American statesman Roger Sherman is best known to us for not being very well known. We find him mostly in collections of works by “Forgotten Framers.” Or, for those of us raised in the era of the Broadway play and film, 1776, he is “just a simple cobbler from Connecticut,” whose intellect isn’t up to helping draft the Declaration of Independence.
Mark David Hall’s excellent new book, Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic (2012), shows us what we’ve been missing by focusing too much attention on the more famous founders. Hardly just a simple merchant, Sherman was smart, articulate and thoughtful, and he was a deeply religious and intellectually engaged Calvinist in the New England tradition. Sherman’s Reformed Protestant faith was not only important to him, but, thanks to Sherman and his New England colleagues, it ended up contributing as much to American nation-building as the much more commonly credited Enlightenment.
Meanwhile, the original “simple cobbler” from New England is always worth revisiting. Nathaniel Ward was a Puritan minister who wrote, under a pseudonym, a satiric 1646 essay titled, “The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam in America.” The Simple Cobbler sets out a New England view of religious toleration not long after Roger Williams was banished, as follows: “Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free Liberty to keep away from us, and such as will come to be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better.”