Skip Content
U.S. Flag

James S. Sherman, 27th Vice President (1909-1912)

James S. Sherman

You will have to act on your own account. I am to be Vice President and acting as a messenger boy is not part of the duties as Vice President.
—James Schoolcraft Sherman to President William Howard Taft

A marble bust of James Schoolcraft Sherman has the distinction of being the only vice-presidential bust in the United States Capitol with eyeglasses. Sherman apparently had thought that no one would recognize him without his glasses. However, over time he has grown so obscure that no one recognizes him even with his glasses. Capitol visitors often confuse him with the more famous Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Yet while he never authored a famous bill, "Sunny Jim" Sherman was a powerful leader in the House of Representatives, a skilled parliamentarian, and a popular presiding officer of the Senate during his vice-presidency under William Howard Taft.


James S. Sherman was born on October 24, 1855, in Utica, New York, where his grandfather, Willett Sherman, ran a profitable glass factory and owned an impressive farm. In later years, Senator Elihu Root recalled spending summers at his own grandfather's farm and "the big, white house, with the great columns," of Sherman's grandfather's adjoining farm. Root believed that Sherman inherited his probusiness politics from his grandfather. Sherman's father, Richard U. Sherman, headed a food canning company and published a Democratic newspaper.

Young James Sherman graduated from Whitestown Seminary in 1874 and then attended Hamilton College, where he achieved recognition for his skills in oratory and debate. His genial temperament made him "the most popular man in his class." He graduated from Hamilton in 1878, received his law degree there the following year, and was admitted to the New York state bar in 1880, practicing in a firm with his brother-in-law. In 1881, he married Carrie Babcock of East Orange, New Jersey; they would have three sons.

Sherman was a joiner. In college he had joined the Sigma Phi fraternity. He was active in the Dutch Reformed Church. He was a member of the Royal Arcanum, the Order of Elks, and of all the local clubs in Utica. In politics, he broke with his Democratic father to become a Republican and at the age of twenty-nine won election as mayor of Utica. Two years later, in 1886, his district elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives. Except for the two years following his defeat for reelection in 1890, he remained in national public office for the rest of his life.

A Jolly Coterie in the House

As a Republican committed to a high protective tariff, Sherman blamed his single defeat on an angry voter reaction to the McKinley Tariff of 1890, which had swept many members of his party out of Congress (including William McKinley). In 1892 Sherman narrowly defeated Democrat Henry Bentley, who had beaten him in 1890, and returned to Congress. There Sherman reestablished himself as the leader of a "jolly coterie" of New York Republicans. Speaker Thomas B. Reed, who enjoyed the company of these younger men, promoted Sherman in the House hierarchy. Democratic Leader Champ Clark identified him as among the "Big Five" in the House Republican leadership, but Sherman never held a party leadership post or chaired a major committee. He served on the committees on the Judiciary, Census, Industrial Arts and Expositions, Interstate and Foreign Commerce, and Rules; and for fourteen years he chaired the Indian Affairs Committee. Democratic Representative John Sharp Williams believed that Sherman could have had a seat on either of the most important House committees, Appropriations or Ways and Means, "for the asking." But the New Yorker always stood aside in favor of friends who wanted those appointments, "thereby making the task of the Speaker, who was in those days always the party leader, easier and the pathway of his friends pleasanter."

The secret of Sherman's success in the House was his recognized parliamentary ability. Whenever House Speakers Tom Reed, David Henderson, and Joseph Cannon had to leave the chair, they knew that they could trust Sherman with the gavel, because he was a "decisive, self-possessed, and able parliamentarian." Unlike the smaller Senate, the House regularly used the device of a "committee of the whole" as a means of suspending its rules and moving ahead more speedily on legislation, since a smaller quorum was needed for the committee of the whole, and debate was limited. Amendments could be voted upon, but the final bill had to be reported back to the full House to be voted upon in regular session. Officially known as the Committee of the Whole House on the State of the Union, this committee comprised all House members and met in the House chamber. To indicate that the House was meeting in the committee of the whole rather than in regular session, the House sergeant at arms lowered the House mace from its pedestal, and the Speaker stepped down as presiding officer in favor of another member. Henry Cabot Lodge declared that Sherman "gradually came to be recognized as the best Chairman of the Committee of the Whole whom that great body had known in many years." Presiding effectively over the committee of the whole, said Lodge, was "a severe test of a man's qualities, both moral and mental. He must have strength of character as well as ability, quickness in decision must go hand in hand with knowledge, and firmness must always be accompanied by good temper."

