The Games Founders Played… Repeated with Software

The scales of justice are not always applied to elections when district maps are drawn.

Do you remember Elbridge Gerry? If not for one slip-up, he could have a role in “Hamilton” or been revered like Thomas Paine.

How soon we forget that Gerry was a genuine Founder, a signer of the Declaration of Independence at 32. Being from Massachusetts, he nearly guaranteed the American Revolution by voting to block shipments of British tea into Boston Harbor (disappointing local tea drinkers) and serving in the Continental Congress. In addition, Gerry helped draft the Bill of Rights. The job of Vice President might not have been any more revered in 1811 than in modern times, but he served under President John Adams in his second term. Adams proclaimed before the district plumping incident, “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the gates of Earth and Hell.”

All that is forgotten—Gerry’s 36 years of public service from Signer to U.S. Rep to Governor—disappeared with a cartoonist’s rendering of a salamander in the Boston Gazette in 1812. David Litt’s book, Democracy in one book or less, explains Gerry redrew Massachusetts’ senate district lines, so the Republicans were “guaranteed” to win.

Both political parties have engaged in gerrymandering over the intervening years. Both Parties have done it, but in recent times the Republicans have been more efficient and used the 2020 Census to fine-tune their game. So now, after 200 years, we battle salamander divisions in multiple Congressional districts in many states.

Gerry was not the first to fudge the lines. None other than Patrick Henry, in the cradle of democracy, Virginia, during the first congressional election in 1788, warped the district lines attempting to prevent none other than James Madison from winning a seat in the House of Representatives. Litt jokes about “Henrymanders” but doesn’t have the same ring. Now Henry doesn’t have a role on Broadway, and his name has been unblemished for 200 years. He is not forever linked to his political grudge against Madison, who took his seat and might have been too much of a gentleman to call him on it. (More research needed.)

BTW, Gerry (pronounced “Gary”) lost the 1812 election for governor, his Party lost the State House of Representatives, and when his opponents took the statehouse, they overturned the changes Gerry had made to the map. His reputation suffered again when a follow-up cartoon portrayed a salamander skeleton with the epitaph: “Hatched 1812, Died 1813.”

In 1997 American voters decided on 165 swing districts by ten percentage points or less. By 2012 the number of swing districts fell to 90, and by 2016 down to 72 nationwide. Over the next twenty years, gerrymandering cut the chances of living in a competitive House district by half.

How did this come about? Many factors combined, but gerrymandering became a snowball flung downhill after the 2008 election of Barack Obama, a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, and a renewed majority in the House.

Team Mitch McConnel for the GOP spent $30 million to find a tool to help them dig into redistricting in 2010, a year of the Census. They acquired REMAP software for the “Redistricting Majority Project,” centered on flipping and winning state legislative chambers in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, and Florida. In 2010 the GOP won 117 state legislative races in these states and redrew not just their state maps and Congressional districts. The Party created a red wave that took the House and Senate for the GOP, helped eleven of its own takeover governors’ mansions, and flipped twenty state legislatures to red. Former Wisconsin State Senator Dale Schultz (R) explains the philosophy behind their plan: “It really represents legislators picking voters rather than voters picking legislators.” A bent view of democracy.

The GOP drew four times as many state district boundaries as the Dems, who became sitting ducks, with a surplus of “vote sinks,” uncompetitive congressional districts. In the wake of the 2011 redistricting cycle, Litt identified five states skewed Democratic and nineteen skewed Republican.

In 2012 the Dems attempted to reverse the odds spending $48 million on a software-based plan to redraw Congressional district lines to catch up. In most states, districts are drawn every decade by the Party that controls the state legislature in conjunction with the Census. However, a few progressive states have named a bipartisan commission to set the boundaries.

That same year voters chose the Democratic candidate by a margin of 1.4 million votes in their local House races. Using gerrymandering, the GOP placed DEM voters into districts where they were overwhelmed by GOP voters and won a majority of thirty-three seats. The votes of people who live in cities got swamped. For example, in Michigan, Obama won 54 percent of the vote, but Democrats won only 5 of the state’s 14 congressional seats. In Ohio, the GOP won 52 percent of the presidential vote and 75 percent of the Congressional seats.

The number of seats considered “swing,” where either candidate could win, has dwindled over the last 46 years. In 1976, three in four Americans resided in counties that split their vote 60-40 or even closer, according to Bill Bishop’s 2009 book, The Big Sort. In 2012, the number of swing districts dropped to 90. Four years later, there were only 72.

As Litt describes it, “Modern Gerrys can slice districts with a finesse that puts brain surgery to shame.” “Mapititude for Redistricting” can automatically crunch demographic numbers to tell you with extraordinary detail what to expect from a given seat. The GOP’s firm grasp of redistricting technology has skewed today’s gerrymandering on a scale “unprecedented” in modern history. Due to the political circumstances of the last election, the Dems hold on to the House (by a thread now), but as of 2020, the GOP started with a gain of between twenty and thirty Congressional seats. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court may indirectly help DEM voters even the score in the months before November 8. But as far as a correction to the voting situation, the now conservative Supreme Court, after the retirement of Anthony Kennedy, has declined to rule on gerrymandering issues.

Finally, elections in Alaska, California, Maine, and New York city-wide have used “ranked-choice voting” to allow the voter to select the candidate they like best and vote for whatever Party without wasting a vote. When the polls close, the election staff begin by counting first-choice votes. If one candidate receives more than 50 percent, they win. If not, anyone who voted for the last-place finisher gets their second-place choice count. Litt believes this will increase participation because voters can vote for the person who excites them the most.

Elbridge Gerry has something in common with 21st-century politicians; his desperation to carry his Party to victory in 1812. As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, who played a role in the Continental Congress, he threw away his legacy as a Founding Father. Instead, he fell to the human trait that has afflicted political candidates for over 200 years—the lust for power that corrupts and spurs candidates to bend or ignore the rules to win a campaign. Unfortunately, the hunger for victory or the desire to retain it (at all costs) seems to turn some politicians’ ethics to mush.

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.