In the years during and after the American Revolution, the two most powerful men in Connecticut may have been Jeremiah Wadsworth of Hartford and Roger Sherman of New Haven.
Wadsworth's influence came from money. When he died in 1804, he left an estate so large - the then enormous sum of $125,000 - that it allowed his son, Daniel, to become the city's first philanthropist and endow the art museum that still bears the family name.
During the Revolution, Wadsworth as commissary general fed and supplied Washington's army and then the 20,000-man French army that was its ally. The latter was especially profitable. Before the war ended, he'd become the largest initial investor in the nation's first bank, the Bank of North America. After the war he would become a founder of Hartford's first bank, as well as its insurance and textile industries.
Sherman's influence was political. He was a dominant figure in the old Continental Congress and again at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. When he signed the new Constitution, he earned a unique distinction among the founding fathers. He was the only one who also had signed the other great documents that led to nationhood. Sherman was there in 1774 when the colonies formally allied themselves against British power, there in 1776 for the Declaration of Independence and there again in 1781 for the Articles of Confederation.
In their respective spheres, both Wadsworth and Sherman achieved a prominence that put them in the league of men historians once called great. A scholar who studied the commerce of the Connecticut River Valley concluded Wadsworth alone rivaled competitors in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Sherman's biographer, Christopher Collier, the current Connecticut state historian, judged that his role in shaping the nation was "immense," unappreciated even by constitutional experts.
Like so many great men in early American history, however, Wadsworth and Sherman were stained deeply, and inevitably, by slavery.
Wadsworth was served by slaves, as were the majority of Connecticut's elite. He was the grandson of Gov. Joseph Talcott and, according to one account, his father, the minister of Hartford's First Church, rode in a yellow carriage driven by a negro coachman, presumably a slave. Wadsworth himself once bought a whole slave family, and one of his slaves, Peleg Nott, was elected a black governor. These were men, some free, some enslaved, who presided over Connecticut's "colored" population. Since slave governors often were chosen according to their master's eminence, Nott's election was predictable.
For a time, Wadsworth owned 6,600 acres of plantation land in South Carolina and the 129 slaves who went with it. The circumstances that made Wadsworth a slavemaster are complicated, but also revealing of the North's innumerable ties to the slave economy.
During the Revolutionary War, Wadsworth became a friend and business partner of Gen. Nathaniel Greene of Rhode Island, who had a Southern command and acquired property there. After the war, Greene, deeply in debt, turned his South Carolina property over to Wadsworth in exchange for a loan. At one point, Wadsworth wrote to their mutual friend, George Washington, that he hoped to sell the plantation for enough to provide for Greene's family.
Wadsworth's private business partnership with Greene extended his ties to the slave economy even further. During the war, he, Greene and Barnabas Deane of Wethersfield, the less famous brother of merchant and diplomat Silas Deane, secretly entered into an enterprise that involved privateering, shipbuilding, supplying the military and trading with the West Indies. The wealth of the islands came almost entirely from slave labor, and Wadsworth knew the territory intimately. The slave-rich West Indies had given him his start, if not his first fortune.
As a child after his father died, Wadsworth had been taken under the wing of an uncle, Matthew Talcott, who carried on a busy West Indies trade out of Middletown. Sent to sea before he was 20, Wadsworth soon was captain of one of his uncle's ships. A West Indian ship's captain was more than a seaman. He functioned like a general store owner, sailing from port to port deciding what to sell and what to buy. Wadsworth flourished as a seagoing merchant. By age 30 he owned at least one ship and had opened a trading business in Hartford.
Roger Sherman came from a much less privileged background than Wadsworth. He'd grown up on a farm in Massachusetts and, moving to Connecticut as a young man, worked his way up from cobbler, to surveyor, to shopkeeper and lawyer.
But if Wadsworth profited from slavery in the normal course of business, Sherman, who never owned a slave and never grew rich, committed a sin history might judge far worse. At the Constitutional Convention, he broke ranks with other New England delegates and joined an alliance that helped preserve slavery in the South.
The convention delegates (among them were Washington and the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin) did not imagine the new government might abolish slavery. But many delegates, even some from mid-South states like Virginia, which had a surplus of slaves, wanted to slow the spread of slavery and stop the importation of new slaves.
Sherman personally frowned on the slave trade and had qualms about treating slaves as taxable property. But according to Collier, his biographer, Sherman's character was a rare blend of piety and pragmatism. Thomas Jefferson is said to have told a friend that Sherman was "a man who never said a foolish thing in his life." Some found his public speaking style, heavy with Yankee accent, painfully awkward. John Adams described him standing rigid, clenching the wrist of one fisted hand in the fingers of the other.
