Jeremiah And Daniel Wadswroth

Published caption: Merchant Jeremiah Wadsworth, a slaveholder, bequeathed his fortune to his son, Daniel, who used some of it to endow the oldest public art museum in the nation, the Wadsworth Atheneum. This portrait of father and son was done by John Trumbull in 1784. (Wadsworth Atheneum / January 31, 2014)

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.

First fortunes

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.

Power broker

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.