While in the House, Sherman was a leader in the fight to preserve the gold standard against Populist proposals for "free silver"—by which farmers hoped to reduce their debts by fueling inflation through an expansion of the amount of money in circulation. Sherman also fought Democratic President Grover Cleveland's efforts to lower the tariff. When the Republicans returned to power with the election of William McKinley as president in 1896, Sherman played a key role in passage of the Dingley Tariff that reversed Democratic efforts and restored the high protective tariff. As usual, Speaker Reed turned the gavel over to Sherman to chair the committee of the whole throughout most of the debate on the Dingley Tariff. When Speaker Reed retired in 1900, Sherman sought the Speakership but lost to David Henderson. He became Henderson's right-hand man and continued to play that role under Henderson's successor, the powerful "Uncle Joe" Cannon.

McKinley's assassination in 1901 transferred the presidency to the dynamic Theodore Roosevelt, whose strong personality stimulated a national reform movement that had grown out of a series of local responses to the human abuses of industrialism. Progressives demanded change, which conservative leaders in Congress resisted. Sherman stood with the Old Guard. "He was preeminently a stand-patter and proud of it," recalled Senator Chauncey Depew. Having inherited the presidency of the New Hartford Canning Company from his father, Sherman fought progressive efforts to require accurate labeling of the weights and measures of canned jelly, catsup, corn, and other foods. He proposed a substitute amendment that required only that if a canner did label the weight and measure of the product, that such labeling must be accurate. This caused Dr. Harvey Wiley, who led the crusade for pure food and drug laws, to rename "Sunny Jim" Sherman as "Short-weight Jim."

The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee

Sherman chaired the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee during the congressional elections of 1906, raising large campaign contributions from business interests and gaining further recognition from his party's leaders. Sherman himself faced a hard fight for reelection that year. At one point, he turned desperately to an old fraternity brother, Elihu Root, then secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration. Sherman invited Root to speak for him and for the New York Republican gubernatorial candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, who was locked in battle with the Democratic candidate, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Other Republican leaders, fearing that Hearst might exploit Root's corporate connections to embarrass the Republican ticket, pleaded with Root to cancel his trip. But Sherman begged Root to reconsider. Root made the speech, in which he strongly and eloquently denounced Hearst, an attack that was credited with helping Hughes and Sherman win their elections.

In 1908, Sherman chaired the Republican state convention for the third time (having previously done so in 1895 and 1900). His supporters then launched a vice-presidential boom for him. President Theodore Roosevelt had announced that he would not stand for a third term, and had anointed Secretary of War William Howard Taft as his successor. The New York delegation went to the convention pledged to their governor, Charles Evans Hughes, for president, but as one journalist observed, the state's delegation was actually anxious to nominate Sherman for the second place on the ticket. Fortunately for Sherman's ambitions, Governor Hughes did nothing to promote his candidacy. Hughes' cool aloofness inspired a Gridiron Club parody of an old spiritual:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
You'll have to if you're after me;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
For I'm lying low, you see.

A Machiavellian Nomination

Taft won the nomination and would have preferred a progressive running mate, someone of the stature of Indiana Senator Albert Beveridge or Iowa Senator Jonathan Dolliver. But House members, led by Speaker Cannon, pressed for the nomination of James Sherman. On the surface, it seemed as though Sherman won the nomination by default, after the more progressive possibilities withdrew their names from consideration. But years later, in his memoirs, Senator Chauncey Depew revealed a more Machiavellian version of what had happened. The New York delegation had lobbied hard to convince Taft's managers that New York would be a critical state in the election, and that a New Yorker would most strengthen the ticket headed by a "westerner" like Taft of Ohio. Since Taft's managers had already discussed the nomination with several other potential candidates, they could not turn to Sherman without first dissuading these people—and doing so without offending their states. As Depew explained:

The method adopted by one of the leading managers was both adroit and hazardous. He would call up a candidate on the telephone and say to him: "The friends of Mr. Taft are very favorable to you for vice-president. Will you accept the nomination?" The candidate would hesitate and begin to explain his ambitions, his career and its possibilities, and the matter which he would have to consider. Before the prospective candidate had finished, the manager would say, "Very sorry, deeply regret," and put up the telephone.