Yet on the eve of the convention, Jeremiah Wadsworth himself warned an anti-slavery Massachusetts delegate that Sherman "is as cunning as the devil ... if he suspects you are trying to take him in, you may as well catch an eel by the tail."
Wadsworth was worried that Sherman was less eager for a strong national government than Connecticut's other two delegates, Oliver Ellsworth of Windsor and William Samuel Johnson of Stratford. Wadsworth misjudged Sherman's nationalism, but not his cunning. Sooner than most delegates, Sherman realized there would be no new government at all unless states gave way on issues that threatened to implode the convention.
Early in the convention the impasse was over how to weight the new Congress that was expected to dominate the government. In the highlighter version of history, Sherman is best remembered for proposing the so-called Connecticut Compromise that struck a balance of power by giving all states an equal voice in the Senate, while apportioning seats in the House of Representatives according to population. The idea was not new, but it was untested. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress consisted of a single chamber in which each state had one vote. The convention adopted the same one state, one vote rule.
Later, the issue that threatened to wreck the convention was slavery. The Deep South states of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina would yield no control over slavery to the new government. In the end, the Constitution included three slavery provisions that even some of its signers viewed as immoral. One clause counted a slave as three-fifths of a person in determining a state's wealth and population. Another clause gave Southern states the right to retrieve fugitive slaves from free states. The third barred Congress from interfering in the slave trade for 20 years. Immoral or not, it may have made the Civil War inevitable, because in those 20 years, the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney and tens of thousands of slaves were imported to work the cotton plantations that spread across the South.
On each of these provisions, the Connecticut delegation, led by the pragmatic Sherman, sided with the Deep South. His willingness to compromise was revealed in remarks he made on Aug. 22, when the fight over the slave trade came to a head.
According to James Madison's famous convention notes, Sherman said he disapproved of the slave trade, but felt that "as the states were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require that it be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it." The same day, Oliver Ellsworth observed that, "The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves." Both also argued that slavery seemed to be fading anyway.
Sherman, however, made sure he got a payback for his support. Collier, in "Decision in Philadelphia," an account of the Constitutional Convention he co-authored with his brother, wrote that Sherman won the Deep South's support on issues vital to Connecticut. The most important was a ban on federal taxes on exports - which from Connecticut went mostly to the West Indies. Another was protection of Connecticut's claim to its Western Reserve land in present-day Ohio.
Collier wrote that the alliance between Connecticut and the Deep South almost certainly was born in a meeting between Sherman and South Carolina delegate John Rutledge. The owner of 26 slaves, Rutledge was far more aristocratic than Sherman, but no less shrewd.
The deal they made - and Collier suggests its crucial importance to the Constitutional Convention by referring to it as the "Connecticut-South Carolina axis" - apparently was a secret one. Historians did not discover it, or at least did not write much about it, until the 20th century.
One early account appeared in a 1942 biography of Rutledge written by a Southern historian, Richard Barry, who judged that Rutledge, Sherman and one other delegate, James Wilson of Pennsylvania, together ruled the convention.
"In the Constitutional Convention, Connecticut was New England, by virtue of three very strong men, Johnson, Ellsworth and Sherman," wrote Barry. "Roger Sherman towered above them all ... Here was the man to whom John Rutledge had to `sell' the slave trade. That is what it came to, after all the other organization had been completed. If Rutledge and Sherman could agree the United States could be assured."
They did agree, Barry said, in a private dinner on June 30 in Rutledge's hotel room. The host was careful not to serve wine or offer tobacco to the pious Sherman, who disapproved of both habits. "The southern Episcopalian asked the northern Congregationalist to say grace. Roger Sherman bowed his head and prayed for ten minutes. They ate, and then they settled the slavery question - for seventy-six years," Barry wrote.
His account is no doubt embroidered, but his general argument and math still seem correct. In 1787, Sherman and Rutledge did make a deal over slavery that was not finally undone until Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the middle of the Civil War.
Sources for this article include: "Merchants and Trade of the Connecticut River Valley, 1750-1820," dissertation by Margaret E. Martin "Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787" by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier "Roger Sherman's Connecticut: Yankee Politics and the American Revolution" by Christopher Collier "Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina" by Richard Barry "E Pluribus Unum: the Formation of the American Republic, 1776-1790" by Forrest McDonald