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Sherman, Buren Robinson
(May 28, 1836–November 11, 1904)

–11th governor of Iowa—was born in Phelps, Ontario County, New York, the third son of Phineas L. Sherman, ax maker, and Eveline (Robinson) Sherman. He went to school in Phelps until 1849, when the family moved to Elmira, New York. There he continued his schooling and then, in 1852, was apprenticed to a watchmaker. The family moved to Tama County, Iowa, in 1855. Sherman worked on his father's farm and then in a store from 1857 to 1859 while at the same time studying law. He was admitted to the bar in 1860 and began practicing law in Vinton. In 1862 he married Lena Kendall of Vinton; they had one daughter and one son.

    When the Civil War broke out, Sherman immediately joined up. In 1862, as a second lieutenant, he was gravely wounded at Shiloh and left on the battlefield to die. His wounds were not dressed until six days later, but, amazingly, he recovered. While in the hospital, he was promoted to captain and returned to his regiment on crutches. In the summer of 1863 his wounds invalided him out of the army. Back in Vinton, he was given a hero's welcome.

    There Sherman moved into public life. He was elected county judge of Benton County in 1863 and reelected in 1865. He gave up his office in 1866 when he was elected clerk of the district court, a position to which he was reelected three times. Moving up the political ladder, he secured election as State Auditor in 1874. Sherman distinguished himself in that office and was reelected in 1876 and 1878. After an unsuccessful try for the Republican nomination for governor in 1877, he "accepted defeat like a good sport, which won him many friends."

    Sherman again sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1881. A Mason, Shriner, Knight Templar, and Grand Army man, he had many friends. A contemporary journalist, looking back from 1917, wrote: "Sherman was a whooper-up. He was the best hand-shaker Iowa has ever known."He finally defeated future governor William Larrabee for the Republican nomination in 1881 and easily won the election. He ran again in 1883. Unusually, that election had debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates, and again Sherman triumphed. His second inauguration was in the rotunda of the new capitol on January 17, 1884, at the same time as the dedication of the building.

    As State Auditor, Sherman had stressed that local taxation did not reach the telegraph, telephone, fast freight, and Pullman companies, to the grave detriment of state revenue. Other governors had tried but failed to accomplish reform in that area, but Sherman succeeded with a series of reforms, notably the initiation of semiannual tax payments, which permitted the "circulation of large amounts of money which would otherwise be locked up in bank vaults."

    As governor, Sherman supported four constitutional reforms that were adopted. General elections were moved to "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November."The legislature could reorganize the judicial districts, reduce the number of grand jurors to between 5 and 15, and provide for the election of prosecuting attorneys in counties rather thandistricts. His support for a fifth constitutional amendment to grant woman suffrage failed, but he did succeed in giving the impetus to Iowa's first civil rights act.

    In 1882 Sherman led the battle for a temperance amendment to the constitution. Its success was short-lived, for the Iowa Supreme Court struck it down on the narrowest of technical grounds. When he was reelected, Sherman promptly recommended "proper statutory enactments" on temperance, and the legislature complied.

    The drama of Sherman's term of office was his battle with State Auditor John L. Brown. "Friction arose between them and friends of the men conceded it was on account of something personal."The governor claimed dissatisfaction with Brown's accounting of insurance fees. In 1885 he suspended Brown and ordered him to vacate his office, but Brown defied the governor and locked himself into his office, so Sherman called out the militia. The auditor and his deputy "were quickly seized by several pairs of strong hands and carried struggling as best they could back into the Hall."The affair rumbled on and finally ended with Sherman's successor reinstating Brown.

    When Sherman retired, he returned to Vinton, where, despite being plagued by his wounds from Shiloh, he always took a keen interest in public affairs.
Sources include F. Lloyd, "Governor Buren R. Sherman," Iowa Historical Record 5 (1889), 241–49; Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa (1903–1905); and an obituary in the Des Moines Register and Leader, 11/12/1904.
Contributor: Richard Acton