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John Sherman
(May 10, 1823 – October 22, 1900)
John Sherman was a congressman (1855-1861), senator (1861-1877; 1881-1897), secretary of the treasury (1877-1881), and secretary of state (1897-1898).  In 1867, he chaired the Senate committee that drafted the first Military Reconstruction Act, which placed the former Confederate states under the authority of the federal government and army. 

He was born on May 10, 1823, in Lancaster, Ohio, to Mary Hoyt Sherman and Charles Sherman, a state supreme court judge.  His father died when Sherman was six, forcing him and his 10 siblings to be raised by various relatives.  (One of his older brothers was William Tecumseh Sherman, who later became a famous Union general during the Civil War.)  John Sherman dropped out of school at the age of 14 and apprenticed for two years with civil engineers working on river improvements.  In 1840, he began studying law and was admitted to the Ohio state bar four years later when he was 21.

Sherman began his political life as a Whig, but was elected to Congress in 1854 by a coalition of Ohio Whigs, Democrats, and Free-Soilers opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Western territories.  He helped to found the Republican Party in Ohio, and became a House leader of Republican moderates who opposed the expansion of slavery but pledged not to interfere with it in the South.  In 1859, after election to his third consecutive term, Sherman became a candidate for speaker of the house, but soon withdrew from that bitter contest. Instead, he was selected as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, beginning a decades-long involvement in federal financial and monetary affairs. 

In 1860, Sherman was elected to a fourth term and expected to be chosen the new speaker, but in early 1861 was selected by the Ohio State Legislature to fill the vacancy in the U.S. Senate left when Salmon P. Chase resigned to become treasury secretary.  As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Sherman supported Chase’s wartime policies of printing greenbacks, taxing wealthy incomes, and establishing a national banking system.  In 1866, Sherman was reelected to a second term in the Senate.  The policies of President Andrew Johnson and the actions of former Confederates drove Sherman and other moderates to support the Reconstruction agenda of the Radical Republicans.  In 1868, the Ohio senator voted to remove President Johnson from office (an attempt that failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority).

In 1867, Sherman assumed the chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, and became a major voice in the nation’s monetary and fiscal policies.  He was a moderate hard-money advocate, calling for the resumption of gold payments and opposing the circulation of silver coins, but favoring bringing greenbacks on par with gold dollars, rather than removing the paper currency from circulation.  In 1873, he steered through the Senate legislation that removed (“demonetized”) silver as legal tender, which became particularly controversial after the onset of an economic depression the next year.  In 1875, Sherman’s leadership convinced Congress to adopt the Specie Resumption Act, which retained $300 million of greenbacks in circulation, but which backed them by gold beginning on January 1, 1879.

In March 1877, Sherman resigned from the Senate to become secretary of the treasury under President Rutherford B. Hayes, a fellow Ohio Republican.  Sherman’s policies prepared the way for the resumption of the gold standard, but he also had to compromise with the silver forces.  In 1877, the House passed unlimited silver coinage, so Sherman lobbied the Senate to adopt a bill that set monthly limits on the amount coined.  The revised measure, the Bland-Allison Act, passed both houses in 1878. 

Sherman was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination three times in the 1880s.  In 1880, he ran a distant third to front-runners Ulysses S. Grant, the former president seeking a third term, and Senator James G. Blaine.  The deadlocked convention eventually turned to Sherman’s campaign manager, Congressman James A. Garfield.  However, the Ohio legislature did return the treasury secretary to a fourth term in the U.S. Senate that year.  Sherman fared even worse, though, at the 1884 Republican National Convention, placing fifth on the first ballot and losing to his rival, Blaine.  Reelected to the Senate in 1886, the Ohio senator believed that Republican delegates would finally be receptive to his candidacy at the next presidential convention.  In the crowded field of 14 candidates in 1888, Sherman’s first-ballot tally was more than twice than of his nearest challenger, but only one-quarter of the total needed to win the nomination.  Delegates then began migrating to the banner of Benjamin Harrison of Indiana, who surpassed Sherman on the seventh ballot to win the nomination.

Although his presidential ambition had been thwarted, Sherman remained a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate.  In 1890, Congress enacted two major pieces of legislation that bore his name:  the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  The former authorized the government to purchase most of the nation’s production of silver without increasing the government’s coinage of the metal.  The latter law was the first federal attempt to regulate large business corporations, and remains an important guide in today’s anti-trust decision making.  In 1888, Sherman faced a tough challenge to his Senate seat from fellow Republican Joseph Foraker, but managed to win reelection.  As an economic depression began in 1893, Sherman backed the repeal of the Silver Purchase Act, a law that he had promoted earlier only to conciliate Western silver interests within the Republican Party.

In 1897, President William McKinley appointed Sherman as secretary of state, but he served only one year, resigning after the U.S. declared war on Spain in April 1898.  Sherman lent his name to the anti-imperialist movement, but did not play an active role.  He died in Washington, D.C., on October 22, 1900.

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