Monday, November 25, 2019

More than Gerrymandering: Elbridge Gerry

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.

Portrait of Elbridge Gerry from our Flickr set
Images of the Governors of Massachusetts, 1629-1894

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.”

The U. S. Constitution (second printing) with annotations by Elbridge Gerry (1787),
courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

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.

Further Reading:

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff

Monday, November 18, 2019

December Author Talk: Richard A. Johnson

The Pats: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots An Author Talk with Richard A. Johnson Monday, December 2, 2019—Noon to 1:00pm State Library of Massachusetts—Room 341, Massachusetts State House

Attention New England sports fans—our next author talk is for you! Join us at the State Library on Monday, December 2, for a conversation with Richard A. Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum at TD Garden and co-author (with Glenn Stout) of The Pats: An Illustrated History of the New England Patriots (published in 2018). 

A New York Times and Boston Globe best seller, The Pats chronicles the complete history of this legendary team, from its beginnings as the Boston Patriots with founding owner Billy Sullivan to the current Brady/Belichick dynasty. This comprehensive history of the Patriots features essays by Upton Bell, Lesley Visser, Howard Bryant, and others, and is richly illustrated with over 200 photos.

Sports historian Richard A. Johnson has authored or co-authored over 20 books, including The Bruins in Black & White, The Boston Marathon, and A Century of Boston Sports, among others. A graduate of Bates College, he joined The Sports Museum in 1982 as its first employee. He has served as a consultant to projects and clients including the Boston Celtics, New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, Cambridge Seven Associates, WGBH, ESPN, HBO, and the Boston Museum of Science.

Registration is now open; don’t miss your chance to hear all about the Patriots over the years and to purchase a signed copy of The Pats, just in time for holiday gift giving!

Laura Schaub
Cataloging Librarian

Our upcoming Author Talks:

Monday, November 11, 2019

United States Census 2020

A federal employee using 1960s census machines to process
census records. (Image from the U.S. National Archives
and Records Administration)
Next year the United States Census Bureau will be reaching out to each household in the country by April 1st, 2020 in order to collect data for the decennial census.  The census “counts every person living in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories,” which are Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Households will be asked to fill out a short questionnaire, with the option of doing so by phone, snail mail, or online.

The 2020 census will mark the 24th time the country has counted its population, which started in 1790—7 years after the end of the Revolutionary War.  Collecting this type of data is important as it is used by federal, state, and city governments and other stakeholders to make decisions regarding budgets and representation, as well as to better understand how to support American communities.

Keep in mind that the Census Bureau will never ask for sensitive information, such as your Social Security number, or bank or credit card numbers; they will also never solicit money or donations.

And for those historical and genealogical researchers out there, the National Archives will be releasing 1950 census records in April of 2022!

Federal Resources:
2020 Census Research, Operational Plans, and Oversight

Massachusetts state resources:
Massachusetts 2020 Census

Other resources:
Counting for Dollars 2020: The Role of the Decennial Census in the Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds

Kaitlin Connolly
Reference Department

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Friends Newsletter - November 2019

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Display in the State Library

This November, the State Library is exhibiting a Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, issued by Governor John Hancock on November 8, 1783. Printed as broadside and distributed throughout the Commonwealth to notify citizens of the upcoming observance, this document established Thursday, December 11 as a day for all Massachusetts residents to devote themselves to prayer and giving thanks.

The day of thanksgiving established by John Hancock and his council in 1783 is different from the Thanksgiving holiday that we know of today. During his presidency, George Washington issued a proclamation for a national day of thanksgiving in 1789, as did subsequent presidents like John Adams and James Madison. But Thanksgiving was not established as a federal holiday until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency in 1863, and it was not until 1941 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the date as the last Thursday in November. Prior to Washington’s proclamation in 1789, church leaders or governors of individual colonies (and then states) would periodically declare days of thanksgiving and prayer for a variety of reasons. Most frequently, these days celebrated a bountiful harvest and were very religious in nature, which is reflected in the proclamation’s wording of giving thanks to the “Almighty Being” and “Bountiful Benefactor.” During the Revolutionary War, proclamations also drew a strong connection between religion and military affairs, as days of thanksgiving were often established to give praise to God after the colonists achieved a victory against the British.

When Gov. John Hancock issued the Proclamation for a Day of Thanksgiving in November 1783, he was following a recommendation made by the Congress of the Confederation (the precursor to the United States Congress) that all thirteen states observe an especially significant event. That year marked the official end of the Revolutionary War, when the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3 and Great Britain acknowledged the United States as free, sovereign, and independent states. Following the conclusion of a war that began eight years prior, Congress requested that all states establish Thursday, December 11 as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. The language of the proclamation was set by Congress, though it appears as though various states edited their own versions slightly. The Massachusetts proclamation reads that citizens should give thanks “that he [creator] hath been pleased to conduct us in safety through all the perils and vicissitudes of the war; that he hath given us unanimity and resolution to adhere to our just rights; that he hath raised up a powerful ally to assist us in supporting them, and hath so far crowned our united efforts with success, that in the course of the present year hostilities have ceased, and we are left in the undisputed possession of our liberties and independence.”

Though our current Thanksgiving holiday is not the same as colonial days of thanksgiving and prayer, it does have its roots there. Today, we may not be celebrating the specific events that colonial citizens did, but we do share their observance of giving thanks for a bountiful year, successful events, and general well-being. This proclamation urged citizens to “assemble to celebrate with grateful hearts and united voices,” a sentiment that continues today, much as it did well over two hundred years ago.

Through December 1, be sure to visit the State Library to see this proclamation in person. Click here to view it in our digital repository and explore other Thanksgiving proclamations issued by various governors here.

By Elizabeth Roscio
Preservation Librarian