Roger Sherman's Reformed Founding

A squirearchy of deists, agnostics, and closeted atheists, the American founders erected a wall of separation between church and state to preserve their fledgling republic from the tyranny of an established church. But debating these points is inconsequential: after all, we have their singular achievement, the Constitution, and we can see the wall there. Granted, it is occasionally important to rescue the founders from misinterpretation by, e.g., pajama-wearing bloggers, farmers in overalls, and people who like NASCAR. Fortunately any historical work to be done is decidedly straightforward. One need only state the obvious: though the colonists were devout, the founders were not.

There’s a problem with this view, which is taught in innumerable schools, colleges, and universities: it is false. Mark David Hall’s elegantly written, carefully researched, and downright persuasive Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic will transform forever your view of one founder, Roger Sherman, and quite possibly of the American founding, too. Hall so brilliantly and strenuously challenges the consensus view that we should look forward to this book being banned from public schools across the country.

Seriously, though, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic is interesting and provocative. Let’s consider it as

  1. a biography of a founder, Roger Sherman;
  2. a narrative of the American founding as seen by the light of Sherman’s contribution;
  3. an argument against an Enlightenment-drenched conception of the founding;
  4. an argument for the influence of Christianity in general, and Reformed theology in particular, in the creation of the American republic, and, finally,
  5. an explanation for why these topics should capture our attention today.

Let’s start with the ending: Why is the study of the American founders important for today? Hall gives the best answer I have read to date; it is one that I will myself employ in future conversations. When commenting on the relevance of the religious beliefs of the American founders, Hall writes,

Such concerns might be only of academic interest except that the views of the American founders carry significant weight in contemporary political and legal discourse… .Yet … justices have tended to be selective in the founders to whom they appeal. When United States Supreme Court justices have used history to interpret the First Amendment’s religion clauses, they have made 112 distinct references to Jefferson but have only mentioned Sherman three times. This is particularly striking because Sherman helped draft the First Amendment whereas Jefferson was in France at the time!” (6–7).

Towards the end of the work Hall shows that the argument in Everson v. Board of Education depends upon the claim that Jefferson and Madison represent the founders (152), and it is this view that Hall seeks to undermine. He does so by crafting a readable, yet scholarly, narrative on a neglected founder in order to address some contemporary questions. Hall gives us the political Sherman in 1776, the only member of the Continental Congress to serve on the committee to draft a declaration of independence and the committee to draft the Articles of Confederation and the Board of War (59). In 1789 the elder statesman makes, in Hall’s words, “particularly important and interesting contributions to debates over representation, executive power, revenue, debt, the proper scope of the national government, and, especially, the Bill of Rights” (122). Yet we also have Sherman the father of three sons, two of whom divorce during his lifetime and the other who “succeeds only in contrast to his brothers; … managing to fail only in business” (147).

Hall gets the balance right: we don’t wander into historical minutiae, but neither do we gloss over important historical details. Hall is a reliable guide to the period, and if he has Sherman wrong, I imagine that only he would know. Take one prime example: Hall himself found the Superior Court records for Arabas v. Ivers that show that Sherman was involved as a judge in the case that freed Arabas, a slave. Hall shows that Arabas was not freed as a reward for serving in the Continental army, the conventional wisdom, but rather that he was freed because his master must have already manumitted him: only freemen could serve in the army, and his master received a bounty for his slave’s enlistment, so Arabas was free from that day forward. That’s impressive enough, but Hall also candidly admits that though “the logic” of the case is flawless, “it is not clear that the legal analysis is accurate” (82). The problem: slaves served in the army; even slaves from Connecticut served in the army (82–83). So though at first glance Hall has the opportunity to give a classic contrast between arbitrary power and the rule of law, he offers instead a careful reading of the events, concluding that the judges “consciously pushed the boundaries of the law in order to reach a just decision” (83).

