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Elbridge Gerry and the Monstrous Gerrymander

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The first “gerrymander” was drawn on a map and signed into law on February 11, 1812. Elbridge Gerry, then governor of Massachusetts, signed into law a redistricting plan designed to keep his political party in power in the upcoming election. Upset that the Federalist Party was critical of James Madison’s foreign policy, Gerry signed the reapportioning plan that heavily favored his Republican party. Gerry, a man who staunchly followed his principles even against the popular actions of his colleagues, was hesitant to sign the law. The Republican legislators sponsoring and forcing through the bill redrew voting lines so that the Federalist vote was concentrated in a few districts, while the Republican vote was spread over many. ” The redistricting authorized by Gerry won 29 seats for the his Republican party, whereas the Federalists won a puny 11 seats.* Gerry’s district of Essex was a particularly odd shape, long on one side and curved along the north end.

A comic on a page of the Boston Gazette showing a "gerrymandered" district as a monster, captioned "The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster."
“The Gerrymander: a New Species of Monster” Boston Gazette, March 26, 1812, page 2, Library of Congress Newspaper, Serials and Government Publications Division. 

When the law passed, reportedly the editor of the Boston Gazette posted the map with the newly drawn districts on his office wall, and in talking to a fellow editor, compared the shape of Gerry’s district to a salamander. The editor said, “Salamander! Call it a Gerrymander” — the portmanteau of Gerry + salamander. Gerry’s name, incidentally, is pronounced with a hard “g” as in “gary,” but over time the word “gerrymander” came to be pronounced with the soft “g” as in “jerry,” the pronunciation we use today. In any case, the picture of the cartoon gerrymander map was published in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812, with the caption: “The horrid Monster of which this drawing is a correct representation, appeared in the County of Essex, during the last session of the Legislature.” The word has since entered into national and international political language.

Gerrymandering is a current political topic today; as always, it is usually initiated by the incumbents to retain or increase their power. When gerrymandering is taught in U.S. history classes, it is likely students will be shown a picture of the original political cartoon drawn by Elkanah Tisdale for the Gazette and held here at the Library of Congress. Gerry did not win the 1812 election for his home district despite the reapportionment. He did, however, go on to become James Madison’s second vice president later in 1812. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the House of Representatives, twice governor of Massachusetts, and (full disclosure) he proposed the founding of the Library of Congress; he’d probably be dismayed to find this idea is how his name is remembered. Nevertheless, Gerry is forever tied to an important concept in American legal history.

If you’re interested in learning more about modern gerrymandering and the law, here is a shortlist of some of our recent holdings, and a map of Essex County:

KF4905.B85 2010 Bullock, Charles S., 1942-  Redistricting: the most political activity in America.

KF4930.H37 2014 Hasen, Richard L. Legislation, statutory interpretation, and election law : examples and explanations.

KF4905 .M29 2016 McGann, Anthony J. Gerrymandering in America: the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the future of popular sovereignty.

KF4905 .R39 2010 The realist’s guide to redistricting: avoiding the legal pitfalls. 2nd ed.

KF4891.S74 2004 Stephenson, D. Grier. The right to vote: rights and liberties under the law.

KF4557 .S74 2014 Stevens, John Paul,  1920-  Six amendments: how and why we should change the Constitution.

KF4886 .T65 2013 Tokaji, Daniel P. Election law in a nutshell.

G3763.E7F7 1812 .E8 Essex County; Worcester County.

*source: Selesky, Harold E. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, 2006

Comments (5)

  1. There’s a mistake in this post. It says ” Gerry did not win the 1812 election for his home district despite the reapportionment.”

    But, as correctly noted earlier in the post, Gerry was the Governor, not a state representative. So he did not run in “his home district” (nor in any other district) in 2012. In fact, as noted elsewhere in the post, he ran for, and was elected, Vice President of the United States in 2012.

  2. An account from 1892 identifies the originator of the word “gerrymander” to be a poet, Richard Alsop, who was at a dinner party with Tisdale when he sketched wings onto the offending district pictured in the Weekly Messenger newspaper.

    Granted, when I researched the origin of the word, I could find no contemporaneous accounts of where the word gerrymander came from. This seemed to be the best authority on the subject:

    John W. Dean. 1892. “The Gerrymander.” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 46(1): 374-383.

  3. If anyone wants to pay their respects, he is buried at Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC not all that far from the Capitol.

  4. Elbridge Gerry did run for reelection as Massachusetts governor in 1812 and lost to Caleb Strong. That was in March. Later in the same year, he was a candidate for Vice President of the U.S., and his ticket won. But Massachusetts voted against him again.

  5. Fortunately Massachusetts had one-year terms of office for the legislature and constitutional officers; they did not get two-year terms until 1920!

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