The other essays in the “Founders and the Constitution” series each covered one individual. This final essay covers three: the extraordinary group who served as Connecticut’s commissioners (delegates) to the 1787 Constitutional Convention.
Early Connecticut was known as “the land of steady habits.” The nickname reflected the state’s culture. The people of Connecticut tended to be religious, sober, hardworking, self-controlled, and moderate. William Samuel Johnson, Oliver Ellsworth, and Roger Sherman were excellent representatives of that culture.
On the contemporaneous political spectrum (outlined in the first essay), all three were centrists—that is, moderates. More than any other state delegation, they shared common goals. And more than any other state delegation, they worked in a coordinated fashion to achieve those common goals.
William Samuel Johnson
William Samuel Johnson was born in Stratford, Connecticut, on Oct. 7, 1727. Thus, he was nearly 60 when the convention met.
He came from a financially comfortable family that valued learning. He developed a reputation as a classical scholar. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale College at the age of 17, and three years later both a masters from Yale and an honorary masters from Harvard. Moreover, his reputation was trans-oceanic: Oxford University awarded him an honorary masters when he was 29 and a doctorate 10 years later.
As a young man, Johnson thought of following his father into the clergy, but finally opted for the law. He became the first Connecticut lawyer able to support himself entirely from law practice.
In 1766, the state hired him to argue a case on behalf of Connecticut before the privy council in London. (The privy council served as the highest court for the British colonies.) He remained in England for four years, and traveled in high social circles. But he became disgusted with the incompetence and corruption of the British ministry.
Despite his success as an advocate, Johnson was by nature a conciliator. America’s final split from Britain was hard for him to accept, and he withdrew from public life.
In 1779, however, he finally threw in his lot with the American cause. Three years later, Connecticut sent him to the Confederation Congress.
Oliver Ellsworth was born on April 29, 1745, so during the convention he was 42 years old. He attended Yale College, but left after two years. Some have suggested disciplinary reasons; if so, the problem didn’t last. Ellsworth soon enrolled at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), from which he graduated in 1766. Like Johnson, he first considered the ministry but settled on the law.
Ellsworth’s energy seems to have been inexhaustible and he seems to have applied himself with great efficiency. He built the busiest law practice in the state. He served in a succession of political offices, including the Council, which was the upper house of the state legislature (1779–1785). The Council made good use of his legal talent, for it also acted as the state’s highest court.
In later years, a congressional colleague said of Ellsworth that he “has a head … that works with the precision of a mill.”
Roger Sherman didn’t have Johnson’s or Ellsworth’s fine educations. But he was even more of a dynamo, and his roaring energy was channeled by a fine mind and good judgment: Thomas Jefferson once remarked of him, “He never said a foolish thing in his life.”
Sherman was born on April 19, 1721, one of seven children of a farmer-cobbler. As a young man, he opened a store in New Milford, Connecticut. He later added a branch store in New Haven. As a side to his mercantile business, he took up cobbling.
He discovered he had a talent for mathematics, and thus for astronomy. This encouraged him to publish an almanac. His math skills also drew him to surveying, so he taught himself that skill. He became a paid surveyor. Surveying opened suggestions for land speculation, for which he also showed an aptitude.
As if all this were not enough, he decided to add yet another career: the law. To study law, he needed a mentor. He chose William Samuel Johnson. In 1754, Sherman was admitted to the bar, and his law practice prospered.
He also was successful in his efforts to propagate the human race: His first marriage produced seven children, his second produced eight. The last was fathered when he was 61 years old.
If you read the previous essay in this series, you may be struck by some parallels between the careers of Sherman and Benjamin Franklin. Sherman couldn’t quite match Franklin’s genius (who could?). But both came from humble, uneducated beginnings to pursue many-sided careers, rewarded with one triumph after another.
Like Franklin, Sherman eventually turned over his businesses to the management of others and devoted the rest of his life to public service. He was elected to the upper house of the state legislature (1766–1785), the Continental Congress (1774–1781), and the Confederation Congress (1784). Like Franklin also, he was a member of the committee that oversaw Jefferson’s drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
When he attended the Constitutional Convention, he was 66 years old and mayor of New Haven.
