Memory  /  Argument

Tear Down This Statue

The shameful career of Roger Sherman, mild-mannered Yankee.

... wisdom—Thomas Jefferson described him as “a man who never said a foolish thing in his life”—the elderly Sherman bemoaned the populist tendencies of the times, thought the Revolution had gone far enough, and argued against submitting the new Constitution for direct ratification by the people.

... wisdom—Thomas Jefferson described him as “a man who never said a foolish thing in his life”—the elderly Sherman bemoaned the populist tendencies of the times, thought the Revolution had gone far enough, and argued against submitting the new Constitution for direct ratification by the people.

It has been said of the Confederates memorialized on Capitol Hill and elsewhere around the country that their statues should be removed because, despite whatever else they did before or after the Southern rebellion, they were only being commemorated for the four years they spent laboring to destroy the country—that is, for the worst thing each of them ever did. The same is true of the otherwise inoffensive and unmemorable Roger Sherman. His fame was sealed by two needle-threading bargains he crafted on issues that opposing sides at the Constitutional Convention insisted could not be resolved.

First and most threatening was a dispute over how to apportion votes in the national legislature—equally for each state or proportionally by population. Congress under the Articles of Confederation allotted one vote for each state, no matter how large. That gave tiny Delaware as much of a veto over national affairs as it did Virginia, with roughly eleven times the number of residents. Overturning this arrangement was one of the primary goals of Virginia’s James Madison and other large-state delegates, but small-state delegates stood in their way, threatening to leave the convention, secede from the Union, and even ally with foreign powers unless the states retained equal voting power in Congress. The “smaller states would never agree to the plan on any other principle” than states being given equal representation, Sherman warned. A fellow Connecticut delegate, Oliver Ellsworth, threatened that “if no compromise should take place, our meeting would be in vain.” The small states “would risk every consequence rather than part with so dear a right.”

For several days, it looked likely the convention would end in failure and the country would break apart. The eventual compromise, famously, was Sherman’s. “It seems we have got to a point that we cannot move one way or the other,” he observed. So he proposed splitting the difference. In the lower house of the new legislature, the states would receive votes proportionate to their populations; in the upper house, each state would retain equal voting power. Reluctantly—Madison preferred to call the small states on their bluff—the delegates agreed to the bargain.

Sherman has been celebrated for more than two centuries for sealing the deal that saved the convention and the country, but the accomplishment increasingly appears to be of doubtful worth. These days, California has more than sixty-eight times the number of people as Wyoming, yet the two states have an equal say on all federal court appointments, not to mention any legislation that comes before the Senate. This is unsustainable. Something has to give. Yet the problem was rendered all but unfixable by none other than Roger Sherman, who, in the waning days of the convention, had the brilliant idea of rendering the provision of equal state suffrage in the Senate unamendable. It is not at all difficult to imagine the prediction of one of Sherman’s large-state opponents in Philadelphia someday coming true. The fatal flaw of equal state representation in the Senate, warned James Wilson of Pennsylvania, would “expand with the expansion, and grow with the growth of the United States.” The infection would take hold in the body politic, leading to “disease, convulsions, and finally death itself.”

Sherman’s other famous accomplishment in Philadelphia, though less his direct handiwork, was even more damaging. Spurred by rising anti-slavery sentiment, many Northern states had already moved to abolish slavery. Their delegates called for abolishing the African slave trade in the Constitution, ...