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Constitutional Calvinist

Roger Sherman's role in the creation of the American republic
Roger Sherman

This is the best life of Connecticut’s foremost Founding Father ever written. More than that, it demonstrates once and for all that Calvinism played a very significant role in shaping the American Revolution and U.S. Constitution. Henceforth, historians will have to take account of Mark David Hall’s book in all studies of “the creation of the American republic.”

Hall sets out to correct a serious flaw in the historiography. While prominent accounts of the American Revolution’s intellectual underpinnings devote considerable attention to the influence of Lockean, classical republican, Scottish Enlightenment traditions, the influence of Reformed Protestantism—that is, Calvinism—tends to be overlooked. Although the focus is on Sherman’s political thinking, Hall tell us, his book shows that the Reformed tradition was central to the thought of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Oliver Ellsworth, Jonathan Trumbull, William Paterson, John Witherspoon, and several other prominent Calvinist politicians as well.

As Hall puts it, “I am not arguing that Calvinism was the only influence on Sherman and his colleagues, simply that it was a very important influence that needs to be taken more seriously if we are to appreciate the political theory and actions of many of America’s founders.” Hall here continues the project on which he, Daniel L. Dreisbach, and Jeffry H. Morrison have long been jointly and severally embarked: that of fleshing out the story of religion’s influence on the politics of the Revolution and Early Republic.

Hall decries the tendency to write as if George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams (a group disproportionately composed of deists and marginally committed Christians) were the entirety of the Revolutionary generation, and then to deduce the meaning of America’s original commitment to religious freedom from the ideas of those men. One illustration of this tendency is that, by Hall’s calculation, Supreme Court justices writing opinions about the First Amendment’s religion clauses have referred to Thomas Jefferson 112 times and to Sherman only three, even though Sherman helped write the First Amendment and Jefferson was away on diplomatic business in France at the time.

It is a bit naïve for Hall to think that correcting the record will influence justices’ opinions. After all, Associate Justice William Rehnquist showed how little relationship there is between Jefferson’s private views on church and state and the meaning of the First Amendment in his Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) dissent, yet the majority in that case and other justices since have gone right on pointing to Jefferson’s metaphor of “a wall of separation between church and state” as the essence of the original understanding. For those of us who want actually to understand our heritage, however, knowledge of Reformed politicians’ role in the Revolution and early Republic is essential.

Roger Sherman played a unique role in making America. Only he signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, as well as helping to draft the Bill of Rights. Not only did he sign the Declaration, but he was also on the five-man committee charged with writing it. The typical account of the Declaration has Thomas Jefferson producing a Lockean document notably devoid of traditional Christian language. Hall demonstrates that while the Declaration’s reference to “nature’s God,” its claim that government’s function is to protect citizens’ rights, and its assertion of a right to overthrow usurpatious rulers are consistent with Lockean thinking, they also are perfectly in keeping with John Calvin’s teaching on those subjects, which antedated Locke’s Second Treatise—and likely influenced Locke. That Sherman and his fellow Calvinists in the Second Continental Congress should have signed the Declaration is not the mystery that Louis Hartz and other proponents of the idea that American has always been Lockean have wanted to make it.

Of particular note in Sherman’s career is his role in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. Hall demonstrates that the Connecticut Compromise between advocates of apportioning representation in both houses of Congress by population and proponents of equal representation in both houses was not dreamt up in Philadelphia by Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth. Sherman had already called for reform to the Articles of Confederation along the same lines several years before. (Hall also makes the interesting point that once the Constitution had been altered to provide the Nutmeg State five seats in the first 65-member House, Sherman’s state had the same weight there as it would have had if representation had been apportioned equally.)

Another notable Philadelphia Convention decision in which Sherman played a prominent part was the omission of a bill of rights. Sherman insisted that since the new government would have only the powers the Constitution gave it, there was no reason to add provisions saying that specific powers not granted to the new government were not to be exercised by it. Sherman won the day easily.

In general, however, Sherman did not get what he wanted from the Convention. His idea was that the central government should be limited to a very few purposes. As Farrand’s Records recounts one of Sherman’s speeches, “The objects of the Union, he thought were few. 1. defence agst. foreign danger. 2. agst. internal disputes & a resort to force. 3. Treaties with foreign nations 4. regulating foreign commerce, & drawing revenue from it … All other matters civil & criminal would be much better in the hands of the States.”

