Gerry’s Irony: Insists on Bill of Rights; Father of Gerrymandering

This political cartoon, which appeared in the Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812, carried the term “gerrymander” for the first time. Then Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s Democratic-Republican party drew this outline of a “safe” voting district for their political party. The newspaper rediculed Getty for the shape of the state senate district in Essex County, painting it as a salamander with claws, wings and a dragon-shaped head, satirizing its shape.

A man without a political party until the last 14 years of his life, this Massachusetts merchant began his support for the American Revolution by raising troops and delivering essential goods, medical supplies, and munitions to Boston after the British closed the port in 1774. Two years later Elbridge Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence and later the 1775 Articles of Confederation to draw the states together to respond to British threats. (1)

Gerry’s political career got a kick start from patriot Samuel Adams, in Massachusetts as they jointly opposed Parliamentary colonial policies, like the Stamp Act, in May 1772. When elected to the First Continental Congress, he joined Britain’s “Most Wanted” list. Three years later, as chair of the state’s Council of Safety, Gerry narrowly escaped capture by British soldiers, who were marching between Cambridge and Lexington, as the Revolution began.

His mother’s family gave him the name “Elbridge” and he went on to change the course of history repeatedly during a critical 40-year period. Gerry became one of the least remembered U.S. Vice Presidents, now dragged into modern political arguments. (Where do you think the term “gerrymandering” came from? Stay tuned.

Getty’s attendnce at the Continental Congress guaranteed that negotiations would be long and sometimes excruciating. He attended regularly, rarely withholding his judgement. In the end, Getty agreed with much of their work, yet refused to sign the final draft because it did not include a Bill of Rights. His reasoning:

“. . . there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people, . . .no security for the right of election’ some of the powers of the legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous; . . . the executive is bended with, and will have an undue influence over, the legislature . . . the judicial department will be oppressive; . . . treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the President, with the advice of two-thirds of a quarum of the Senate; and (most important to Gerry) the system is without the security of a bill of rights.” (2)

Alexander Hamilton did not endorse Gerry’s idea. “Bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between a king and his subjects,” he wrote in the Federalist Paper Number 84, a year after the convention. Since America was run by the people and not a king, such guarantees were not necessary. He believed a bill of rights to be ‘dangerous.’ (3) The checks and balances, separation of powers, and representative government took care of the problem in Hamilton’s mind. At the time, the Constitutional Convention agreed with him.

Arbitrary Man, Critical Convention

Well spoken, Gerry rose 153 times during the Constitutional Convention, so colleagues grew tired of the sound of his voice. (4) He could be arbitrary, but understood the supreme importance of the convention’s work:

“Never, perhaps, were a people called on to decide a question of greater magnitude. Should the citizens of America adopt the plan as it now stands, their liberties may be lost; or should they reject it altogether, anarchy may arise,”(5) Getty said. He believed “that the fate of the Union will be decided in this Convention” and grew prophetic in his fear that the divisions would “lay the foundation of a civil war.” (6)

Sent to Harvard at 14, Gerry graduated with two degrees by 1765. He wrote his thesis on whether “faithful subjects” could avoid the ‘prohibitive duties’ passed by the Crown–the Stamp Act in particular–and argued that they could indeed. (3)

He married well to Ann Thompson, the daughter of a wealthy and politically active merchant-shipper, who he met in New York while representing Massachusetts. She gave birth to eleven children, many times while he was away. Gerry’s vision grew international in scope through the family business–exporting dried codfish to Barbados and Spain.

Gerry re-entered politics after the Boston Port Act closed the city in 1774. Living in neighboring Marblehead, he insured the port town provided relief supplies to Boston after the British retaliated for the Boston Tea Party (dumping a British shipment of expensive tea into the harbor).

President John Adams, who became a friend during the Revolution, praised Gerry for signing the Declaration of Independence, for convincing other colleagues to do likewise. “If every Man here was a Getty, the Liberties of American would be safe against the Gates of Hell.” (7) Gerry assumed a seat in the First House of Representatives in 1789 (as the French Revolution commenced) and lobbied for freedom of assembly, which appeared in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and protection against search of personal possessions and seizure of property in the Fourth, supported civilian control of the military, and opposed the President’s ability to fire cabinet officers. (8) Civilian control of the military began with Washington.

Gerry’s first defeat for Massachusetts Governmor came in 1788, when incumbent John Hancock beat him. As both men signed the Declaration twenty years earlier, Hancock turned to Gerry and acknowledged their danger as signatories: “I shall have a great advantage over you when we are all hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body, you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” (9)

President Adams nearly destoryed Gerry’s reputation when he sent him and on a diplomatic mission to Paris to prevent war with France. Since becoming an elector for Adams in 1796, the men had become even better friends, but Gerry managed also to be on good terms with Jefferson, a tricky proposition, because Gerry thought a divided executive might lead to less friction.

