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Marblehead uncovers letter from rising star

Future VP wrote missive in 1775

By Jazmine Ulloa
Globe Correspondent / August 19, 2009

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MARBLEHEAD - Tucked among mundane file documents in the damp basement of Abbot Hall, historical commissioners have found a little piece from the 18th century, a letter dated Sept. 19, 1775.

Addressed to “ye Selectmen of Marblehead in Town,’’ the historic missive was from Elbridge Gerry, who would go on to serve as a US vice president and as governor of Massachusetts.

On a sheet of ivory rag paper, Gerry wrote to the town board to accept his seat at the Continental Congress, amid growing revolutionary fervor and only years before he became a political bigwig. Jackie Belf-Becker, today’s chairwoman of the Board of Select men, said she felt a sense of pride in the discovery.

“I am actually in awe,’’ Belf-Becker said. “You get a sense of the continuity of life and politics.’’

Gerry had retreated from the public sphere a year before the letter was written, when as representative of the General Court in Marblehead, he supported smallpox isolation and clashed with popular opinion, said Peter Drummey, a librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society. But he could not stick to the sidelines for long in the events leading up to the Revolution and soon began his ascent into political prominence, Drummey said.

The Marblehead native signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, refusing to sign the original Constitution because it lacked a bill of rights. He became governor in 1810 and later reached his political peak serving as vice president under James Madison, until his death on Nov. 23, 1814.

But not all of his contributions have been grandiose.

Though he did not invent it, the term “Gerrymandering,’’ or the redrawing of district lines to favor a political party, rose from his name (though it is actually pronounced with a hard “G’’).

Still, the ardent war patriot deserves a place among the country’s founding fathers, Drummey said, though today he might not be as famed as John Adams or Thomas Jefferson.

“You could not have invented a life like the one this man led, so to find new documents about it is wonderful,’’ he said. “Every new piece of information adds to the story.’’

Historical Commissioners Wayne Butler and P. Chris Johnston stumbled upon the letter about two weeks ago, as they cleaned out a small room in the basement of Abbot Hall in preparation for the historic, red brick building’s restoration, Butler said. It was packed into one of the five metal cabinets in the room, which hold receipts, lists of stockholders, and other town documents that date back to the 1800s.

But there might be other golden finds between the folders with labels like, “Gas Electric Vouchers.’’ Butler and Johnston also discovered former Governor John Hancock’s stylish signature in another letter dispensing state funds. The commission is deciding whether to put the Gerry letter on display.

Before their discovery, Butler had ventured into the cramped cellar room only once in his seven years of volunteering at the commission. Now the history buff and voracious reader can be found down there daily, rummaging through the documents and taking them up to his office on the second floor to catalog them.

One cabinet drawer, he estimated, holds up to 35,000 individual documents, and all five might hold up to 80,000.

“If I worked five hours a day, I would be 110 years old by the time I finished sorting through all of them,’’ said Butler, who is 77 and a retired boat builder. “I might get me some help down here so I don’t have to survive until then.’’