Positions that Sherman unsuccessfully took included opposition to direct election of representatives, advocacy of House apportionment by free inhabitants, advocacy of an executive council to share executive power with the president, and opposition to giving the president veto power. Still, he did win an enumeration of Congress’s powers in lieu of Madison’s proposal for a general grant of legislative authority and the reduction of the threshold for congressional override of a presidential veto from a three-fourths to a two-thirds vote. His fingerprints are on several other provisions as well.

One reason that the more famous Revolutionaries draw so much attention is that, with the exception of George Washington, they were all so eloquent. Sherman was not. Yet his wisdom does occasionally come through. Thus, for example, in one of his newspaper essays advocating ratification of the Constitution, Sherman counseled, “Philosophy may mislead you. Ask experience.” Here one hears echoes of a more famous statement by Patrick Henry, that prominent Virginia Episcopalian orator. As was typical of Americans, Sherman disliked speculation.

In the ratification process, Sherman answered Antifederalist critics bewailing the absence of a bill of rights by insisting that a paper guarantee was of no real use. What would protect Connecticut citizens’ rights was “the nature of [their] government.” Not a rhetorical statement, but republicanism and popular fealty to inherited principles were the best—the only—trustworthy safeguard.

Sherman’s “support for limited government, states’ rights, and legislative superiority helped create a constitution that was ratified by the states and that has served America well for more than two hundred years,” Hall says. Yes, it does seem that Sherman stood at the center of the effort to persuade Connecticut to ratify the document, and his views on government were popular in his home state. Yet if the Constitution remains in effect over two centuries later, it no longer is applied in a similar way to one that Sherman expected: none of those three general principles remains part of American constitutionalism.

Turning to Sherman’s career in the new federal government, perhaps the most startling datum that Hall conveys is that, “At sixty-nine years of age, [Sherman] was the oldest member of the Congress.” As I write, 26 U.S. senators and 50 U.S. representatives are 69 or older. What in the late 18th century was a young man’s service has long since become an old person’s career.

Congressman Sherman argued against allowing presidents to remove appointed officials unilaterally. The president and Senate each had a check on the other when it came to appointing, he said, and he moved that language empowering the president to remove the secretary of state without involving the Senate be deleted from a pending bill. He lost, 34–20. As in Philadelphia, where he had favored denying the president the veto power, others insisted on a more potent executive than Sherman desired. He remained a steadfast opponent of attempts to extend the president’s powers, but he often failed to defeat them.

We should not assume that because Sherman resisted construction of a powerful executive he opposed all of the Washington administration’s signature initiatives. In fact, he had called for assumption of state debts in 1780 under the Articles of Confederation, and he liked the idea in 1790 as well. To him, that the common effort should be funded out of the common fisc seemed “justice.” He also favored Hamilton’s Bank Bill the next year.

When James Madison brought the House to consider a suite of proposed constitutional amendments, Sherman dusted off his argument from Philadelphia: that since Congress had only the enumerated powers, and it had not been given enumerated powers to encroach upon individual rights, no amendments denying it such powers were necessary. He also trotted out the point he had made in the Connecticut ratification dispute about the uselessness of “mere paper protections.” Republicanism must be the chief defense of American liberty. In a day in which Congress routinely ignores the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, and in which the federal courts almost always uphold federal legislation, can we say that Sherman was wrong?

When a committee of the House reported amendments for the full House’s consideration, Sherman rose to object. Madison’s project—sprinkling amendments throughout the Constitution, each in the relevant section—overlooked the distinction between the original Constitution and amendments. The original Constitution, he said, was of a different nature than any amendments would be, as it had been adopted by the people directly through their ratification conventions, while amendments would be the work of state legislatures. Therefore, the amendments ought to be affixed to the end of the document. Madison resisted, but Sherman won out. Had he not, our tradition of referring to, for example, “the Seventh Amendment” would make no sense.

May/June 2013 issueCustomarily, reviewers of good books note that they cannot capture a work’s entire content in a short review. That customary act is especially appropriate here because Sherman remained on center stage for so long and did so much with his opportunities, and because Hall condenses the story into so few pages.

As Hall notes, this book is not a full biography, but a focused account of Roger Sherman’s statesmanship. Even at that, I completed the task of reading it with regret. Because it was published by an academic publisher, it is pricey in hardback. If it appears in a more reasonably priced paperback edition, I will make a habit of assigning it to undergraduates for years to come. Even if it does not, I recommend it highly.

Kevin R.C. Gutzman is the author of James Madison and the Making of America.



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