When most think of the “Founding Fathers,” they think of very famous central figures: George Washington, Sam Adams, John Adams, or Benjamin Franklin, to name a few. However, many other politicians other than these oft-remembered names were responsible for shaping the early years of the United States government and Massachusetts statehood. One of those figures is Elbridge Gerry.
Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1744 and, like many of his contemporaries, attended Harvard College. His father was a merchant who traded with many countries overseas, and Gerry became an active opponent to the taxes and laws that the British sought to implement surrounding American trade. In fact, Marblehead was almost as politically rebellious as Boston and resisted the British economic sanctions just as fiercely, which is understandable as it was an extremely important port and fishing town. It comes as no surprise, then, that Elbridge Gerry helped to begin the first committee of correspondence outside of Boston in his hometown, and when the port of Boston was closed in punishment for the Boston Tea Party protest, Gerry played a lead role in establishing Marblehead as an alternative port and transporting supplies to the people of Boston marooned under martial law.
During this time, Gerry was elected to the Massachusetts General Court and was later elected to the provisional Massachusetts Provincial Congress when the colony’s legislature was dissolved by General Gage in 1774. As part of the Congress’ committee of safety, he helped to collect weapons and munitions and store them in Concord before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. After the American Revolutionary War began, Gerry continued to coordinate supplying the Continental Army, made possible with his knowledge and connections in the shipping industry.
In 1776, Elbridge Gerry became a delegate for the Second Continental Congress, serving alongside John Adams, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine. He fought hard to convince his fellow delegates to support the passage of the Declaration of Independence and was one of the five Massachusetts men to sign it. John Adams, a lifelong friend to Gerry, wrote that “If every Man here [at the Second Continental Congress] was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell” (John Adams to James Warren, July 15, 1776, Warren-Adams Letters, Massachusetts Historical Society
). Adams, as well as Gerry’s other friends, considered him “a loyal and dependable friend, and a man of consistent political principles,” according to biographer George Athian Billias.
These principles were put to the test during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. As the delegates debated the framework of the new American government following independence, Gerry stood fast and opposed measures like the Three-Fifths Compromise, disgusted that the Southern States would insist on counting slaves as part of their population to increase their legislative representation while still maintaining that these people were property. Throughout the Convention he debated elections and governmental structure, successfully arguing to give the U.S. Congress’ power to override presidential vetoes. But primarily, he was most concerned about the lack of protections for personal rights and liberties. Gerry became a hugely controversial figure when he was one of only three delegates who refused to sign the U. S. Constitution. Further, he then wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Legislature
articulating why he refused to sign, stating among his reasons that the document had “no adequate provision for a representation of the people.”
This letter was widely circulated, going through 46 printings and is considered one of the most popular Anti-Federalist tracts. However, it certainly made him many enemies among Federalists, and he was not a popular figure in the Federalist-dominated Massachusetts convention to ratify the Constitution. The debates were particularly contentious, almost erupting into a brawl between Gerry and convention chair Francis Dana when the former was not allowed to speak. Gerry left the convention, and the Commonwealth ratified the U.S. Constitution, though only with recommendatory amendments. Estranged by many in the Massachusetts political elite, he still had enough friends to be nominated for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked tirelessly on the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. These amendments, introduced by James Madison, are now known as the Bill of Rights and were exactly what Gerry felt the U.S. Constitution lacked. With the implementation of these amendments, Gerry felt vindicated his beliefs and withdrew his opposition.
Elbridge Gerry remained a controversial figure in early American politics, retiring and reentering the political field several times and repeatedly running for governor unsuccessfully. Speculation about his involvement with the XYZ Affair (1797-1798) further damaged his reputation despite support from John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Gerry had avoided joining a political party following the decline of Anti-Federalists, but finally aligned himself with the Democratic-Republicans in the early 1800’s. With their support, he finally became Governor of Massachusetts in 1810, calling for an end to partisan warfare.
|Elkanah Tisdale’s famous cartoon of the Gerry-mander, |
originally published in the Boston Centinel, 1812.
Ironically, then, did his term as governor become defined
by partisan warfare. With war with Britain looming, Gerry became more and more distrustful of Federalists and replaced many within the state government with Democratic-Republicans. It was at this time that he inspired the phrase “gerrymandering,” the practice of manipulating district boundaries in order to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group. This controversial practice certainly did not originate in Massachusetts, but the name stuck thanks to Gerry’s enemies. In 1812, the Democratic-Republican-controlled Massachusetts Legislature passed a redistricting bill in which senatorial districts were carved into new shapes that would benefit their party in future elections. Gerry signed the bill into law reluctantly, believing that as governor he should not veto laws unless they were unconstitutional, but that did not stop his Federalist opponents from blaming him for the new partisan districting. According to an 1892 article by John Ward Dean
, an illustrator, ridiculing the shape of one of the new districts in Essex County, drew the district into a dragon-like beast. Someone remarked that the beast looked like a salamander, while another corrected that it looked more like a “Gerry-mander.” Today, we still refer to the creation of partisan districting as “gerrymandering.”
Gerry was not reelected as governor in 1812, though he did become James Madison’s running mate in the presidential election of the same year. He became the Vice President in 1813, but was only in office for less than two years before he died November 23, 1814. Despite his involvement in the Continental Congress, his work to amend the U.S. Constitution to protect individual rights, and other diplomatic and political work throughout his life, he is still widely remembered for his connection with partisan redistricting, a law he did not support in the first place.