Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead in 1744 and spent almost all of his life in government service.
He promoted colonial opposition to the British Parliament’s colonial policies, and served in the Second Continental Congress from February 1776 to 1780. Gerry was elected as a Massachusetts representative to the United States Congress in its first two terms. John Adams wrote, “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell!”
Gerry’s historic legacy, however, will forever be tied to a clever work of graffiti that became a political cartoon monster dubbed the “Gerrymander.”
On February 11, 1812, Gerry, now governor of Massachusetts, signed legislation that created an oddly-shaped voting district with its southern tip in Chelsea, then heading east to Marblehead, and north along the Merrimack River towns to Salisbury. The convoluted district, most of which was in Essex County, was drawn by the Massachusetts legislature to favor Gerry’s incumbent Democratic-Republican party over the Federalist party, which had traditionally been in control. The House passed the measure by a vote of 278 to 231 despite Federalist attempts to amend it. The minority responded with a written public protest against the law.
In March, artist Gilbert Stuart stopped by the office of the Columbia Sentinel and noticed the new map of the new Essex district hanging on the office wall. He was struck by its peculiar shape, and added a head, wings and claws with his pencil. Turning to editor Benjamin Russel, an ardent Federalist, he said “There, that will do for a Salamander.” “Better say a Gerrymander” replied the editor Benjamin Russel, punning on the name of Governor Gerry. The derogatory political term “Gerrymander” (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in a political cartoon on March 26, 1812.
The public was outraged by the redistricting, and meetings were held throughout the state denouncing the measure. The Federalists adopted it as a term of reproach to the Democratic-Republican legislature. The ruse had a brief, partial success. Although the majority of the state’s voters were Federalist, Republican votes took 29 Senate seats, while the Federalists claimed only 11 seats in the 1812 elections. Gerry, however, was defeated in the governor’s race by his Federalist opponent, Caleb Strong.
In the spring of 1813, despite the Gerrymander, the Federalist party regained control of the Massachusetts Senate and repealed the law. By then the monster had been duplicated in New Jersey, and the term has remained in our political vocabulary ever since.
Undeterred, Elbridge Gerry was elected as the fifth Vice President of the United States in the fall of 1812, serving under James Madison. He died suddenly in November 1814, and is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the nation’s capital. Despite his many accomplishments, his legacy will always be the term “Gerrymandering”, which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1985.