As much as the American book-buying public has shown deep interest in the superstars of the nation’s founding period, too little attention has been paid to some of the other legislative workhorses and statesmen of the period, and too few lessons thus learned from their examples. As we celebrate Independence Day on Monday, we should move beyond the famous Jefferson-Adams-Franklin troika, in order to marvel at the great decades of public service of the two other members of the committee charged with drafting the Declaration of Independence.
Those two were Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York — and they were no mere window-dressing on the committee, much less in public life.
First, consider a little background. The Declaration did not merely spring like mental lightning from the fertile mind of Jefferson (although his genius came through in the document’s particular eloquence), but rather represented what Jefferson himself rightly described as “an expression of the American mind.” The impressively researched 1997 American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, by Pauline Maier, shows just how widespread throughout the colonies were the ideas and sentiments given voice in the Declaration. At least 90 townships, county organizations, and state legislatures alike, all across the land, had passed similar petitions or declarations in the months immediately preceding the great act of the Continental Congress.
That said, the Continental Congress chose with some care the committee to draft the Declaration, wanting just the right people to best enunciate the views of that “American mind.” The five members (or perhaps only four — Franklin was ill) met several times before Jefferson was chosen as chief draftsman, during which meetings the committee (according to Maier) “outlined the document, dividing it into sections or ‘Articles,’ probably decided in at least general terms what its various parts should say, and committed those conclusions to paper is ‘minutes’ or instructions to its draftsman.”
After Jefferson produced his first draft, the committee (including Franklin, who had returned) reviewed it and offered several alterations that Jefferson accepted. Among them, significantly (although Maier does not note this first example), were the addition that the “unalienable rights” at issue were specifically endowed by a Creator, and the emphasis that government was instituted not just to secure “ends” but to secure “rights,” which of course is a stronger assertion.
Meanwhile, all five were busy serving on numerous other time-sensitive committees, playing leading roles in doing the hard work of creating a new nation, in time of war, from 13 distinct colonies.
Now who, exactly, were these men? We know about the famous three; what’s instructive is that the disparate backgrounds of the other two, Sherman and Livingston, demonstrate the wonderful meritocracy and social mobility that existed, even then, in the bustling New World. Note the details of Sherman’s impressive, self-made career, as described in wonderful language in the “official history of the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the promulgation of the Constitution of the United States, published by the official Constitutional Centennial Commission in 1889” (with my emphases in bold):
Roger Sherman is the only man who enjoys the singular distinction of having signed the four most important state papers in American history — the Articles of Association of the Congress of 1774, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States…. He was a shoemaker by trade, and, after the death of his father, supported his mother and several younger children, devoting all the time which he could spare from his bench to study, especially to mathematics. At the age of twenty-two he removed to New Milford, Conn., and subsequently kept a small store with his brother, and for some years acted a county surveyor, at the same time furnishing astronomical calculations for an almanac published in New York. Late in life he studied law, and rose to be a judge of the highest court in Connecticut, a position which he held for twenty-three years. His chief qualities were his great practical wisdom and concise methods of speech…. To the ratification of the Constitution he gave important support in the state convention, and published a series of articles in its favor. He was elected to Congress, and thereupon resigned his judicial station. In 1791 he was elected a senator of the United States, but did not live to complete his term of office. At the time of his death he was mayor of New Haven, a position he had held since 1784.
Shoemaker, mathematician, surveyor, judge, mayor, congressman, senator — several of those roles simultaneously! Amazing. Even better, Sherman’s imprint on the final form of the Constitution, in the great convention of 1787, was arguably more substantial than any delegate except James Madison. Remarkably, Sherman had been promoting the substance of great agreement known as the “Connecticut Compromise” (significantly minus the now-infamous “three-fifths” clause regarding slavery), which provided for proportional representation in one chamber of Congress and equal representation for the states in the other, as far back as the Continental Congress of 1776. In short, eleven years before its acceptance became the essential compromise that saved the constitutional convention and, with it, the nation, this wise man had foreseen the problem of uniting large states with small ones — and had proposed a near-perfect solution. Repeatedly throughout the convention he pushed this solution, and repeatedly was rebuffed, until finally his recalcitrant colleagues realized he had been right all along.
