Roger Sherman's ghost
Published 1:05 am, Friday, October 30, 2009
My elementary school was the old Sherman School, on the corner of Reef Road and the Post Road, where the gazebo is now. It had been built in 1913; it was torn down in 1963 and replaced by a new one, on Fern Street, a few blocks from the beach and about a block from where I had grown up. When I went there, I had no idea who Roger Sherman was.
Part of the problem was that there were two Roger Shermans -- ours, and the "real" Roger Sherman. The "real" Sherman (1721-93) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, and he is credited with coming up with the Connecticut Compromise that solved the big-state/small-state problem by creating a bicameral legislature. Our Sherman -- Roger Minott Sherman (1773-1844) -- was his nephew. So why, almost 100 years ago, did Fairfield name one of its small handful of schools for him?
In the summer of 1972, I spent most of my time in the town clerk`s vault, where the land records are kept. There were traces of Sherman there: his will, and Mrs. Sherman`s, for instance, leaving the house that is still known as the Sherman Parsonage to the church that is now called First Church. (The church sold it in the 1950s.) The will makes specific mention of the windows, which it called "Russian lights." In front of the house is a little one-room building that was his law office; this might make more sense when you add the fact that the building we now call Town Hall was the Fairfield County courthouse until about 1853, and it was 100 yards away.
Sherman also signed a lot of writs of attachment, and these were in the land records as well. More history: Until 1972, lawyers could put liens on real estate, and garnishee people`s bank accounts and wages, just by signing a writ, and until 1972 it was constitutional. The writ was called a writ of attachment, and the prescribed phrasing is straight out of the 18th century. The court "rode circuit," in the sense that the judges and the lawyers would travel from courthouse to courthouse, making a circuit from Norwalk to Danbury to Fairfield perhaps, and then repeating the circuit over and over, week by week. So I knew Sherman had been a lawyer; it turns out he was one of the premier advocates of his day, and even served on the Connecticut Supreme Court in his late 60s.
That was as much as I knew about him until I read a history of the War of 1812, and learned he had been a delegate to the Hartford Convention.
It turned out that I hadn`t known much about the War of 1812, either. The way we learned it in school, for instance, it had something to do with the British navy stopping ships on the high seas and "impressing" -- drafting -- sailors right off of their decks. But that doesn`t entirely square with Presidents Jefferson and Madison having shut down the maritime trade and ruining the New England economy -- five years earlier. The Embargo Act was in 1807, so where were the ships coming from that the British were boarding in 1812? And this one surprised me: protecting the sailors ranked about third on the list of war aims. The top one was grabbing Canada. Consider this: Washington, D.C., was burned by the British -- why? It was in retaliation for our burning Toronto, after we had captured it and then were unable to hold it. Invading Canada was an odd way to make a point about sailors` rights.
Meanwhile, New England was the last bastion of the Federalist Party. The Federalists had been Washington`s party, the veterans of the Revolution, and the writers of the Constitution, but starting in 1800, they were swept out of office by Jefferson`s party of political newcomers, everywhere except here. On top of that, the New Englanders were Calvinists, the spiritual heirs of the Puritans and, I guess, not known for their conviviality. All in all, New England was out of step with the rest of the country.
So the call went forth from Massachusetts, and 26 delegates from the five New England states (Maine was still part of Massachusetts) convened in Hartford in 1814. Actually, 23 of the delegates were from the three maritime states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. And what they had in mind was secession. Most of the country disapproved.
I looked up Connecticut`s seven delegates. These men were not lightweights, and they were not a fringe element, either. Sherman, at 41, was the youngest, and former governor John Treadwell, at 69, was the oldest. The others included Zephaniah Swift, the incumbent Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, and Nathaniel Smith, another justice, plus two former U.S. Senators, James Hillhouse and Chauncey Goodrich. All seven were lawyers, and five had served in Congress. Five were Yalies.
In the event, the Convention reported out somewhat milder resolutions, calling for the Constitution to be amended to limit future embargoes to 60 days, to require a two-thirds vote in Congress for a declaration of war, to take away the South`s three-fifths representation of the enslaved, and limiting future presidents to a single term.
The book about the War of 1812 opens as the story ends, with three messengers riding simultaneously toward Washington in 1815: one carries the report of the Hartford Convention, another the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, and the third, the news of Gen. Andrew Jackson`s victory at New Orleans. The Hartford messengers turned around and went home, in disgrace. Disgrace, that is, everywhere except here.