A careful review of the convention records reveals that the three Connecticut delegates worked in a coordinated fashion. The three evidently caucused regularly. Johnson’s personality and standing were such that he probably presided at those caucuses. But on the convention floor, Sherman most commonly spoke for the group, although Ellsworth and Johnson contributed frequently as well.
The Connecticut delegates’ most important common goals were to create a system that featured (1) a competent central government, (2) limited to specified powers, with (3) the states retaining jurisdiction on all other subjects and able to defend themselves against the central government.
On the Convention Floor
The Connecticut Commissioners were able to obtain their goals for two principal reasons. First, both Ellsworth and Johnson were conciliators, which encouraged other delegates to place them in influential positions. The convention elected Ellsworth to the Committee of Detail, which produced the Constitution’s first draft. It also placed him on Franklin’s “Grand Committee,” which proposed the famous Connecticut Compromise: representation in the Senate by state and in the House mostly by population.
Additionally, the convention elected Johnson to chair the five-man Committee of Style, which prepared the Constitution’s final draft.
The other reason the Connecticut delegates achieved their goals was their willingness and skill in proposing moderate solutions and mutually reinforcing each other. For example, Sherman made the first motion to specifically list the federal government’s powers. This motion didn’t succeed at first, but eventually the Committee of Detail (with Ellsworth a member) adopted it.
The convention proceedings of June 29 and 30 exemplify the Connecticut tag team at work. On the 29th, Johnson delivered a speech in which he argued that the Constitution should recognize the states as both groups of individuals and as separate political societies in their own right. Next, Ellsworth described this system as “partly national; partly federal”—a characterization James Madison borrowed in No. 39 of “The Federalist.” On the 30th, Ellsworth reiterated Johnson’s argument for enabling the states to protect themselves, and Sherman backed him up.
In addition to helping create the Constitution’s structure of federalism, the three contributed in other ways. Ellsworth and Johnson enlisted their vast legal knowledge to resolve several technical issues, such as how the Constitution would define “treason.” Sherman was one of the first to point out that the courts could strike down unconstitutional laws. He also made the motion for six-year terms for senators, although earlier he had suggested five years. And he successfully proposed that if no presidential candidate received a majority of the electoral college, a runoff election be held in the House of Representatives, with each state casting one vote.
After the Convention
Ellsworth and Sherman both actively promoted the Constitution’s ratification. Ellsworth explained the document in speeches at the Connecticut ratifying convention. He also wrote an influential series of pro-ratification essays under the name “Landholder.” Sherman composed pro-ratification essays under the name “Countryman.”
After a sufficient number of states had ratified the Constitution, the Connecticut legislature chose Johnson and Ellsworth as its first U.S. senators. Sherman won a statewide election to the House of Representatives.
Johnson remained in the Senate from 1789 until 1791, when he departed to become president of Columbia University. Due to illness, he resigned the latter position in 1800. However, he recovered to live for another 19 years, finally passing on Nov. 14, 1819, at the age of 92.
Ellsworth continued in public service for his entire life. As a senator, he sponsored the Judiciary Act of 1789, which organized the federal court system. In 1796, President George Washington nominated him as the third Chief Justice of the United States. While he was still Chief Justice, President John Adams appointed him an emissary to France, where he and two colleagues negotiated the end to America’s undeclared naval war with that country.
Ellsworth resigned from the Supreme Court in 1800 for health reasons. But he, too, recovered. Once he had left the court, he was re-elected to the Connecticut Council continuously until his death on Nov. 26, 1807.
Sherman was in Congress in 1789 when Rep. James Madison introduced his bill of rights. It’s unclear what Sherman’s position on the bill of rights was, other than that he wanted it placed at the end of the Constitution rather than interleaved with the constitutional text, as Madison initially favored.
In 1985, James Hutson, chief of the Manuscript Division in the Library of Congress, found a draft of the bill of rights composed in Sherman’s handwriting.
As I point out in my book, “The Original Constitution,” the draft clarifies how the authors organized what became the first eight amendments: Natural rights, such as speech and religion, were listed first, followed by certain cherished “privileges” (government-created entitlements) (pdf) such as trial by jury.
When Johnson left the Senate in 1791, the Connecticut legislature elected Sherman to replace him. He served only until March 1793 and died of typhoid fever on July 23, 1793.
This essay first appeared in the Jun. 5, 2023 Epoch Times.
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