Object of the Month

The Birth of the Gerrymander

The Gerry-Mander. A new species of Monster which appeared in Essex South District in Jan. 1812 Broadside

The Gerry-Mander. A new species of Monster which appeared in Essex South District in Jan. 1812

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This anonymous broadside reprints a political cartoon that first appeared in The Boston Gazette on 26 March 1812, caricaturing Massachusetts legislative districts in Essex County that had been drawn to ensure the victory of the (Jeffersonian) Republican Party in state senatorial elections that year.

Gerrymanders, Mugwumps and Other Political Animals

Massachusetts has added a number of interesting and colorful terms and phrases to the political lexicon such as "mugwump," "all politics is local," and "to the victor belong the spoils," but none have had the enduring resonance of the "gerrymander"-- the term given to the political tactic of dividing election districts to make the votes of the party making the division (the gerrymander) count the most, and the votes of their opponents as little as possible.

The practice of gerrymandering in America long predates the invention of the term, but the Massachusetts law that gave rise to the name dates from 11 February 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry, a Jeffersonian Republican, signed a reapportioning act that heavily favored his own party in upcoming elections in the closely divided Bay State legislature. Several different Federalist opponents of the new law are credited with coining the term "gerrymander," and the cartoon has been attributed to a number of notable early American artists including Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston, but at the end of the nineteenth century, when there still was (almost) living memory of the origin of the term, John Ward Dean presented the text of a memorandum in the pages of the New England Historic and Genealogical Register that attributes the term to the outcome of a dinner party at the home of a Boston merchant Israel Thorndike in February 1812, where Elkanah Tisdale, a miniature painter, drew wings on the salamander shaped map of the new Republican-leaning election district in Essex County.

The gerrymander cartoon was widely reprinted often accompanied, as in the case of this broadside, with lines of comic verse or political commentary. While his Federalist opponents sarcastically noted that the "monstrous" shape of the new election district "denominated a Gerry-mander, a name that must exceedingly gratify the parental bosom of our worthy Chief Magistrate," there is little evidence that Governor Gerry was the author or even a strong supporter of the redistricting law. Ironically, the gerrymander did not save him from defeat for re-election in 1812, although it worked so effectively for the Republicans that while the Federalists won a majority of the popular vote, they won only a third of the seats in the legislature.

Who was Elbridge Gerry?

Fairly or not, Elbridge Gerry's name always will be linked to the gerrymander, a term for political conniving, but he had a long and distinguished career as a statesman and diplomat during the American Revolution and the early national period. He was a merchant from Marblehead, Massachusetts, born in 1744, who emerged as a political leader before and during the Revolution. Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Although he refused to sign the Constitution because of his strong Anti-federalist views, he later gave it his support. He served in the United States House of Representatives where in 1789 he proposed founding the Library of Congress, and later as a diplomat to France in the administration of John Adams during the XYZ Affair. A supporter of Jefferson, he was twice elected governor of Massachusetts (1810-1811). He was elected vice president under James Madison in 1812, and was serving in that post at the time of his death in 1814.

How do you Pronounce "Gerrymander"?

More than a century ago, John Ward Dean observed that "the initial of the governor's surname (G) has the hard sound of that letter, and the g in gerrymander should also be pronounced hard. As this word was coined in Boston, Bostonians have an interest in the pronunciation of the word." The Oxford English Dictionary concludes that the "English" pronunciation, "jerrymander" is "erroneous," but all of these protests appear to fly in the face of now long-accepted popular usage; Elbridge Gerry has given the world the "Jerrymander."

"As Massachusetts Goes..." A New Exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society

From 20 September through 15 November 2008, the Massachusetts Historical Society will display the personal correspondence of presidential candidates and their supporters, political cartoons, campaign biographies, broadsides and posters; and early political memorabilia such as campaign medals, pins, and keepsakes, and their modern-day equivalents, campaign buttons and bumper stickers, to illustrate two centuries of Bay State presidential politics.

While Maine and Missouri are famous as bellwethers of national political trends, in presidential contests as often as not Massachusetts has cast its electoral votes for the losing candidate, including support for the failed presidential re-election bids of native sons, John and John Quincy Adams, and the losing campaigns of Rufus King (born in Maine, then part of Massachusetts), Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry, as well as the colorful but equally unsuccessful campaigns of (among others) Henry Clay (twice), Daniel Webster, John C. Fremont, James G. Blaine, Al Smith, George McGovern, and Al Gore.

"As Massachusetts Goes..." will be open to the public each day from 1:00-4:00 PM, Monday-Saturday; from Saturday, 20 September, through Saturday, 15 November 2008.

For Further Reading

Austin, James T. Life of Elbridge Gerry: with Contemporary Letters. Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1828-9 (2 vols.).

Billias, George A. Elbridge Gerry: Founding Father and Republican Statesman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Dean, John W. "The Gerrymander." New England Historical and Genealogical Register. Vol. 46, no. 1 (Jan. 1892), 374-383.

Elbridge Gerry Papers, 1706-1795. Microfilm edition of the papers of Elbridge Gerry drawn from various collections at the Massachusetts Historical Society. 7 reels; please see the online finding aid for the microfilm edition. The MHS also holds a collection of photocopied letters that George Billias assembled and used in writing his biography of Gerry, the Elbridge Gerry Letters (Photocopies), 1745-1853; please see the online finding aid for the photocopied letters.

Griffith, Elmer C. The Rise and Development of the Gerrymander. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1907; reprinted, New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Natural and Political History of the Gerry-mander! : In Two Chapters, with Cuts. [Massachusetts?: 1823].

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