When the nomination was made these gentlemen who might have succeeded would come around to the manager and say impatiently and indignantly: "I was all right. Why did you cut me off?" However, those gentlemen have had their compensation. Whenever you meet one of them he will say to you: "I was offered the vice-presidency with Taft but was so situated that I could not accept."

Straddling Party Divisions

House Democratic minority leader Champ Clark agreed that Sherman stood prominently in the House, but no more so than a half dozen other Republicans. In Clark's estimation, Sherman was "an industrious, level-headed, capable member, and a capital presiding officer," but in truth he received the nomination as a means of placating the GOP's conservative wing, which viewed Taft suspiciously as a progressive. "The Stand-patters selected Sherman partly because he wanted it, partly because they could trust him, and partly because he was perhaps the most acceptable of all the Old Guard chieftains in the House to President Roosevelt," Clark assessed. The vice-presidential nomination was clinched when Speaker Cannon stepped onto the platform, hiked up his sleeves, and offered an impassioned endorsement of Sherman. With the Old Guard's stamp of approval, "the two wings flapped together."

While well-known in Washington, Sherman had little popular identification across the nation, and it is doubtful that he brought many votes to the Taft ticket. The opposition Democratic candidate was William Jennings Bryan, who had twice before lost the presidency, in 1896 and 1900. Few Republicans would have voted for Bryan regardless of who ran with Taft, but Sherman campaigned with good grace. When the Democratic candidate for vice president, John Worth Kern, came to Utica he received a telegram from Sherman, who was campaigning elsewhere, welcoming Kern to his home city and urging him to call upon the Sherman family.

For the third and last time, William Jennings Bryan went down to defeat as Taft and Sherman were elected. While Taft prepared to enter the White House, Theodore Roosevelt made arrangements to leave the country for an extended hunting trip in Africa and tour of Europe, to give his successor a chance to establish himself. Even Taft had trouble in accepting the departure of the dynamic Roosevelt from the presidency. "When I hear someone say Mr. President," said Taft, "I look around expecting to see Roosevelt." Facing Taft was the problem of keeping together the warring conservative and progressive factions of the Republican party. Roosevelt had finessed party unity by talking publicly of reform while working privately with conservative leaders in Congress, and by steering absolutely clear of such divisive issues as the tariff. Taft came into office with a reputation for progressivism but with the support of such powerful conservatives as Rhode Island Senator Nelson Aldrich, who had worked quietly behind the scenes for Taft's nomination. During the campaign, Taft had managed to straddle party divisions, but once he assumed the office, he would have to choose sides.

No Messenger Boy

At first, Taft thought he had a perfect role for Sherman. The president-elect said that he had no intention of having anything to do with the reactionary House Speaker Cannon. "I am going to rely on you, Jim, to take care of Cannon for me," said Taft. "Whatever I have to do there will be done through you." "Not through me," Sherman declined. "You will have to act on your own account. I am to be Vice President and acting as a messenger boy is not part of the duties as Vice President." A month later, Taft invited Cannon to visit him, and thereafter Taft and Cannon met regularly at the White House. It was the beginning of a drift to the right that would eventually alienate Taft from Republican progressives.

Whatever ill-will may have resulted from Sherman's refusal to cooperate over handling Speaker Cannon evaporated in the glow of the inaugural festivities. Taft's wife, Helen, later wrote that Vice President and Mrs. Sherman shared a box with them at the inaugural ball. "They also had with them a large family party and were both so jolly and so much in the festive spirit that formality disappeared."