The telling of the American founding through the eyes of a lesser known figure is—forgive the candor—fun. Hall’s knowledge of the founding à la Sherman is encyclopedic, and this reader regularly found himself cheering every time Sherman appeared on the historical stage to speak his lines, however weighty or trivial. It is important for us to realize just how influential Sherman was, and telling the story through his eyes helps defend Hall’s claim that, “by any reasonable measure, Sherman was one of the most influential and effective delegates at the constitutional and ratification conventions.” Hall recognizes that “a chief rival for this title is undoubtedly Madison,” but, he continues, “we must remember that there are significant differences between Madison’s initial proposals and what he supported in his Federalist Papers. In a number of instances, Madison praised as virtues elements in the proposed Constitution that he opposed and Sherman had supported in the Federal Convention” (121). But, one may ask, if Sherman was so important, why was he forgotten? Hall answers this question in advance: Sherman was old when our nation was young, dying in 1793; he never served in the executive branch, and he left behind comparatively little work for future academics to read and discuss (151).

In all, as a work on the life and importance of Roger Sherman, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic is superb. But Hall has other fish to fry. He wants us to step back from an Enlightenment-drenched conception of the founding, believing that the time for a thoroughgoing revision of the conventional wisdom has come upon us. A section of chapter 2 titled “What about John Locke?” is worth the price of the book. Hall is polemical, but fair. He starts with Carl Becker’s 1922 claim that most Americans at the time of the Revolution “had absorbed Locke’s works as a kind of political gospel” (21) and extends his critique to contemporary defenders of a similar view. Hall makes several moves: first, he shows that Locke’s works were late to arrive, not widely distributed, and, though doubtlessly influential, were not omnipresent, as the Bible was (22–23). Second, he argues persuasively that even if one grants whatever premises a Locke advocate desires—Jefferson did daily devotional readings of Locke and Spinoza, slipping language into the Declaration that only the cognoscenti would discern, etc.—the conclusion that the founding was thereby Lockean simply does not follow. As Hall puts it, even if Jefferson thought that creator in the Declaration signified nature, many of the document’s signers (and here he names almost two dozen of them) would have been appalled to think that creator stood for “anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (22).

Hall proposes a rival source for American political thought: Reformed theology. In a footnote, Hall mentions Robert Middlekauff’s comment in the Claremont Review of Books that, though it is “a terribly rough equation, … Calvin is to the 17th century and maybe the 18th century what John Maynard Keynes is to the 20th century” (175n53). Middlekauff offers an informative parallel, and it is one that provides a serviceable shorthand for Hall’s approach. His argument is straightforward: 1. Reformed theology, and not Enlightenment philosophy, was pervasive in the colonies, so 2. if Reformed political thought delivers the revolutionary and constitutional goods, we should look to it, and not to the Enlightenment, as the theoretical bedrock for the American founding, and 3. precisely because Reformed political thought does so, we need not look elsewhere to see why the colonists rejected one government and established a new one.

We have already discussed (1). The book also makes the case for (2). “Reformed political thought,” Hall writes, “holds that humans are created in the image of God, are sinful, and possess God-given rights. Critically, it also teaches that legitimate governments are based on consent, that they should be limited, and that the people have a duty to resist tyrannical rulers” (151).

If Hall is right about (1) and (2), then his conclusion follows from the premises. I am persuaded by this argument, but I do have one quibble. Hall places Sherman’s relationship to Calvin in the body text but relegates Sherman’s connections to Rousseau (175n56) and to Adam Smith (207n24) to the footnotes. Hall is to be commended for mentioning Sherman’s intellectual engagement with Enlightenment figures at all, given the general thesis of his book, but his argument would have been all the more persuasive if he had wrestled with specific passages in the body text.

Three final observations: First, Hall says that he is neither a Calvinist nor a member of a Reformed church (x). Though it should not matter, it’s helpful to know. Second, Hall is not without a sense of humor. Lamenting our national ignorance of Sherman, he writes, “One measure of his neglect is that unlike Elvis Presley, Bugs Bunny, and Sybil Ludington, Sherman has never been featured on an American postage stamp” (150). On another occasion he prepares us for a spirited remark by quoting Frank Lambert’s The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Lambert claims that Franklin, Jefferson, Paine, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay all “rejected the faith of their Puritan fathers.” Hall responds:

Leaving aside the fact that Paine was born an English Quaker and Hamilton was a bastard from the West Indies, thus making one wonder whose faith they rejected, Lambert’s account of “the founders” rests almost entirely on the writings of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Franklin (161n22).

Finally, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic has another virtue: it is short. Rest assured that one can assess the book’s merits, consider its claims, and even read the extensive footnotes without devoting one’s life to the task. That’s good, because it is a book worth reading.