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Tear Down This Statue

The shameful career of Roger Sherman, mild-mannered Yankee

At last, Americans are getting down to the long-postponed business of facing inconvenient truths about the country’s history. Statues lauding pro-slavery traitors and genocidal conquerors are finally coming down. The six-story-tall monument to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia, lately tagged in a most beautiful manner with Black Lives Matter slogans, the colors of the rainbow, and other iconoclastic graffiti, has been slated for removal. Jefferson Davis was removed from the capitol building of Kentucky through the use of a machine that looked a lot like the gallows he should have been hanged from in the first place. In cities across the country, likenesses of Christopher Columbus have been defaced, beheaded, and drowned.

The campaign for monument removal has now arrived at the United States Capitol. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has called for the statues of eleven Confederates to be removed from the building, including sculptures of Davis (placed by Mississippi in 1931), Lee (placed by Virginia in 1909), and Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy (placed by Georgia in 1927, and the work, notably, of one Gutzon Borglum, a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer originally chosen to design and carve a memorial to Confederate generals at Stone Mountain in Georgia, site of the Klan’s 1915 rebirth, before he was hired away to sculpt at Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota).

Even a few Republicans are willing to consider the removal of these tributes to avowedly pro-slavery traitors from the Capitol of the nation they endeavored to destroy. Their presence is more than a national embarrassment. It is a cringe-inducing reminder of the nation’s unwillingness to consolidate its unfathomably costly victory in the Civil War by exorcising the demon of white supremacy forever. So long as these long-dead slavers and secessionists remain in the halls of Congress it is no wonder their latter-day successors feel free to continue their work of perpetuating white supremacy and postponing the formation of a truly more perfect Union.

There ought to be a high bar for removal of statues at the Capitol—some kind of equation balancing the degree of the wrong the person did with the magnitude of its consequences.

While evicting the traitors is the most pressing order of business for the stewards of the Capitol’s monuments, the campaign shouldn’t end there. (There are one hundred statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection; each state has two representatives. The collection eventually grew too large to be confined solely to Statuary Hall, the open space beneath the soaring Rotunda, and is now spread throughout the building.) Conservatives immediately resort to the “where does it all end?” argument. What about slave-owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Is Abe Lincoln next? Yet the answer is not complicated: we shouldn’t endeavor to remove every person who ever uttered an unwoke word or did any kind of dastardly deed. There ought to be a high bar for removal—some kind of equation balancing the degree of the wrong the person did with the magnitude of its consequences.

I submit that Roger Sherman meets the necessary threshold. He is memorialized by one of the statues representing the state of Connecticut. We have Sherman to thank for two of the most celebrated and most odious compromises that made it into the Constitution. One nearly destroyed the Union; the other may yet. Yanking Sherman out of the Capitol would be a gesture worthy of our growing realization of how deep the roots of white supremacy reach, how thoroughly our political system has been tainted by the protections it affords to the power and privilege of wealthy white men. This is unlikely to occur, however, for to repudiate Roger Sherman would be to effectively repudiate the Constitution of the United States, even the Union as we have always known it.

A fervent skeptic of democracy, Roger Sherman was also one of the few truly self-made men at the Constitutional Convention. (At sixty-six, he was also the second-oldest, after Benjamin Franklin.) Born in 1721 to a Massachusetts family of modest means and long Puritan lineage, he had no formal education after grade school and picked up what he could from his father’s library. When the father died, Sherman and his siblings moved to Litchfield County, Connecticut, and opened a store. He trained himself in the law, rose to prominence in the area, and attained several prestigious offices in colonial and revolutionary Connecticut: justice of the peace, assemblyman, mayor of New Haven, justice of the superior court, treasurer of Yale College, delegate to the Continental Congress. A skillful politician (he served in one public office or another more or less continuously from 1755 to his death in 1793), Sherman was the only American to sign all four major constitutional documents of the founding era—the Articles of Association of 1774; the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of 1787. Known for his conservatism, probity, and 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. 

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.

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, and representatives of the Upper South agreed. Their states already had a large population of slaves, and they hoped to make money by selling their offspring to newer, less settled states and territories to the South and West. South Carolina and Georgia had the opposite interest. Cutting off the African slave trade would raise the price of men, women, and children put up for sale in states further north. Their delegates in Philadelphia vowed they would leave the Union before seeing the transatlantic trade in human beings ended. 

