Marbleheaders today will tell you it’s too bad Elbridge Gerry is best remembered for the creation of oddly shaped and highly partisan electoral districts, known as gerrymandering.
When he was governor of Massachusetts in 1812, the General Court sent him a plan to redraw political districts. Gerry thought the plan unfairly favored politicians who were already elected, but he signed it anyway. He didn’t know that single act would seal his reputation for political chicanery.
Elbridge Gerry didn’t deserve to have his name forever linked with political chicanery. During his lifetime he had a reputation for integrity. He stood on principle even if it cost him. His shrewd business sense and logistical acumen was indispensable to the Revolutionary cause. He was a master at figuring out how to keep New Englanders and the military supplied – an oft-overlooked key to American victory.
John Adams admired him, saying,
If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.
The Roads of Revolution
By the tme he was 20, Elbridge Gerry earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from Harvard. His master’s thesis in 1765 argued the colonies should resist the recently passed Stamp Act.
After Harvard, he went to work for his father’s counting house. The Gerry family owned ships and traded dried codfish with Barbados and Spanish ports. He prospered, and by the time he took his pen to the Declaration of Independence he was ranked the 11th wealthiest of the 56 signers.
In 1770, Elbridge Gerry sat on a Marblehead committee to enforce the prohibition on tea. He later joined his father on Marblehead’s Committee of Correspondence. The committees, which served as shadow governments, were crucial to successful colonial resistance to Britain.
He was elected to the Massachusetts General Court in 1772. There he made friends with Sam Adams. When the British Parliament closed the port of Boston in June 1774, Gerry coordinated the procurement and distribution of provisions and arms to New England. Marblehead became a key port of entry, and Gerry made sure the goods they delivered made it safely to Boston. The Revolutionary propagandist Mercy Otis Warren said he did it with “punctuality and indefatigable industry.”
As a member of the Committee of Safety of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, he played a key role in moving arms and ammunition to Concord and away from the British Army. On the night of Paul Revere’s famous ride, he was staying at the Menotomy (now Arlington) Tavern with two patriot colonels. The tavern was on the road the British took to Lexington. Some redcoats stopped to search it, and Gerry and his companions escaped capture by hiding in a cornfield, still in their nightclothes.
He spent the early days of the Revolution in Boston raising troops and supplies for the Continental Army. He used business contacts in Europe to obtain munitions, supplies and financial subsidies. It was Gerry who came up with the plan to encourage privateering — the fitting out of armed vessels and adjudicating of prizes. He might have been hanged for such a treasonable act.
John Adams was a big fan of privateering as a weapon of the Revolution.
Adams wrote privateering,
…pays its own expenses and procures its own men … and is the surest way of distressing their commerce, [and] protecting our own.
Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs
Elbridge Gerry was a small dapper businessman, aristocratic and charming but without a sense of humor. He didn’t marry until he was in his 40s. When he did marry Ann Thompson, who was 20 years his junior, they had 10 children.
He was a man of principle, though those principles could change.
After the Revolution, he spent the rest of his life in and out of political office.
He played a large role in the Constitutional Convention. At first he supported a strong central government, then he refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t guarantee individual liberties. Later he supported ratification.
He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1789 to 1793, a diplomat to France from 1797-98 and governor of Massachusetts from 1810-12.
His finances were ruined when he became governor. His brother couldn’t repay a large loan that Gerry had guaranteed. Needing a job, Elbridge Gerry asked James Madison to choose him for vice president. Two weeks after he was defeated for re-election as governor, Madison did invite him to run as his vice president. They won, and Gerry became popular in Washington, D.C., social circles and a favorite of Dolley Madison. He died in office on Nov. 23, 1814.
Gerry Plus Salamander
Gerry was elected Massachusetts governor as a Democrat-Republican.
The Legislature, controlled by the Democrat-Republicans, was required under the state constitution to redraw electoral districts. The lawmakers sent Gerry a plan that drew some districts in crazy shapes to make it easier for the Democrat-Republicans to win re-election. Gerry didn’t think the plan was fair. He told his son-in-law he found the bill ‘highly disagreeable,’ but he signed it anyway on Feb. 11, 1812.
One district in Essex County was shaped like a salamander. The editor of an opposition newspaper hung the map over his desk. The story goes that the artist Gilbert Stuart came into the editor’s office one day and saw the map. Stuart grabbed his pencil and drew a head, claws and wings onto the map and said, “That will do for a salamander.” The editor retorted, “Better say a gerrymander.”
The newspaper printed Stuart’s cartoon along with the word gerrymander and spread it far and wide. Elbridge Gerry’s reputation was sealed for the ages.
Historian Sarah J. Purcell offers another take on him. Elbridge Gerry, she wrote,
…was consistently motivated by a desire to do what he thought was right to create the most moral, virtuous, and stable American nation possible.
With thanks to the Society of the Descendants of the Declaration of Independence.