XYZ Affair

Gerry fell into the reputation nightmare by agreeing to serve in a diplomatic post in France. Fallout from the Jay Treaty with Britain, which addressed trade, war debts, and military issues after the American Revolution, ruffled French feathers. Once France’s own revolution ended, Americans saw tensions rise. The new nation wanted to maintain neutrality with both European powers. Gerry, along with Charles C. Pinckney and John Marshall arrived in October 1797 to meet cunning French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord. He demanded a $50,000 bribe and a large loan before he would begin negotiations with the Americans. Talleyrand believed Gerry the most approachable of the three–he was not a federalist, so not tied to the British, so in April Talleyrand sent Pinckney and Marshall home. Gerry wanted to leave with them, but Talleyrand threatened war if he did. (10)

Then Talleyrand withheld President Adams’s messages from Getty, thinking he could pull him to the French perspective.

Congress Battles President Adams for French Report

As negotiations slowly continued in France, Congress became anxious and demanded a report from Adams regarding relations in France–where he had been a diplomat prior to the Presidency. The situation bears some resemblance to the showdown today. (Congress in 2019 desires a nonredacted copy of the Mueller Report given to the Attorney General about an investigation into Russian connections during the 2016 Presidential Campaign).

Eventually Adams sent a report to Congress with the names of the three French agents involved in the negotiations redacted and replaced with the letters X, Y, Z, thus the name of the affair.

Returning to the U.S. in August 1788, Getty may not have prevented the U.S from declaring open war on France, since the undeclared naval Quasi-War (1798-1803) happened regardless. By staying behind the others in France for months, Gerry summoned questions about his loyalty when he returned in 1799. Adams and Jefferson supported Gerry, but Federalists, like Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, blammed him for siding with the French. Disgusted with the Federalists’ response to the XYZ Affair and criticism of him, Gerry joined the Democratic Republicans in 1810 and ran for governor of Massachusetts.


He finally won the governorship after four attempts–two against his “buddy” incumbent John Hancock. Gerry sought to strengthen his party, the Democratic-Republicans (small government people, like Jefferson, as opposed to the Federalists, like Washington and Madison), after being sent to the political wilderness by the Federalists.

Two years later the legislature is controlled by the Democratic-Republicans, who are eager to create district boundaries to enhance (if not guarantee) their party’s control over state and national offices. The result? Oddly shaped Congressional voting districts that were said to resemble a salamander (like the one pictured above). This redistricting spurred a Federalist cartoon to coin the phrase “Gerry-mandering.” It remains the term for wrangling a Congressional district’s composition of voters to insure victory for one’s party while destroying or badly weakening the chances for the other party. (11)

As he saw his life coming to an end, Gerry feared that the Constitution might not provide enough protection either for the people or the executive. The power to redistrict could “be used to run roughshod over the very people or whose rights they were designed to protect.” (12) Indeed 209 years later this fear has translated into Congressional districts drawn in similar “salamander: shapes–gerrymandered to create safe seats, nearly impossible for an opposing party to win in states like Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas.

Forgotten Vice President

In the 1812 presidential election Gerry received the nod for the Vice Presidency (after John Langdon turned the nomination down) in support of Madison, who easily won re-election. Political powers preferred Gerry because he poised no threat to James Monroe, heir apparent to the Presidency. They didn’t want to darken his horizons with the mind-numbing VP position. The job entailed keeping Congress in line, a thankless task laid upon all the VPs. In the 1800s, the second in line got the onerous job of dolling out patronage jobs to their region, New England. Ironically Gerry also leaned heavily against Federalist job holders and even arrested printers of the opposing party. (13) Not the hoped for breath of fresh air.


2) Ibid.

(3) The Federalist Papers, Number 84, Avalon Project,

(4) Subjects for Masters Degree,” Harvard Crimson, March 26, 1884,

(5) Mike Lee, Written Out of History, (New York: Penguin Random House, 2017) p. 105


(7) Lee, 105.

(8) Lee, 99.

(9) George Billias (1976) Elbridge Gerry, Founding Father and Republican Statesman , p. 232, 46, 48.

(10) Documented in John Ferling’s John Adams: A Life (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 345.


(12) Lee p. 114.

(13) Samuel Eliot Morison (2006) {1913}  The Life and Letters of Harrison Gray Otis  2:57.




One thought on “Gerry’s Irony: Insists on Bill of Rights; Father of Gerrymandering

  1. Pingback: Democracy: What is it? Do we want it? | Past Becomes Present.Blog

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