The delegates were once again at an impasse, and once again the Connecticut men, including Roger Sherman, rode to the rescue. At a crucial point, Oliver Ellsworth rose to second a colleague from South Carolina who had insisted that “religion & humanity” had nothing to do with the question of proscribing the slave trade; “the morality or wisdom of slavery” was of no concern to the convention, Ellsworth agreed, only economic interest. Anything that benefited one part of the Union necessarily benefited the whole. Slavery helped the whole Union because crops grown on Southern plantations floated to the world as cargo on Northern ships. By uniting the economic interests of the states, slavery helped hold the country together. “What enriches a part enriches the whole,” Ellsworth declared, without detectable shame.

Sherman and Ellsworth emerged as the leading Northern advocates of compromise over the slave trade, even if that meant agreeing to pro-slavery terms favorable to the South. The slave trade would be allowed to continue for another twenty years; in exchange, Southerners would drop their insistence that Congress could only pass laws restricting free trade by a two-thirds supermajority. (Tariff-free commerce helped prop up the export-based slave system.) Undoubtedly, the South benefited most from the bargain. No surprise who benefited least: between the convention and the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, nearly as many Africans would be brought to America as property as had been brought in the century and a half preceding it. The new influx and subsequent expansion of slavery made peaceful abolition, once deemed inevitable, all but impossible. 

Sherman and Ellsworth emerged as the leading Northern advocates of compromise over the slave trade, even if that meant agreeing to pro-slavery terms favorable to the South.

Their eagerness to make a deal has won Ellsworth and Sherman the praise of posterity. “Sherman, perhaps more than any other, deserves the title of the Great Compromiser in the formative period of the Republic,” the historian Julian P. Boyd once wrote. Evidently, it remains a point of pride in Connecticut. The state sent his statue to the Capitol in 1872, shortly after the collection opened in what William Hogeland recently noted was explicitly a nation-building attempt, after the Civil War, to commemorate the shared history of the Northern and Southern combatants. Connecticut’s contribution celebrated the original Union-preserving agreement to preserve white supremacy; weakened by the rise of abolitionism and annulled by the Civil War, the essential elements of that “peace pact” would soon be renewed.

Sherman’s presence in the Capitol ought to infuriate any resident of Connecticut who favors ridding the public realm of monuments to the crafters of white supremacy. The real contribution Sherman and the other Connecticut delegates made to the 1787 convention was their willingness—alone, at first, among Northerners—to prioritize money over morality, profit over principle. Though he never personally owned slaves, his belief that Connecticut also benefited from slavery led Sherman to conclude, as he put it in Philadelphia, that it was “better to let the Southern States import slaves than to part with those States.”

As we commence a thorough and long-delayed reassessment of our national history, the compromise tradition Sherman represents—and the specific bargains attributed to him—ought also to be reconsidered. It is long past time to embrace the righteousness of those rare and visionary anti-slavery critics who, during the struggle over ratification of the Constitution, called for rejecting it because of the protections it afforded slavery. Accepting those compromises, as one put it, would make Americans “partakers of each other’s sins.” “If we cannot connect with the Southern states without giving countenance to blood and carnage, and all kinds of fraud and injustice,” another Anti-Federalist argued, “I say let them go.”

Roger Sherman, by contrast, epitomizes the kind of moral complicity with evil, as pernicious as the evil itself, on which the endurance of the Union has always been predicated. His statue should be removed from Capitol Hill as a symbol of a broader reckoning with the history and nature of the country he helped create. Mississippi legislators recently made the brave if belated decision to take the Confederate battle flag off the state’s official banner. Michigan’s congressional delegation—well, at least its Democratic members—called for the removal of Lewis Cass, the heretofore much-heralded “founding father” of the state, from the Capitol Hill collection, in acknowledgment of his advocacy for slavery’s expansion and Indian removal. Why shouldn’t Connecticut’s leaders act with similar vision and boldness by admitting their own state’s sordid contributions to the perpetuation of slavery and minority rule?

Up to now, Northerners and other Americans without personal connection to the antebellum South have largely luxuriated in the assumption that they have nothing to apologize for and no heroes in need of reconsideration. But perpetuating the Union on the basis of slavery, right up until the Civil War, was a national project that enjoyed, but for a few scattered abolitionists, national support. Similarly, much of the federal government’s current paralysis is directly the fault of the Constitution’s enshrinement of colonial-era divisions and states’-rights ideology in the structure of our governing institutions. Taking Sherman off his Capitol Hill pedestal would mark a worthy beginning, but one that is ultimately symbolic. Of far greater substance and significance would be doing away with that even more prominent monument to the founders’ fetish for compromise and corrupt bargains: the Senate of the United States.