Great Conservatives from American History #4: Lawrence Y. Sherman

On November 19, 1919, the U.S. Senate for the first time in history rejected a peace treaty in the Versailles Treaty. Among the opponents of the treaty was a principled and obstinate group called the “Irreconcilables”. This group constituted around fifteen senators, mostly Republicans, who would not accept the Versailles Treaty in any form. One of these senators was Lawrence Y. Sherman (1858-1939) of Illinois.

Sherman’s Start

In 1896, Sherman, an attorney by profession, was elected to the Illinois State Assembly, being elected Assembly Speaker in 1899, serving until 1903. His ideology was already set at this point, as he believed that “the government which governs least governs best” (Holstein, 4). He was an opponent of William Lorimer of Chicago, not on ideological grounds rather on moral grounds, viewing him as an unethical political boss. Sherman and other Republicans attempted to stop his return to Congress in the 1902 election, but this failed, and Lorimer engineered his defeat as speaker in 1903. The following year, however, he would be elected Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, serving until 1909.

Lorimer would get elected to the Senate in 1909, but events would vindicate Sherman’s opposition to him, as he resigned in 1912 after testimony came out that his campaign bribed legislators to vote for him. Although Sherman initially supported Theodore Roosevelt for the Republican nomination in 1912, he stuck with Taft once he was the nominee. He and Democrat J. Hamilton Lewis would be elected to the Senate by the state legislature in a compromise in 1913.
Sherman’s conservatism was staunch. He opposed most of what President Wilson supported, and in 1913 opposed the Federal Reserve Act as he regarded it as an “unwarranted and unwise interference with the private funds of the stockholders and depositors of national banks” and denounced “creating credit by the fiat of a board whose membership depends on the rise and fall of candidates in a political campaign” (Holstein, 29-30). Sherman was also a strong defender of the free market, but he clearly didn’t believe that the traditional Republican platform of high tariffs ran afoul of this.

1914: Sherman Faces the People

In 1914, Senator Sherman faced his first popular election and was up against two significant opponents in Democrat Roger C. Sullivan and Progressive Raymond Robins. Sullivan had backed Grover Cleveland over William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and had voted for Illinois’ John M. Palmer of the National Democratic Party who supported Cleveland’s policies such as the gold standard. Robins was backed by former President Theodore Roosevelt, who regarded both Sherman and Sullivan as unfriendly to labor and called them “reactionaries”. This, in addition to William Jennings Bryan not helping his campaign contributed to Sherman’s plurality win by less than two points.

Second Term

In his conservatism, Sherman indeed proved an opponent of organized labor. On August 14, 1916, he delivered a speech on the Senate floor in which he characterized AFL’s chief Samuel Gompers as a “public nuisance” and denounced his leadership by stating, “There is no more tyrannical outrageous injustice than that of leaders who live on the sweat of other people’s brows” (Holstein, 69-70). Gompers in kind expressed his belief that Sherman opposed organized labor generally, which he did. Sherman was opposed to the eight-hour workday for railroad labor in the Adamson Act and consistently voted against measures strengthening collective bargaining.

Sherman was a strong advocate for military preparedness but he didn’t want the United States getting involved in Europe. In 1917, he was one of the senators who filibustered against a measure arming merchant ships proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, a group which he denounce, holding that they were “a little group of willful men, representing no opinion but their own” who had “rendered the great Government of the United States helpless and contemptible” (Holstein, 74). Popular opinion was against the filibustering senators, and ultimately the Senate adopted rules establishing cloture, or 2/3’s vote as a means to end debate. Of the three dissenters, Sherman was one of them (Holstein, 75). Despite his filibustering, Sherman would vote for American participation in World War I and support penalizing Germany for aggression after the war. He saw wartime intervention in the economy as dangerous and socialistic. Per Jerome Holstein (1974), “Sherman viewed government price-fixing, control of the railroads, and control of the economy as integral components of a master plan to impose socialism on the United States. He stated that Wilson, and especially advisors Colonel House and George Creel, had a “masked purpose” of eventually controlling all means of production and distribution” (81). According to DW-Nominate, he was the most conservative senator of his time, scoring a 0.807. His MC-Index score is a whopping 99%. Sherman opposed both the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918.
Although certain Senate conservatives were strongly opposed to women’s suffrage like Frank Brandegee (R-Conn.), George Moses (R-N.H.), and Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), Sherman consistently supported women’s suffrage. He held that they had earned suffrage because of their role in developing the frontier and the nation (Holstein, 49). Sherman also voted for the Prohibition and the Volstead Act, regarding drink as a societal evil.

Presidential Run – 1916

Sherman saw fit to run for the Republican nomination for president in 1916, but he was overshadowed by numerous other figures in the party and support for his candidacy was not even unified among the Republicans in his home state. Although he lost to Charles Evans Hughes, he was given the honor of presenting former Vice President Charles W. Fairbanks with the nomination for…Vice President! He loyally backed the Hughes-Fairbanks ticket, which narrowly lost.

Sherman and the Versailles Treaty

What Sherman became most known for in the Senate was his unwavering opposition to the Versailles Treaty as an unallowable sacrifice of American sovereignty. In response to President Wilson’s “peace without victory” speech on January 22, 1917, in which he outlined a beatific vision for an international system with agreements to avoid arms races and one in which the United States was the broker of peace, he remarked, “It will make Don Quixote wish he hadn’t died so soon” (Boissoneault). This response indicated his worldview, which was that a great internationalist system would not be realistic, and feared committing the United States to too many affairs abroad.

Sherman criticized numerous elements of the treaty, including counting the British empire as six votes instead of one, stating “Great Britain with her diplomatic influence in the Old World much superior to ours could easily secure a majority of the nations to outvote us any time she wished” (Chandler, 291). His strong nationalism made support for the Versailles Treaty impossible, but he did side with Wilson on one matter: the killing of the Versailles Treaty with reservations as proposed by Senate Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.). Sherman’s philosophy, which he followed through on, was, “I will vote for any pertinent amendment that comes along. I hope every one of them will be adopted. There could not be confusion worse confounded if every amendment offered here were voted into the treaty…So vote them in; and then after every one of all the amendments is voted into the treaty and the league, I will vote to reject it all” (Stone, 139). He also saw hypocrisy in the League of Nations and cited nations that got the short shrift. One was concessions to Japan, in which land taken from China by Germany was given to Japan rather than to China under the Shantung provision. He stated, “40,000,000 Chinese in Shantung were denied the right to self-determination and delivered to Japan under treaty” (The New York Times).

In 1920, Sherman opted to retire, as he was becoming hard of hearing and found himself increasingly less able to participate effectively in Senate debates. He practiced law and banking afterwards, retiring for good in 1933.


Boissoneault, J. (2017, January 23). What Did President Wilson Mean When He Said “Peace Without Victory” 100 Years Ago? Smithsonian Magazine.

Retrieved from

Chandler, A. (2001). Senator Lawrence Sherman’s Role in the Defeat of the Versailles Treaty. Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 94(3).

Holstein, J.B. (1974). Lawrence Yates Sherman: United States Senator from Illinois, 1913-1921. Eastern Illinois University.

Retrieved from

Senators bitter as debate opens on the League. (1919, May 24). The New York Times, p. 1

Stone, R.A. (1970). The irreconcilables: the fight against the League of Nations. Frankfort, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

One thought on “Great Conservatives from American History #4: Lawrence Y. Sherman

  1. Another Senator Sherman! Article IS So Interesting I Would Like To Keep Some Of My Comments Confidential. Please Advise Me Here. Thanks From Dave.

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