When Taft met with Speaker Cannon in December 1908, he learned that the House Ways and Means Committee was at work on major tariff revisions. Taft favored lowering tariff rates and negotiating reciprocal trade agreements with other nations to stimulate international trade, but congressional conservatives remained committed to high tariff duties to protect American industries. House Ways and Means Committee chairman Sereno Payne eventually produced the Payne bill, which pleased Taft by its moderate tariff reductions. In the Senate, however, Finance Committee chairman Nelson Aldrich amended the tariff with massive increases in rates. Insurgent Republicans led by Wisconsin Senator Robert La Follette fought the Payne-Aldrich Tariff, but Aldrich prevailed. Never in doubt was the stance of the Senate's new presiding officer, Vice President Sherman, a lifelong high-tariff man. In the end, President Taft sided with Sherman and the protectionists and signed the bill. As progressives began to reevaluate their assessment of Taft, the president compounded his problems by speaking out in defense of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff at Winona, Wisconsin, in Senator La Follette's home state, describing the tariff as "the best bill that the Republican party ever passed." At the same time, Vice President Sherman was telling people that the Republican party "had fulfilled every campaign pledge in passing the Aldrich bill."

Growing Relationship Between Taft and Sherman

The more conservative the president became, the closer he grew to his vice president. Taft found that he liked Sherman, a man who "hated shams, believed in regular party organization, and was more anxious to hold the good things established by the past than to surrender them in search for less certain benefits to be derived from radical changes in the future." Like Taft, Sherman possessed a jovial spirit, and the president credited the vice president with accomplishing much on Capitol Hill by his "charm of speech and manner, and his spirit of conciliation and compromise." Sherman succeeded through a "sunny disposition and natural good will to all." Yet he also manifested what Taft called "a stubborn adherence" to his principles. "In other words," said Taft, "it would be unjust to Mr. Sherman to suggest that his sunny disposition and his anxiety to make everybody within the reach of his influence happy, was any indication of a lack of strength of character, of firmness of purpose, and of clearness of decision as to what he thought was right in politics."

From all accounts, Sherman showed fairness, judicial temperament, and good humor in his capacity as presiding officer. "In the Senate we have no rules," observed New York Senator Chauncey Depew. Sherman had risen in the House because of his mastery at presiding over the House, whose rules were more rigid and its precedents voluminous. He thus found it quite a change to "preside over a body which is governed practically by no rules whatever, but is a rule unto itself." Depew noted that the older senators resented any effort on the part of the chair to curb their wanderings or their "very unregulated wills." He recalled how the vice president had ruled against Texas Democrat Joseph W. Bailey, one of the most quarrelsome senators, who

instantly declared that the independence of the Senate had been invaded by the Vice President who was not a member of the Senate but only its Constitutional presiding officer; that he had no right to use a position which was largely one of courtesy to violate the traditions of the most august body in the world and deny, or attempt to deny, to a Senator the rights to which every Senator was entitled.

Throughout this attack, Sherman showed no trace of emotion.

He was the presiding officer personified. With perfect calmness, good humor, and dignity, he stated the case to a breathless Senate. He did it so clearly and convincingly that the Senate sat down upon the tumultuous senator, and Sherman's decisions were never after questioned.

Always showing his sunny disposition in public, Sherman played tough-minded, hard-ball politics in private. "Sherman's indictments," President Taft once complained, "are as abrupt and severe as a school master's." When progressives revolted against the Payne-Aldrich tariff, Sherman advised: "Mr. President, you can't cajole these people. You have to hit them with a club." Sherman recommended cutting off postmastership appointments to the progressives as punishment for their disloyalty, to which Taft replied: "I hate to use the patronage as a club unless I have to." "It is your only club," Sherman rebutted. "You have other weapons, but the appointing power is your only club."

Roosevelt and Taft Split

In January 1910, Taft fired Theodore Roosevelt's good friend Gifford Pinchot as head of the U.S. Forest Service, after Pinchot had accused Taft's secretary of the interior, Richard Ballinger, of undermining the conservation program in favor of business interests. Sherman strongly backed Taft's decision, and when a joint congressional committee was established to investigate the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy, the vice president made sure to name only Taft supporters to the committee. Not surprisingly, the committee exonerated Ballinger, but the incident further divided the Republican party.

As the 1910 congressional elections approached, Taft dispatched Vice President Sherman on a number of political missions. In Wisconsin, Taft tried to block the renomination of the Senate's leading insurgent, Robert La Follette. Although the state had abandoned party nominating conferences in favor of primary elections, conservatives had organized a "true Republican meeting." The president sent Sherman to bestow the administration's blessing. Despite their efforts, however, La Follette easily won renomination and reelection.

