyes of his fellow delegates.
The heated debates over the structure and election of the legislative branch threatened to derail the writing of the Constitution. Sherman and his colleagues were determined to protect the interests of the states. On June 11th he addressed the members of the convention and told them that “as the States would remain possessed of certain individual rights, each State ought to be able to protect itself.” Madison and the other hard-core nationalists were just as committed to the Virginia Plan. The convention finally realized some form of compromise was needed. In early July Sherman was appointed to a committee designed to find a solution to the deadlock. The result was the Connecticut Compromise, also known as the “Great Compromise,” which stipulated that one branch of the legislature would be based on population and the second would be based on equality. Sherman was satisfied when he realized that all of the states would be treated fairly under the new national government. His satisfaction increased after the convention included a series of clauses that expressly stipulated what Congress could and could not do. He now believed the Constitution protected the rights of the states. Pleased with these restrictions on the national government, Sherman signed the Constitution on September 17, 1787.
Roger Sherman remained tireless in his fight to defend the authority and rights of the individual states. In the fight for ratification, he penned articles arguing how the powers of Congress “are specifically defined, so that the particular states retain their Sovereignty in all other matters.” One of those sovereign matters was holding their representatives accountable. Voters would hold the House of Representatives accountable through election, and state legislatures would hold the Senate accountable through appointments. Some of his articles were aimed at the Anti-Federalists and their calls for a “bill of rights.” He denied one was necessary on the basis that “rights are too important to depend on mere paper protections.” Instead their protection “must be in the nature of your government.” In other words, Sherman believed the federal government only had the powers enumerated in the Constitution, so “reserving” certain rights and additional protections was not only redundant and unnecessary but also demonstrated a lack of faith in state governments to police the national government. Despite his objections, he served on the committee that drafted the first ten amendments to the Constitution — what is now known as the Bill of Rights. One of the amendments expressly granted to the states all powers not specifically given the federal government in the Constitution. He served in the newly constituted House of Representatives from 1789 to 1791. In June 1791 the Connecticut legislature appointed him to serve in the Senate. In April 1793 he returned to Connecticut due to illness where he died in late July. A truer defender of states’ rights never lived.
Roger Sherman devoted his life to protecting the liberties so recently fought for and won from a large, tyrannical government. He could not and would not stand by while a new form of tyranny was substituted for an old one. He clearly saw the dangers in the states ceding too much power to a federal government. Sherman battled Madison and other nationalists to see to it the United States had a government that had to work with state governments instead of dominating them. Roger Sherman may not be as well remembered as some signers of the Constitution, but without him, the United States might look very different today. In light of the massive growth in size and power of the federal government since his death, Roger Sherman’s legacy reminds us to keep an ever watchful eye on our liberties.