Lately, the term “gerrymandering” is getting thrown around as some sort of new illness that afflicts the republic. The process essentially involves drawing electoral district boundaries in ways that benefit one political party or the other and dates back to 1812 Massachusetts, when Governor Elbridge Gerry, a member in good standing of the founding generation, signed legislation radically redrawing electoral districts in the state to favor the Democratic-Republican Party.
Born in 1744, Gerry was a Massachusetts merchant and vocal opponent of British policy in the colonies who served in the Second Continental Congress, signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and attended the Constitutional Convention. Like a few of his contemporaries, notably George Mason and Patrick Henry of Virginia, he refused to sign the Constitution due to its lack of an explicit Bill of Rights. Nonetheless, he went on to serve as an envoy to France in the Adams administration, then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, as Governor of Massachusetts, and then was Vice President under James Madison. Only a few men had a better claim on the term “founding father.”
Gerry initially abhorred party politics. Like Washington, he believed faction would lead to special interests that undermined the notion of public virtue. But, after Washington’s presidency, the conflict between Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson, was in full-throated rage. (The modern Democratic and Republican parties bear no real relation to either.) So, after decades of public service, Gerry sought a return to private life. It was brief. President Adams recalled him to serve as envoy to France in 1797, when relations between the new United States and its former ally, having experienced its own revolution, were at a low. He returned to the United States in 1798 and was drafted by the Democratic-Republicans to run for the governorship of Massachusetts against an unpopular Federalist. Gerry lost and for the next several years, the governorship bounced between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans. In 1809, Federalist Christopher Gore held the governorship and the Democratic-Republicans again approached Gerry to be their candidate. This time, the aging statesman won and assumed the post in June 1810. It was a brutal election, in which both Gore and Gerry were “assailed with every vituperative epithet, and presented to the public in the most odious points of view,” according to an early Gerry biographer. The election also split the Massachusetts Senate evenly between the Federalists and Democratic Republicans, the latter of which also won control of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Indeed, by 1810, after eight years of Jefferson’s dominance of national politics and its promised continuity in the election of James Madison, the Democratic Republicans were ascendant everywhere and the Federalists were slowly losing the access to the reins of power. While Gerry, still naturally disinclined to embrace the spirit of party or factionalism, struck a conciliatory note toward Massachusetts Federalists, the party he nominally led was more in the mood for political retaliation against its ballot-box opponents and began removing officials appointed under the Federalists and replacing them with Democrat-Republicans. Across the state, Federalists and Democratic-Republicans continued to sling outrageous rhetoric at one another while impugning every opponent’s motives, but the wholesale changeover of patronage jobs sparked opposition from some local communities, who valued their particular set of officials regardless of party affiliation.
The Democrat-Republicans didn’t stop there. Existing voting districts had afforded them a healthy majority in the House and de facto control of the Senate. In 1812, the Democratic-Republican state legislature decided to redraw the lines, spreading their voters amongst a larger number of districts while retaining a majority in each one. In doing so, they divided contiguous towns and communities among several districts for the purpose of enhancing the party’s lock on state-wide power. According to Gerry’s 19th century biographer, “the new districts were arranged by breaking up counties, which had formed, as far as was possible, the ancient limits of senatorial districts, or by joining several counties together. They thus destroyed old associations and threw the electors into new combinations and connexions [sic], in which local and territorial interests were confounded.” While the practice was not new, it had been more subtle and less severe in the past. The new districts were so uniquely drawn as to make the intent patently obvious.
Gerry opposed the process, but he signed the bill creating the new districts into law as the state constitution made it clear it was within the legislature’s power to draw the lines as it saw fit. Opponents were outraged and fixed the blame on Governor Gerry. They flooded friendly newspapers and published pamphlets heaping odium on his head as fast as the printers could work. One district had a particularly odd shape that reminded one writer of a salamander, which the Boston Gazette promptly dubbed the “Gerrymander,” complete with a cartoon illustrating the similarities.
The governor and his party were outraged, accusing pseudonymous letter writers and printers of undermining the work of government and produced their own letters and pamphlets to respond. A Federalist judge, Isaac Parker, referred some accusations to a grand jury, after which he and Gerry engaged in a campaign of letters arguing over the judge’s authority to do so and the governor’s authority to pry into the judiciary branch’s activities. But, while Gerry and Parker engaged in their war of words, national affairs pushed to the fore as the War of 1812 loomed.
Nationally, the Democratic-Republicans faced splits among their own internal factions and President James Madison decided he needed to shore up his political support with a New Englander, where the increased tensions with the British were not popular. Gerry, having just been defeated for re-election by Massachusetts Federalists opposed to the war, was suddenly available and joined Madison’s Presidential ticket. Vice Presidents had not regularly attended cabinet meetings in prior administrations and Madison’s second term was no different. So, Gerry spent his time presiding over the Senate and answering correspondence. On November 22, 1814 he complained of some minor ailments, but rose on the 23rd to attend a Senate session, dying suddenly on the way, but not before having his name attached to a political phenomenon he found distasteful.
James T. Austin, The life of Elbridge Gerry, with Contemporary Letters, Vol. 2, From the Close of the American Revolution, (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1829)