Sharswood was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania in 1828. On September 5, 1831 he was admitted to the bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
He served as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1837. He was a district judge in Pennsylvania from 1845 to 1867. In 1850 he reorganized the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He was senior professor of law there until 1867, when he resigned his chair.
He was appointed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1868, and was named chief justice in 1879.
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