It was for good reason that Thomas Jefferson once asserted that Sherman “never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Sherman also was the convention’s most effective proponent of letting states retain significant authority rather than vesting it all in the national government, and in keeping at least some significant restraints on executive power while retaining prerogatives for the legislative branch — both of them important conservative positions to this day. On issue after issue and committee after committee, reported historian Carol Berkin in A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, it was “the indefatigable” Sherman who “did more than yeoman’s duty” to pull the Constitution together.
And, as if his own service to country weren’t enough, three of his grandchildren served in the U.S. Senate, with one of them also serving as governor of Connecticut, another as U.S. Attorney General, and yet a fourth grandson also serving as AG.
In the 18th century, it was only in the American colonies that a cobbler could rise to be such a significant statesman.
LIVINGSTON’S ORIGINS WERE as different from Sherman’s as could be imagined, but his rise to revolutionary prominence was equally admirable. He came from a family of wealth and prestige; yet even though his circumstances left him much to lose and almost nothing to gain economically from opposing the Crown, he nevertheless became a key proponent of independence and a stalwart for liberty. Indeed, his activities made him a major target for the British army, which burned his manor to the ground in 1777.
Beginning with his service on the committees that drafted both the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation, Livingston had a knack for being a key player in the seminal public events of the new nation. He served for 24 years as the top judicial officer — Chancellor — in New York State, where he oversaw the legal system that protected what even then was the commercial hub of the United States. He added much to commerce himself, working as partner with Robert Fulton to develop the first viable steamboat, and also playing a crucial role in developing the Erie Canal.
In 1789 he was the man who administered the first-ever presidential oath of office, to George Washington. In 1803, as Minister to France, he was the primary negotiator of the single largest expansion of U.S. land area in history, the Louisiana Purchase. “We have lived long,” he said on signing the purchase, “but this is the noblest work of our whole lives…The United States take rank this day among the first powers of the world.” So, 27 years after helping Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence, he exceeded even the expectations of now-President Jefferson in securing not just the port of New Orleans but instead the keys to nearly half a continent.
(As an aside, his much-younger brother Edward, born 18 years later, forged a similarly distinguished career: U.S. Attorney, Mayor, and U.S. Representative while living in New York; leading aide to Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans; U.S. Representative and then U.S. Senator from Louisiana; and U.S. Secretary of State.)
Robert R. Livingston, like Sherman, should be as almost as much a publicly recognized rock star of American history as their contemporaries Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Hamilton. More, they should serve as examples to us today of the meaning of statesmanship and service to country, and of the idea that political involvement can and should be a noble cause rather than a grubby pursuit. Furthermore, they give the lie to the now-fashionable notion that there is something inherently wrong or suspicious about holding public office for many years. Long service is not necessarily corrupting. Conversely, being new to the political scene is not necessarily a virtue. Nor is legislative work to be denigrated in comparison to “executive” toil, because in truth the skill sets overlap and there are plenty of executive functions in chairing committees and overseeing government systems.
All of us are blessed beyond belief to be heirs of men like the eight mentioned in the paragraph above, and of others who signed the Declaration such as Richard Henry Lee, George Wythe, Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, James Wilson, John Witherspoon, Josiah Bartlett, Sam Adams, Elbridge Gerry, Oliver Wolcott, Samuel Chase — and the 41 others whose signatures grace our founding statement of principles. As we celebrate their handiwork and our freedom this weekend — as we exercise the rights to actively limit our government to doing only what is allowed by the “consent of the governed” — a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we live up the example those men set, so that we may be worthy of the legacy they bequeathed us. For us, this should be a matter of sacred honor.