January 26, 2017


Roger Sherman: An Old Puritan in the New Republic (Mark David Hall, Jan. 26th, 2017, Online Library of Law & Liberty)

Roger Sherman (1721-1793) is important in his own right, but his views on religious liberty and church-state relations are also representative of the 50 to 75 percent of the Founders who were Calvinists. He certainly reflects their views far better than the nominally Anglican Madison and Jefferson (about 16 percent of Americans were Anglican at that time).

By the late 18th century, Calvinists were scattered throughout America, but Connecticut was absolutely dominated by them. They accounted for 85 to 90 percent of the state's population.  America's break with Great Britain could have been devastating for Connecticut's religious dissenters.  Earlier, the colony had been forced to tolerate Quakers, Anglicans, and Baptists because of Parliament's 1689 Act of Toleration. Now that Connecticut was a state, and one no longer bound by this law, it could expel these non-Calvinists or limit their rights.

In 1783, Connecticut's General Assembly charged Roger Sherman and the aptly named Richard Law with the task of revising the state's laws. Among Sherman's contributions was "An Act for Securing the Rights of Conscience in Matters of Religion, to Christians of Every Denomination in This State." This act, which was approved by the legislature with few changes, guaranteed religious liberty for all citizens--including Quakers, Anglicans, and Baptists.

An obvious but anachronistic objection to the act is that it does not protect non-Christians. There are no records of any citizen in the state being anything other than a Christian, so it is a mistake to read too much into this limitation.

Separationists ignore Sherman not because of his views of religious liberty, but because he believed that protecting it was compatible with governmental support for Christianity. Indeed, even his religious liberty statute begins: "As the happiness of a People, and the good Order of Civil Society, essentially depend upon Piety, Religion and Morality, it is the Duty of the Civil Authority to provide for the Support and Encouragement thereof."

Other statutes drafted by Sherman and Law created a system whereby citizens were taxed support the churches they chose to join. Excellent arguments can be made against this sort of multiple establishment, and eventually Connecticut's civic leaders became convinced by them--but not until 1819. At the time, many Founders embraced both religious liberty and state support for Christianity.

(As an aside, it should be noted that the revisions also included a gradual manumission statute that put slavery in the state on the road to extinction . The statute was likely drafted by Richard Law, but there is every reason to believe that Sherman, a life-long opponent of slavery, supported it.)

In 1788, Sherman was elected to be one of five members of Connecticut's delegation to the U.S.  House of Representatives. His colleague from Virginia, James Madison, fulfilling a promise made to his constituents, pushed the House to adopt a bill of rights. Representative Sherman originally dissented, pleading that there was more important business to which to attend. But once Congress began debating possible constitutional amendments, he was an active participant.

To consider the many proposed amendments, the House created a select committee composed of one member from each state. Sherman represented Connecticut. There are no records of the committee's deliberations, but it produced a draft bill of rights in Sherman's handwriting. This the only handwritten draft of the Bill of Rights known to exist.

Madison's first draft of the Bill of Rights contained proposed amendments that would have been interspersed throughout the Constitution. Sherman objected, contending that "we cannot incorporate these amendments in the body of the Constitution. It would be mixing brass, iron, and clay." Sherman won the point.

Two months after ratification of the Constitution, on August 15, 1788, the House turned to Madison's proposal to insert the phrase "No religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed" into the document's Article 1, Section 9. Sherman contended that "the amendment altogether unnecessary, insomuch as congress has no authority whatever delegated to them by the constitution, to make religious establishments, he would therefore move to have it struck out." 

Posted by at January 26, 2017 9:12 AM