A Reference Resource
John Sherman (1877–1881): Secretary of the Treasury
John Sherman was born in 1823 in Lancaster, Ohio. After leaving school at the age of 14, he worked as an engineer on the Muskingum River improvement project, studied law, was admitted to the state bar in 1844, and then established a law practice in Mansfield, Ohio.
In 1853, Sherman moved to Cleveland, where he became an “ultra Whig.” He soon switched his allegiances to the Republican Party when the Whig Party dissolved. He was elected as a Republican in 1854 to the United States House of Representatives, where he served from 1855 to 1861. Sherman declined to run for reelection for a fourth term in 1860, for he had been elected to the United States Senate.
While his brother, William Tecumseh Sherman, made a name for himself as a general during the Civil War, John Sherman served in the Senate as chairman of the Committee on Agriculture and chairman of the Committee on Finance. Sherman ultimately resigned his Senate seat in 1877 to serve as President Rutherford B. Hayes’s secretary of the treasury, a post he held throughout Hayes’s entire four-year term. During his tenure, Sherman addressed corruption in custom houses and resumed specie payments.
Immediately following his stint in the cabinet, Sherman returned to the Senate, where he served from 1881 to 1897. He was president pro tempore during the Forty-Ninth Congress and, perhaps more notably, sponsored and guided to passage the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890. The act declared the monopolization of certain industries, such as sugar, oil, and railroads, to be illegal and gave the government the right to break up such trusts. Though Congress passed the act with overwhelming support in 1890, it would be another decade before the law would be enforced, and two decades before it would be strengthened with the passage of the Clayton Anti-Trust Act in 1914.
Sherman left the Senate in 1897, when President William McKinley tapped him to become secretary of state. Though Sherman’s memory was failing, McKinley made the appointment nonetheless, installing campaign manager Mark Hanna in Sherman’s Senate seat. Sherman served only one year as secretary of state (1897-1898) and was little more than a figurehead; his assistant secretary of state, William R. Day, actually ran the department, negotiating the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands and working to prevent a war with Spain over the issue of Cuba.
John Sherman resigned his post in 1898 due to ill health and died two years later in 1900.