Elbridge Thomas Gerry was born on July 17, 1744, in Marblehead, Massachusetts.
His father, who had migrated from England in 1730, was active in local politics and had a leading role in the local militia.
As a result, Elbridge entered Harvard College shortly before turning fourteen.
After receiving his B.A. in 1762 and his M.A. in 1765, Elbridge entered his father’s merchant business.
Elbridge Gerry vocally opposed British colonial policy in the 1760s, and was active in the early stages of organizing the resistance in the American Revolutionary War.
By the 1770s, the Gerrys numbered among the wealthiest Massachusetts merchants, with trading connections in Spain, the West Indies, and along the North American coast.
Elbridge Gerry was then elected to the Second Continental Congress, where he signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.
He was also one of three men who attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 but refused to sign the United States Constitution because it did not then include a Bill of Rights.
After its ratification he was elected to the inaugural United States Congress, where he was actively involved in drafting and passage of the Bill of Rights as an advocate of individual and state liberties.
Governor of Massachusetts
For four years Gerry unsuccessfully sought the governorship of Massachusetts. His opponent in these races, Caleb Strong, was a popular moderate Federalist, whose party dominated the state’s politics.
He decided not to run in 1804, returning to semi-retirement and to deal with a personal financial crisis. His brother Samuel Russell had mismanaged his own business affairs, and Gerry had propped him up by guaranteeing a loan that was due. The matter ultimately ruined Gerry’s finances for his remaining years.
Republican James Sullivan won the governor’s seat from Strong in 1807, but his successor was unable to hold the seat in the 1809 election, which went to Federalist Christopher Gore.
Gerry then decided to run for Governor again in 1810 against Gore, and won a narrow victory.
The two battled again in 1811, with Gerry once again victorious in a highly acrimonious campaign.
Then came the namesake that Elbridge Gerry is best known for, gerrymandering.
The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812.
The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry.
In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party.
When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.
Thus, Gerrymander became a portmanteau of the governor’s last name and the word salamander.
Gerrymandering was thus considered a process by which electoral districts are drawn with the aim of aiding the party in power.
It is also worth noting that the gerrymander redistricting was a notable success. In the 1812 election, the Massachusetts state senate remained firmly in Democratic-Republican hands.
The author of the term gerrymander may never be definitively established, however historians widely believe that the Federalist newspaper editors Nathan Hale, Benjamin and John Russell were the instigators.
Appearing with the term, and helping to spread and sustain its popularity, was a political cartoon depicting a strange animal with claws, wings and a dragon-like head satirizing the map of the odd-shaped district. This cartoon was most likely drawn by Elkanah Tisdale, an early 19th-century painter, designer, and engraver who was living in Boston at the time. Tisdale had the engraving skills to cut the woodblocks to print the original cartoon. These woodblocks survive and are preserved in the Library of Congress.
Ironically, Massachusetts Governor Eldridge Gerry was himself defeated in his re-election bid by Caleb Strong.
Eldridge was however, chosen by President James Madison as his vice presidential candidate for re-election in the fall of 1812.
Madison and Gerry were elected, but Eldridge Gerry fell ill while at the Capital building about a year and a half into his term as Vice President.
Vice President Eldridge Gerry died November 23, 1814 and is buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D. C., with a memorial by John Frazee.
Today, Eldridge Gerry is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence buried in the nation’s capital.
Now WE know em