Elbridge Gerry, Elections and Unintended Consequences

Elbridge Gerry* is best known for only one of his lengthy list of accomplishments, that of ‘Gerrymandering’.* In truth, gerrymandering wasn’t even an Elbridge Gerry creation, but something he accepted reluctantly. It’s a shame, because while gerrymandering besmirches its namesake, Gerry himself was largely about rectitude in his lifetime, with accomplishments sufficient to seal a legacy for almost anyone: signer of the Declaration of Independence, signatory as well to the Articles of Confederation, and in 1787, one of only three attendees at the Constitutional Convention to refuse to sign the new Constitution—on the grounds it did not contain a Bill of Rights. He then was a leader in the efforts to secure the Bill of Rights. Subsequently he served as Governor of Massachusetts (1810-11), and finally as Vice President of the United States under President James Madison (elected with Madison in 1812) serving until his death on November 23, 1814. He is the only signer of the Declaration buried in Washington, DC.

Yet all that is obscured by the efforts used by the Democratic-Republican Party, and signed by Governor Gerry, in redistricting efforts intended to advantage the Democratic-Republicans against  the Federalists in a key Massachusetts Senate district. The Democrat-Republicans won the battle for the seat, but lost larger battles for the Massachusetts House, and Gerry’s own hold on the Governor’s office.

The irony is that for most of his political life, Gerry was anti-party. This was an attribute shared with many of the Founders, including George Washington. It was only after his failed efforts to help negotiate an end to the Quasi-war between the United States and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. Though the failure was due primarily to the improper and inappropriate demands of the French, particularly French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, who demanded a large bribe before negotiations could commence, Gerry was scapegoated by the Federalists in order to drum up support for Federalist positions on issues related to building up of the US military forces to suppressing some freedom of speech. Gerry, known for his penchant for fairness, found this to be too much, and abandoned his antiparty stance to join forces with the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to the Federalists.

This enmity—deserved to a fair degree—towards the Federalists carried forward into Gerry’s forays in Massachusetts state politics, culminating in Gerry’s ascension to the Governor’s office in 1810. Despite this ill-will, when the Democratic-Republicans adopted new district boundaries favoring their party over the Federalists, Gerry complained about its unfairness—but signed the legislation, nonetheless. A Federalist paper, the Salem Gazette, coined the term ‘Gerry-mander’ to describe a resulting key Senate district as looking like a salamander, and creating the resulting portmanteau that is commonly used today.

The long-term consequences of gerrymandering have carried forward to a critical point nationally today. Whether through deliberate distortion of electoral distribution to favor a given party (somewhat bipartisan over the years, though more often GOP-directed in recent years), or suppression of classes of voters known to favor one party over the other (mostly GOP-directed, as the voter classes which can be most effectively discouraged seem to be ones favoring Democrats), the United States at both federal and state levels has a majority power party—the GOP—working harder to maintain power through suppressing votes and distorting districts to their broader advantage, rather than working to explain in the marketplace of ideas how their policies are in the best interest of the nation.

Gerry was once described by peers as committed to fairness. It’s tragic to see just how far removed from that commitment we have moved, and how his name has become associated with the opposite of what the man largely lived for.

* Elbridge Gerry’s surname is pronounced with a hard G (‘Gary’), while the term ‘gerrymandering’ has a preferred pronunciation with a soft ‘G’ (‘jerrymandering’)


About Dan Pike

Sustainability maven, policy wonk, former mayor of Bellingham. Believes good management looks at the complete picture, that sustainability is all about stewardship--managing resources prudently and for the long term betterment of place, of culture and of self. Believes that better, and more complete information and analysis will lead people to make better decisions in their everyday lives.
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