Elbridge Gerry, and The American Origins of 'Gerry-Mandering'
Today would have been the 276th birthday of Elbridge Gerry, Vice President of the United States under James Madison. You might wonder why we should remember a reasonably anonymous politician from the early days of the US. Gerry, though, survives into the modern era as he has given his name to the language through the term gerrymandering.
Gerry began his political career in his native Massachusetts. He’d been born there in 1744, fourteen years after his father, Thomas, had emigrated from England. Like many other young men in Massachusetts in the 1760s and 1770s, Elbridge Gerry was sympathetic to the cause of the American Revolution. He was one of the men involved in resisting early attempts to tax the colonies after the end of the Seven-Years War and becoming an ally of Samuel Adams. A significant part of the ‘patriot’ organisation in these early days, Gerry was a natural choice to serve in the provincial assembly, and later to represent Massachusetts in the continental congress. If he is less well known that some of his contemporaries and made less of a splash on the national stage, then it is in part because of his personality. While people credit him with fierce intelligence, he was said to be hot-headed and, as a result, prone to errors of judgement. Today, we might say that he chose to die on the wrong hill at times.
The cause was successful, as we know. Like many other leaders, Gerry was one of the people voted into office in the new nation. He initially challenged John Hancock for the governorship of Massachusetts. Still, failure to win there did not prevent him from becoming the representative for Massachusetts 3rd district in 1789. While there, he played a significant part in the passage of the Bill of Rights. As well as working on drafts he had already been the person to propose a formal motion to pass it at the Philadelphia constitutional convention of 1787. He served in the House until 1793 when he retired from a combination of political concerns and his wife’s ill health.
The origin of the term gerrymander came about not while he was serving in the House, but when he finally became the Governor of Massachusetts. Despite being an ally of John Adams in the 1790s, Gerry came to identify with the Democratic-Republicans, believing the Federalists wanted to restore the monarchy and ran for office again at 65. During this time, some playing with electoral boundaries was reasonably common in the new United States. Patrick Henry played with boundaries in an unsuccessful attempt to keep James Madison from the House of Representatives, while Franklin Kury tells us that in Maryland in 1820, 200,000 people were had eighteen representatives while elsewhere, 50,000 were represented by twenty. So how, then, does an early patriot, key architect of the Bill of Rights, and signatory of the Declaration of Independence come to be associated with a term that connotes political shenanigans?
In truth, it has very little do with Gerry, other than he happened to be the Governor who signed it into law. It did, however, benefit his political allies, and so it had the faint whiff of corruption about it. While the Federalists would win at the national level in 1812, Gerry’s Democratic-Republicans would hold on to control of the Massachusetts State Senate despite losing the popular vote. This was not helped by the fact that Gerry thought criticism of Madison and his foreign policy had reached a point where it was almost treasonous. Federalists were ousted from key posts across Massachusetts, and he encouraged his Attorney-General to prosecute Federalist supporting newspapers for libel.
In such an atmosphere, it was perhaps inevitable that people looked more closely at the redrawn map. One curious district snaked all the way from Marble Head to Chelsea in the South West, then due north before curving back around to the east, eventually concluding at Salisbury. No one knows for sure quite how the term actually came about, but in a March 1812 newspaper article, a satirical piece appeared that depicted this district as a salamander. It was headlined instead, the ‘Gerry-Mander’, and the cartoon told us that this was a beast born of the most extreme partisan anger.
The redistricting worked for the Democratic-Republicans, but Gerry himself would not survive as Governor. He did manage to attain still higher office, however. Vice President George Clinton had died earlier in the year, and Madison added Gerry to the ticket for the 1812 Presidential election. The Democratic-Republican ticket romped to victory, by 128-89 in the electoral college. Gerry himself would not live much more than a year after the election, though, and he died in 1814, shortly after peace negotiations began in the war with Britain.
The term gerrymander was in widespread use within a few years of his death. It was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1864. Gerry was, undoubtedly, a brilliant man in many ways. It is a shame that he is not better known for something other than this one moment in an otherwise long career. Perhaps the key message in this story, though, is the importance of not giving in to the excesses of partisanship just because you hold power. You do not know how such things will resonate through history.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.