The Hill in History

Hamilton’s little-known,
but not forgotten, U.S. vice president

James Schoolcraft Sherman, Class of 1878, was Hamilton’s highest-ranking government official, serving as the 27th vice president of the United States under William Howard Taft from 1909 until 1912. He died on Oct. 30, 1912, just six days before the three-way 1912 election when Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt split the Republican vote. New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, won. Sherman’s last public appearance was to accept re-nomination on the party’s ticket in Utica, N.Y., where he succumbed to Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, at age 57.

James Sherman should not be confused with John Sherman, the Ohio congressman noted for the antitrust Sherman Act. Hamilton’s Sherman sponsored no memorable legislation during his two decades as a representative from Central New York. However, “Sunny Jim,” as he was known, was well respected by his peers and affable with those on both sides of the aisle.

Sherman was born in Utica in 1855. His father was a well-to-do merchant who headed a food canning company and published a Democratic newspaper. Young James attended public schools as well as Whitestown Seminary. At Hamilton, he joined Sigma Phi fraternity, following in the footsteps of another distinguished graduate, Elihu Root, Class of 1864. A close relationship developed between the two during their respective political careers. Root, later speaking at a memorial service for his friend, recalled blissful times spent on his grandfather’s farm, located adjacent to Sherman’s grandfather’s farm.

Materials in the College Archives indicate that Sherman presided over the Senate History and “received recognition for his oratory and debate.” He gave the speech required of all seniors on the subject “Evil Defied” and was elected to the senior honor society Pentagon.

James Sherman, Class of 1878
James Sherman, Class of 1878, as a student at Hamilton.

Sherman graduated with an A.B. in 1878 and remained another year on College Hill to obtain a LL.B. degree from Maynard-Knox Law School. At the young age of 29, he was elected mayor of Utica. Unlike his father, the younger Sherman’s politics leaned more to the right; he became a Republican U.S. representative from New York’s 23rd congressional district. Except for the two years following his defeat for re-election in 1890, he remained in national public office for the rest of his life.

Sherman returned to Hamilton in 1903 to receive an honorary degree. He later served as a College trustee from 1905 until his death. Not remembered as a notable public figure (Sherman is omitted from a Wikipedia list of well-known people who died of Bright’s disease that includes the wives of presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), he nevertheless was the first vice president to take a plane ride, the last to die in office, and the first to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at an opening-day Major League Baseball game, filling in for Taft in 1912.

So far as I can tell, Sherman is not the subject of any biographies. Jules Witcover, an expert on the often misunderstood office of vice president, devoted about six pages to Sherman in his book The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power (2014). He concluded on his subject’s congressional career: “With his congenial disposition and party fealty, Sherman became the center of a band of younger Republicans from New York showing no conspicuous interest in any leadership post and deferential to the advancement of his colleagues.”

A consistent “Old Guard” Republican, he supported high tariffs, a source of continuing controversy during the last half of the 19th century. Simply put, these were enacted to protect American businesses from more cheaply made foreign imports. This was in opposition to Democrat Grover Cleveland’s attempts to lower the tariff as well as to take the country from the gold standard to “free silver” — by which farmers hoped to reduce their debts by fueling inflation through an expansion of money in circulation. 

As vice president, Sherman never assumed a party leadership position or chaired a major committee (although he did head the Committee on Indian Affairs, for which he is remembered with a California school bearing his name). His chief role in Congress was to toe the party line and fill in for speakers, using his parliamentary skills to move legislation through for the majority party. 

Sherman’s appointment to accompany Taft on the 1908 ticket did, however, contain some political intrigue. With the passage of the Twelfth Amendment in 1804, the candidate finishing second in electoral votes no longer became vice president. For most of the 19th century, indeed probably until Franklin Roosevelt’s rejection of his two-term vice president John Nance Garner in 1940, the selection reflected the adroit hand of party bosses. Leading up to Sherman’s selection in 1908, Taft, who was from Ohio, had been President Theodore Roosevelt’s choice as his successor. Members of the Republican Party were concerned that Taft might continue Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” legislation, so they approved Sherman with his safe, conservative 20-year congressional record. While Midwesterner Taft might have preferred a more progressive running-mate, New York’s large electoral college contingent thought an experienced man from the Empire State necessary for victory. 

The Taft-Sherman ticket won by a substantial margin. Witcover relates the exchange between the successful pair when Taft requested Sherman “take care” of Old Guard Speaker of the House “Uncle Joe” Cannon. According to the U.S. Senate’s website (www.senate.gov), Sherman asserted his independence, replying, “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.”

Despite their initial disagreements, Taft grew to appreciate his vice president. He described Sherman as 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.”

It’s clear that Hamilton’s only vice president put to good use the foundational skills he formed at the College. Today, he is remembered with an endowed chair — the James S. Sherman Professor of Government, awarded to a professor whose teaching, scholarship, and community service bring credit to the College.

— William S. Easton ’58

Editor’s Note: Bill Easton, who has contributed several “Hill in History” columns to this magazine, submitted this piece in draft form a few weeks before he died on Aug. 8, 2017. Our staff completed the article for publication.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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