The “Gerry” in Gerrymandering

Today’s post comes from James Worsham, editor of publications for the National Archives.

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A bust of Elbridge Gerry by Herbert Samuel Adams, U.S. Senate collection. (U.S. Senate Collection)

The U.S. Supreme Court this week decided not to get involved in whether certain legislative and congressional districts have been “gerrymandered”—a practice that dates to the early days of the country.

The cases before the court involved a practice in which districts are drawn to favor one person, one political party, or one class of people.

“Gerrymandering” was named for Elbridge Gerry, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

As Governor of Massachusetts (1810–1812), Gerry approved a redistricting plan for the state senate that gave the political advantage to Republicans.  Someone observed that one of the districts looked like a salamander, and soon the process was known as “gerrymandering.”

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“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812. (Library of Congress)

Since then, “gerrymandering” has for years produced odd-shaped congressional and state legislative districts.

Gerry remained on the scene in the early days of the republic. In addition to signing the Declaration, he also signed the Articles of Confederation.

When the founders decided the Articles weren’t working well,  a convention was called in Philadelphia in 1787 to revise them, and Gerry was one of the delegates.

In Philadelphia, the delegates decided to write a new constitution instead of revising the Articles of Confederation.

Gerry was active in the debates and argued forcefully that individuals needed more protection from the all-powerful central government than the Constitution provided and needed to be spelled out. The convention, however, rejected his pleas.

So when the Constitution was ready for signing and presented to the chairman of the convention, George Washington, Gerry said “No.”

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In this depiction of the Constitution being presented to George Washington, president of the Constitutional Convention, Gerry is second from left of Washington. Mural by Barry Faulkner from the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington. (Records of the National Archives)

However, as a member of the First Congress (1789–1791), Gerry backed James Madison’s proposals for Constitutional amendments that eventually became what we know now as the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.

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Senate Revisions to House Proposed Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, September 2-9, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 3535588)

Gerry retired from public life after two terms in the House, but it was an active retirement, during which he served not only as Massachusetts Governor but also as President Madison’s Vice President (1813–1814). He died while Vice President in 1814.

Gerrymandering, however, lives on. The high court this week declined to get involved in a case from Wisconsin, where Democrats were angry about a state legislative redistricting plan that heavily favored Republicans, and another from Maryland, where the state legislature re-drew the state’s congressional districts so only one was Republican.

For more details on Elbridge Gerry, go to “Founding Father in Dissent” by Greg Bradsher in the Spring 2006 issue of Prologue.

 

 

 

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