Sherman then plunged into New York state politics, where Governor Charles Evans Hughes' resignation to become a Supreme Court justice had triggered open warfare between conservative and progressive Republicans. William Barnes of Albany, who led the party's Old Guard, selected Vice President Sherman as temporary chairman of the state convention to nominate the next governor. But Representative Herbert Parson, the Republican national committeeman for New York and leader of the party organization in New York City, appealed to former president Theodore Roosevelt for help. Roosevelt, who had just returned from his long overseas journey, was deeply angered over the Ballinger-Pinchot affair, and dismayed by the increasingly conservative tendencies of the Taft administration. Roosevelt agreed to run against Sherman for chairman to help insure the nomination of a progressive candidate for governor and a more progressive platform.

Roosevelt maintained that his candidacy was directed against Sherman and not against the administration. He portrayed Sherman as having spread the erroneous impression of having Taft's support. Yet Sherman remained in close communication with Taft by telephone throughout the New York convention fight, and at one point the president laughed as he told aides, "They have defeated Theodore." But Sherman could not overcome Roosevelt's immense popularity, and convention delegates voted, 568 to 443, to reject Sherman in favor of Roosevelt. Although Taft maintained public neutrality, Sherman's defeat was widely perceived as a defeat for the president.

The internal split proved a disaster for the Republican party in the 1910 congressional midterm elections. Republicans lost eight seats in the Senate—where insurgents now held the balance of power—and lost their majority in the House to the Democrats. In the hope of restoring harmony, Taft invited the leading insurgent senators to the White House to discuss patronage. All but the implacable La Follette attended. But these efforts alarmed the party's conservatives, who warned that, if Taft embraced the progressives, the Old Guard might throw their support to Vice President Sherman in 1912. Harmony was the last thing that the hapless Taft could achieve.

Death and Defeat

At first, Senator La Follette emerged as the principal challenger to Taft's renomination, but when the overworked and exhausted La Follette suffered a breakdown in February 1912, Theodore Roosevelt jumped into the race for the Republican nomination. In a series of bitter confrontations, Roosevelt won the popular primaries but Taft retained control of the party machinery that chose a majority of the delegates. In New York, Sherman's forces managed to gain 78 delegates for Taft, with only 12 for Roosevelt. Denied the nomination, the former president walked out of the Republican convention to form the Progressive ("Bull Moose") party. Democrats meanwhile had nominated the progressive governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson, who became the frontrunner by virtue of the Republican split.

With Taft's defeat in the November elections an almost foregone conclusion, the Republican convention renominated Sherman with little fuss or attention. He became the first sitting vice president to be renominated since John C. Calhoun, eighty years earlier. New York Republicans continued to argue that Sherman would bring the most strength to the ticket. In fact, Sherman was too ill to campaign that year. Since 1904 he had suffered from Bright's disease, a serious kidney ailment. During the long session of the Senate in 1912, Sherman's discomfort had been increased by the Senate's inability to elect a Republican president pro tempore who might spell him as presiding officer. He returned to Utica, where his family doctor diagnosed his condition as dangerous and prescribed rest and relaxation. His doctor urged him not even to deliver his speech accepting the nomination, at ceremonies planned for late August. "You may know all about medicine," Sherman responded, "but you don't know about politics." Sherman went through with the ceremonies and spoke for half an hour. Two days later, his health collapsed, leaving him bedridden. By mid-September, Sherman felt well enough to travel to Connecticut, where he checked into an oceanside hotel to recuperate. When reporters caught up with him and asked why he had avoided campaigning, Sherman replied, "Don't you think I look like a sick man?"

His longtime colleague and adversary, Robert La Follette, later noted that "the hand of death" had been upon Sherman throughout his vice-presidency. "From the first its shadow went with him in and out of this Chamber, stood over him at his desk, followed him down the corridors, pursued him to his home. Month after month, waking or sleeping, in social cheer or the still hours of the night, it was his constant companion. Before all others he was the first to know what threatened him." Yet Sherman never allowed his illness to hamper him. "He bore an outward geniality and spirit that dispelled fear from all his friends."

