Founders and the Constitution
Roger Sherman (1721-1793)
One 45-minute class period.
In this lesson, students will study the life of Roger Sherman. Students will learn about his contributions to public service, his views on the proper division of power between state and national government, and his view on the role of government.
Consent of the Governed
The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
Representative / Republican Government
Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
Government is instituted for those who live under it. - Roger Sherman (1787)
Although not the most charismatic or eloquent Founder, Roger Sherman was highly esteemed by his contemporaries. At Sherman’s death, Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, wrote, “He was an extraordinary man—a venerable uncorrupted patriot.” A talented politician, Sherman was also a man of deep religious faith who approached life seriously. Thomas Jefferson once claimed that the Connecticut statesman “never said a foolish thing in his life.” A self-made man with the power of common sense and the ability to compromise, Sherman was completely dedicated to public service at both the state and national levels. He had a hand in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
Sherman was an early champion of union first among the colonies and then among the states. He understood the benefits of having a central government that could address national needs and handle international affairs. Sherman jealously guarded the rights of the people of America in general and of Connecticut in particular against encroachments by, first, the government of Great Britain, and, after independence, the government of the United States. A leader of American opposition to British tyranny in the 1760s and 1770s, he served in the First and Second Continental Congresses and was a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he fought to protect the rights of the states, thereby lending support to the principle of federalism that was crucial to the American system of government.
Relevant Thematic Essays
In this lesson, students will learn about Roger Sherman. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Roger Sherman (1721–1793) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing the answers to these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout C—In His Own Words: Roger Sherman on the Role of Government, in which students consider how government affects their everyday life and compare Sherman’s view of the role of government with the reality of today. As a preface, there is Handout B—Context Questions, which will help the students understand the document.
There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to find a news article that illustrates the federal government either fulfilling one of the roles of which Sherman approved, or fulfilling a role of which he disapproved. The students will then write a one-paragraph essay from Sherman’s point of view, explaining how the government is properly fulfilling, or exceeding, its role. Extensions provides opportunity for thought as students are asked to research how a contemporary problem has been addressed by government.
- understand Sherman’s contributions to public service
- appreciate Sherman’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
- analyze Sherman’s view of the proper division of power between the states and the national government
- understand the reasons for Sherman’s initial opposition to a bill of rights
- explain Sherman’s view of the role of government
- Handout A—Roger Sherman (1721–1793)
- Handout B—Context Questions
- Handout C—In His Own Words: Roger Sherman on the Role of Government
Additional Teacher Resource
- Answer Key
CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10
Ask students to read Handout A—Roger Sherman (1721–1793) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.
Warm-up 10 min.
- Review answers to homework questions.
- Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
- Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Roger Sherman.
Roger Sherman was a leader of American opposition to British tyranny in the 1760s and 1770s. He served in the First and Second Continental Congresses and was a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he fought to protect the rights of the states, championing the principle of federalism that was crucial to the American system of government. Sherman had a hand in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He initially opposed adding a bill of rights to the Constitution but later changed his mind and worked to win the approval of Connecticut for the Bill of Rights.
Context 5 min.
- Briefly review with students the idea of federalism, an invention of the American Founders. (In a federal system, government power is divided between central and local governments, each of which is supreme in its sphere.)
- Also review with students the main issues involved in the debate between Federalists and Anti-Federalists. (The Federalists asserted the need for a stronger central government and believed that the confederation of the states would break up if the Constitution was not ratified. Anti-Federalists feared that a stronger central government would endanger the rights of the people and the states.)
In His Own Words 20 min.
- Ask the students to brainstorm ways in which government touches their lives on a daily basis. (See the Answer Key for possible responses.) Write their answers on the board. Then ask them to label each example according to which level of government—federal, state, and/or local—is involved. Place an F next to the item for federal, an S next to state, and an L next to local. (Many examples will be labeled more than once.)
- Ask the students to consider which of the activities on the list are legitimate functions of government at some level. Place stars next to these activities. Place lines through those activities that are not legitimate activities of government at any level.
- Distribute Handout B—Context Questions. Be sure that the students understand the “who, what, where, and when” of the document.
- Distribute Handout C—In His Own Words: Roger Sherman on the Role of Government.
- Ask a student to read the excerpt from the speech by Sherman to the class.
Wrap-up Discussion 10 min.
Conduct a whole-class discussion about Sherman’s view of the role of government.
- In 1787, what did he say about the roles of the federal and state governments?
- Today, what would Sherman say about the roles of government listed on the board?
- Why do you think the role of government has expanded since 1787?
See Answer Key.
Follow-Up Homework Options
- Have the students find a news article that illustrates the federal government fulfilling a role of which Sherman approved. Have the students write a one-paragraph essay from Sherman’s point of view, explaining how the government is properly fulfilling this role.
- Have the students find a news article that illustrates the federal government fulfilling a role of which Sherman might have disapproved. Have the students write a one paragraph essay from Sherman’s point of view, explaining how the government is exceeding its proper role.
Have the students select a contemporary problem and research how the federal, state, or local government responded to that problem. Then have them write a two- to three page paper in which they (1) recommend which level of government—if any—should address that problem and (2) state how the problem should be addressed. Topics for research could include the following:
- Lack of medical care
- Failing schools
Bradford, M. E. Founding Fathers: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.
Collier, Christopher. Roger Sherman’s Connecticut: Yankee Politics and the American Revolution. Middletown, CT:Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
Kurland, Philip B., and Ralph Lerner. The Founders’ Constitution. 5 vols. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987.
McDonald, Forrest. E Pluribus Unum: The Formation of the American Republic, 1776–1790. Reprint. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1979.
Rommel, John G. Connecticut’s Yankee Patriot: Roger Sherman. Hartford: American Revolution Bicentennial Commission of Connecticut, 1980.
“The Charters of Freedom: America’s Founding Fathers.” The National Archives and Records Administration. <http://www.archives.gov/exhibit_hall/charters_of_freedom/constitution/connecticut.html>.
“The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 reported by James Madison.” The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School. <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/debates/debcont.htm>.
“Roger Sherman.” New Milford Historical Society. <http://www.nmhistorical.org/learningzone/sherman.htm>.
“Roger Sherman, 1721–1793.” Colonial Hall. <http://www.colonialhall.com/sherman/sherman.php>.
“Sherman, Roger.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. <http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=S000349>.
By Roger Sherman
- Letter to John Adams, July 20, 1789
- Handout A: Roger Sherman (1721-1793)
- Handout B: Context Questions
- Handout C: In His Own Words: Roger Sherman on the Role of Government
- Thematic Essays