February 16: A National Statesman and the First Mayor of New Haven


In the midst of the American Revolution, one of the most chaotic and turbulent times in the nation’s history, it seems fitting that one of the most even-tempered and widely trusted statesmen would hail from the Land of Steady Habits.  That statesman was Roger Sherman, and even though he was a reluctant public speaker, his legal and political counsel helped shape the founding documents that formed the new United States of America.

Roger Sherman was born in Massachusetts in 1721 and first moved to western Connecticut as a young adult looking for work after the death of his father.  Before entering the realm of politics, Sherman worked as a cordwainer and land surveyor before taking up the study and practice of law.  He was first elected to the Connecticut General Assembly shortly after he and his family moved to New Haven in 1760, and, beginning in 1766, served as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court for over twenty years.

In 1774, after patriots throughout the thirteen American colonies called for the creation of a new Congress where colonial leaders could meet and discuss coordinated responses to oppressive British policies, Roger Sherman was one of three men chosen to represent Connecticut in Philadelphia.  There, he signed the Continental Association, a document which endorsed a trade boycott with Great Britain.  During the Second Continental Congress, Sherman served on the committee of five men responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence, likely at the recommendation of fellow committee member John Adams, who praised Sherman as “one of the most sensible men in the world.”  After the colonies declared independence in 1776, Sherman also served on the committee that produced the Articles of Confederation, which outlined the new United States’ first national government.

Portrait of Roger Sherman painted by Ralph Earl, c. 1775. (Yale University Art Gallery)

After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, Sherman returned to his home in New Haven.  The following year, on February 16, 1784, he was elected the first mayor of New Haven, which had just voted to incorporate itself as a city.  Only a few years into his executive post, however, Sherman was once again called back into national service as one of Connecticut’s representative to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, originally convened to amend the deeply-flawed Articles of Confederation.  There, despite his status as the Convention’s second-oldest member, Sherman played a fundamental role in shaping what would become the United States Constitution, co-authoring the “Connecticut Compromise” which called for the creation of a bicameral legislature and broke a deadlock that threatened to upend the entire convention.

In spite of declining health in the early 1790s, Roger Sherman remained active politically, continuing to serve as mayor of the city of New Haven until his death from typhoid fever in 1793.  Once of Connecticut’s greatest statesmen, he accomplished an incredible amount both in his home state and on the national stage in spite of his taciturn demeanor and an often stilted and awkward style of public speaking.  Roger Sherman is most famous for being the only man to have signed the Continental Association, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution, four of the most significant political documents in American history.   He also had a far-reaching impact closer to home: In addition to reforming many of Connecticut’s ancient laws and handing down countless erudite judgements from the bench, he also helmed the city of New Haven during one of its most prosperous and expansive eras, beginning on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Gregg Mangan, “Roger Sherman, Revolutionary and Dedicated Public Servant,” connecticuthistory.org

Richard J. Werther, “Roger Sherman: The Only Man Who Signed All Four Founding Documents,Journal of the American Revolution