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History Time: The man behind the gerrymander

Posted by Kaileigh Higgins  December 22, 2010 10:00 AM

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Painting of Gerry -- 1861, James Bogle after John Vanderlyn.

Storms of criticism at once descended upon the Constitution. "Fraudulent usurpation!" exclaimed Gerry, who had refused to sign it. "A monster" out of the "thick veil of secrecy," declaimed a Pennsylvania newspaper. – from History of the United States" by Charles Austin Beard, Mary Ritter Beard

It had been four long months in the making, and spring had matured into fall, when the Convention delegates presented their creation to their fellow citizens at the Pennsylvania State House, in Philadelphia (now Independence Hall). And now, more than halfway through September, 1787, after all the weary days and nights of argument, compromise and craft, the ship of state suddenly seemed about to founder while yet on its launch ramp.

Vociferous among those who protested the Constitution’s acceptance was Marblehead native and Massachusetts delegate, Elbridge Thomas Gerry. He simply refused to sign the document. His stated reasons? Well, partly because it lacked a bill of rights, and partly because he felt that the Executive branch was being given too much power by putting the Vice President in the role of President of the Senate.

Ironically, this man would later become the fifth Vice President of the United States under James Madison.

Gerry was a remarkable public servant and statesman. Unfortunately, today he is best known for giving his name to a dubious political practice.

Gerry was accused of unsavory political behavior when, as Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, he signed a redistricting of Essex County that benefited his party. When the maps showing the new districts were examined, someone remarked that it resembled a salamander. Wits appended his name, and the term “Gerry-mander” forever linked him to this partisan practice, although he was neither the first nor, obviously, the last politician to participate in his kind of redistricting.

I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I heard Representative Barney Frank, speaking on the radio, use the term “gerrymander." He even pronounced it correctly, with the hard “g” rather than the more commonly used soft “g.”

Despite this infamy, Gerry does indeed deserve attention for other aspects of his career.

Gerry was born into a merchant family in Marblehead in 1744. After graduating from Harvard College, he returned to Marblehead, achieving significant success in business.

He served as representative in the General Court of Massachusetts from 1772 to 1775, and president of the U.S. Treasury Board (1776-1779) and was a delegate to the Continental Congress. He later served the John Adams administration as a diplomat in France.

Gerry was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.

In a speech to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Gerry made some very contemporary-sounding complaints:

“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are the dupes of pretended patriots. In Massachusetts, it had been fully confirmed by experience that they are daily misled into the most baneful measures and opinions by the false reports circulated by designing men...”

Like any other politician, Gerry had both supporters and detractors. Among the papers of Henry Kemble Oliver of Salem, that remarkable public servant of the 19th century, is a clipping sharing a reminiscence of his father, a minister at a Beverly church. When Governor Gerry issued his 1812 Thanksgiving proclamation, Rev. Oliver, a stalwart member of the political opposition, addressed his congregation:

Men and brethren, I have here the proclamation of Gov. Gerry for a day of public thanksgiving. If any of you want to hear, and will stop, I'll read it for you.'  A goodly number stopping, he proceeded slowly through, and having reached the usual close, and there being no statute proscribing tone and accent, he gave it with the interrogative and upward inflexion, thus, "by and with the advice and consent of the Council,–Elbridge Gerry, governor?!  God save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

 The effect must be left to vivid imaginations; the congregation being composed of antagonists in politics.The federalists were jollified and uttered vociferous laughter; the democrats were horrified and uttered vociferous railings ...There was a scandalous report that he received from some rabid federalist hearer a barrel of potatoes, but Gen Oliver [who was 10 years old at the time] has no recollection of the potatoes.

But what of the Gerrymander? When Gerry’s party was soundly defeated by the Federalists in 1813, the Salem Gazette ran an image of the monster’s skeleton labeled “Hatched 1812 – Killed 1813.”

As you know, however, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

Jim Dalton is a founding board member of the Salem History Society and is a professor of music theory and music education at The Boston Conservatory. As a performer, he specializes in American 19th century music and can be reached at http://imhct.org.

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