James S. Sherman was the 27th vice president of the United States and a Republican congressman from New York. He was born in Utica, New York, on October 24, 1855, to Mary Frances Sherman (her maiden name) and Richard Updike Schoolcraft Sherman, president of a food-canning company and editor of a Democratic newspaper. He was a distant relative of Senator John Sherman and General William Tecumseh Sherman. As a boy, John S. Sherman attended the common schools in the Utica area. In 1874, he graduated from Whitestone Seminary and entered Hamilton College (New York). Though an average student, he was popular and won notice for his speaking and debating skills. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1878 and his law degree (LL.B.), also from Hamilton, the next year. He was admitted to the state bar in 1880 and joined the Utica law firm of his brother-in-law, Henry J. Cookinham. In 1881, Sherman married Carrie Babcock; the couple would later have three sons.
Although his father was active in Democratic politics, Sherman joined the Republican Party and was elected Utica’s mayor in 1884 at the age of 29. Two years later, he won the first of two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representative (1887-1891), where his ebullient personality earned him the nickname, “Sunny Jim.” He lost a reelection bid in 1890 when voters reacted against the steep McKinley Tariff enacted by the Republican majority, including Sherman, who was a trade protectionist. He regained his House seat two years later, the first of eight consecutive terms (1893-1909). Sherman never chaired a major committee, held a party leadership position, or authored important legislation. Nevertheless, he was a favorite of Speaker Thomas B. Reed and was identified by a subsequent speaker, Joseph Cannon, as one of the “Big Five” among influential House Republicans. Sherman’s tenure on the Rules Committee earned him a reputation as a talented parliamentarian, and he worked hard as a member of the Committee on Indian Affairs to improve conditions for American Indians.
While in Congress, Sherman remained active in business and state politics. When his father died in 1895, the congressman became president of the New Hartford (New York) Canning Company, and five years later founded the Utica Trust and Deposit Company. Sherman chaired the Republican state conventions in 1895, 1900, and 1908. In 1900, he lost a contest for the House speakership to David Henderson of Iowa. During the presidency of Republican Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), Sherman sided with Republican conservatives who attempted to dilute the president’s reform agenda. In 1906, he raised a large amount of money as chairman of the National Congressional Campaign committee, but Republicans lost 28 seats, resulting in a House majority reduced by 56.
In 1908, Sherman was assisted in his quest to become the Republican vice-presidential nominee by Speaker Cannon, who dissuaded other candidates from accepting the offer. The conservative New York congressman balanced the top of the ticket, Ohioan William Howard Taft, who was considered to be a Roosevelt progressive. Sherman also could contribute fundraising ability and some of his personal wealth to the national campaign. That November, Taft and Sherman easily defeated the Democratic ticket of William Jennings Bryan and John Kern, 321-162 in the Electoral College and 52%-43.5% in the popular vote.
Sherman refused Taft’s request to act as a go-between with Speaker Cannon (a “messenger boy,” as the new vice president characterized it). However, Sherman and Taft developed a cordial relationship, made easier by both men’s jovial natures and the president’s increasingly conservative policies. Sherman presided over the Senate with fairness that earned respect on both sides of the aisle. Shortly after his election in 1908, Sherman had been diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a degenerative kidney disorder. In 1912, Republican delegates, unaware of his poor health, again selected him as Taft’s running mate. The honor made him the first sitting vice president to be renominated since John C. Calhoun in 1828. After delivering his acceptance speech that August, Sherman became ill and was unable to campaign. He died at his home in Utica on October 30, 1912, six days after his 57th birthday and six days before the election.
Antagonism between conservatives and progressives divided the Republican Party in 1912. Theodore Roosevelt had unsuccessfully challenged Taft for the GOP presidential nomination and then ran as the Progressive Party nominee. The split allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the presidential election with an Electoral College tally of 435 to Roosevelt’s 88 and Taft’s 8. Since no electoral votes could be awarded to the deceased Sherman, the Republican National Committee chose Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University (New York), to receive the party’s vice-presidential ballots when they were formally counted in January 1913.
Sources consulted: American National Biography (online); Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (online); and Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 325-332 (online).