On October 30, 1912, President Taft was at a dinner at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, after launching the battleship New York, when word came that Vice President Sherman had died. He was fifty-seven years old. Taft asked the diners to adjourn in Sherman's memory and later issued a statement that he felt "a sense of personal bereavement in the loss of a friend." Privately, Taft fretted that Sherman's death might dissuade people from voting for the ticket. Mrs. Taft considered Sherman's death "very unfortunate" coming just before the election. "You have the worst luck," she commiserated with her husband.

A Deceased Running Mate

Taft considered naming the progressive governor of Missouri, Herbert S. Hadley, to replace Sherman, but members of the national committee persuaded the president that it would be poor politics to choose someone who was unlikely to carry his own state in the election. So Taft put off the decision and went into the election with a deceased running mate. It mattered little, since the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won the presidency with 435 electoral votes; the Progressive candidate, Theodore Roosevelt, took second place with 88 electoral votes; and Taft came in a dismal third, with only the 8 electoral votes of Vermont and Utah. In January, the Republican National Committee named another New Yorker, Columbia University president Nicholas Butler, to fill out the Republican ticket for purposes of receiving electoral votes, which were counted on February 12, 1913. Taft's reelection campaign remains one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a Republican presidential candidate (in 1936, Alf Landon tied Taft by winning only 8 electoral votes).

Various memorial services were held to honor the deceased vice president. Senator Elihu Root paid tribute to Sunny Jim, whose "smile was always bright; his fair, ruddy face was always glowing with kindly feeling; and the impression produced by his just and sweet and serene temperament was so strong that the world thought of him as a bright and cheerful man. It was all real; there was none of it put on." Senator Chauncey Depew commended Sherman's steadfast defense of the protective tariff, "the fundamental principle of all his political career." Democratic Senator John Worth Kern, who had lost the vice-presidency to Sherman in 1908, recalled his arrival in the Senate in 1911. Vice President Sherman had been so anxious to show his good will that within minutes after Kern had taken the oath of office, Sherman invited him to take the gavel and preside over the Senate. "I protested that I was a stranger, not only to this body but its procedure," said Kern,

but he insisted, saying, "It will be only for a few minutes and it is for my own pleasure and gratification that I ask you to do me this personal favor." And from that time on until the last he never lost an opportunity to make me feel that however wide our political differences—and they were irreconcilable—I had in him a friend on whose fidelity I might always rely.

Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas, who had served with Sherman in the House, and who would follow him as vice president during Herbert Hoover's administration, described Sherman as a fatherly man: "He was at once interested in the things in which you were interested, and immediately took upon himself the cloak of helper and adviser. He was thus particularly useful and congenial to new Members, and commanded for himself respect and support in everything he undertook."

An Unexpected Reappearance

Despite these eulogies, James Schoolcraft Sherman quickly disappeared from public memory. He remained the least-remembered twentieth-century vice president until 1974, when he made an unexpected reappearance in E.L. Doctorow's best-selling novel Ragtime. At a climactic moment in the book, Sarah, a black domestic, tried to intercede on behalf of her husband, when Vice President Sherman attends a campaign rally in New Rochelle, New York:

When the Vice-President's car, a Packard, rolled up to the curb and the man himself stepped out, a cheer went up. Sunny Jim Sherman was a New York State politician with many friends in Westchester. He was a round balding man and in such ill health that he would not survive the campaign. Sarah broke through the line and ran toward him calling, in her confusion, President! President! Her arm was extended and her black hand reached toward him. He shrank from the contact. Perhaps in the dark windy evening of impending storm it seemed to Sherman's guards that Sarah's black hand was a weapon. A militiaman stepped forward and, with the deadly officiousness of armed men who protect the famous, brought the butt of his Springfield against Sarah's chest as hard as he could. She fell. A Secret Service man jumped on top of her. The Vice-President disappeared into the hotel.

That scene, which led to Sarah's death in the novel, was entirely fictitious. Sherman simply served as the novelist's metaphor of an unhealthy and unresponsive political system. Although perhaps better than total obscurity, it was not the way "Sunny Jim" would have wanted to be remembered.

Printer-friendly Version with Footnotes