Eldridge, Gerry - History

Eldridge, Gerry - History

Eldridge Gerry, the third of twelve children, was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts in 1744 to a Boston merchant whose business exported dried codfish to Barbados and Spain. He received his degree from Harvard College in 1762, and then proceeded to enter his father's business. In 1772 he also became involved in politics, and sat on the colonial legislature. When Boston's harbor was closed down in 1774, Gerry helped deliver relief goods through the harbor in Marblehead.

In 1776 Gerry took part in the Continental Congress, voting for Independence in July of that year. While he specialized in military and financial matters, he was best known for his ambivalence on most issues. He did not trust the military as whole, for example, but became friends with George Washington. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he irritated many of the delegates by initially supporting a strong central government, and then refusing to sign the Constitution, which he claimed posed a threat to a republican form of government. Later, in 1789, however, he decided that he agreed with the Federalists after all, and threw his support behind the Constitution. Toward the end of his life Gerry was plagued by poor health and poverty, yet he still accepted President Madison's offer to serve as vice-president in 1813. He died in 1814 at the age of seventy on his way to the Senate. He was buried in Washington D. C. in the Congressional Cemetery.


A Founding Father in Dissent

By Greg Bradsher

Elbridge Gerry (center) can be seen in the mural of the members of the Constitutional Convention hanging in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

During his second term as governor of Massachusetts, in 1811, Elbridge Gerry, upset with the Federalist Party's outspoken opposition to President James Madison's foreign policy, approved a controversial redistricting plan designed to give the Republican Party an advantage in the state senatorial elections.

The Federalist press responded to this plan with cartoon figures of a salamander-shaped election district—the "Gerrymander"—a term still used to connote an irregularly shaped district created by legislative fiat to benefit a particular party, politician, or other group.

Gerry would be rewarded by the Republicans for his staunch support by being elected in 1812 as Madison's Vice President.

In late 1814, the 70-year-old Gerry died in office. He was buried in Washington, D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery, and Congress erected a monument over his grave. This monument, the first done at the nation's expense, contained the words that Gerry spoke and tried to live by: "It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country."

Today, as well as for the at least the last 150 years, most Americans have never heard of Elbridge Gerry, though many have heard the term "gerrymander." This undoubtedly would have disappointed him.

Like many of the other Founding Fathers, he was concerned about his legacy, the fame that would be attached to individual leaders of the Revolutionary generation. His friend John Adams believed that this fame would depend, to a large degree, upon the view that future generations held about the American Revolution and the Constitution. Those future generations have, for the most part, looked favorably on the documents that the Founding Fathers created and under which we live. But the founders and their specific views, with a few exceptions, are little known or appreciated. History—what is written about the past—has a way of simplifying things, and in the process important and interesting details are lost.

This is especially and unfortunately so of the work of the drafters of the Constitution. We all know about the Supreme Court trying to determine "original intent," but few of us know anything about the actual views held and put forth by the drafters, and the compromises they made, to achieve the system of government that would be effective, preserve order, secure property, and protect the liberties that had been won as a result of the American Revolution.

By understanding the views held by the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we all can be better able to form our own political views about the best means of securing our own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Elbridge Gerry is a good starting point for such an understanding, because like his contemporaries, he shared the view that the Constitution they drafted was not perfect and the government created under it would have to be carefully nourished and watched.

Gerry, born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1744, to a wealthy family, received his academic training at Harvard and his political training from his mentor, Samuel Adams. During the early 1770s he served in the colonial and Revolutionary legislatures, and during the American War for Independence, he served in the Continental Congress (1775–1780 and 1783–1785), where he signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. After the war, he continued to serve in Congress until 1785, when he married and settled down to domestic life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His absence from political life was short-lived, as in the wake of Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786 he was selected to attend a convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

The Constitutional Convention met in Independence Hall in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. (Independence National Historical Park)

Gerry arrived in Philadelphia on May 29, 1787, several weeks after the deliberations had already begun. It is probable that some of his colleagues did not welcome his arrival. He had demonstrated during his years in Congress that he could be trying and impractical. These character traits were part and parcel of his idealism and his classical republican mind that made him anti-monarchy, anti-military, and anti-party.

He came to the convention ready to give the central government greater authority, being "fully convinced that to preserve the union, an efficient government was indispensably necessary." Yet he did not want the central government to be too powerful, as it would open the door for despotism. He desired a form of government that would find a balance between too much power and too much liberty, between monarchy and democracy. Such a government, he believed, should be based upon republican principles, where power would be divided wherever possible and where too much power would not be placed in the hands of a single person, group, or branch of government.

His first day in attendance found the members of the Convention discussing doing away with the Articles of Confederation and adopting an instrument that would create a new national government. At the first opportunity that day Gerry questioned the legality of doing more than just revising the Articles of Confederation.

Despite his arguments, two days later the Convention voted to proceed to discuss the Virginia Plan, which provided for creating a new, stronger central government.

Gerry very quickly found himself in the middle, between the states' righters who wanted the balance of power to remain with the states and the nationalists who wanted to create a powerful central government. Because of his desire for a stronger central government, Gerry frequently sided with the nationalists, but always tempering his support by insisting that federal features be retained in any new system of government and urging that republican principles be adopted.

During June he frequently helped to check the extreme nationalists by arguing and voting against their motions. He forced them to yield on an absolute veto for the chief executive and on giving the central government an absolute power to negate state laws and got them to drop the word "national" out of the Virginia Plan and substitute the phrase "the United States." He also took to the offensive by proposing and supporting various motions, many of them relating to elections, which he maintained should be frequent.

Because of his fear of demagoguery and belief the people could be easily misled, he advocated indirect elections. Although he was unsuccessful in obtaining them for the lower house, he did obtain such elections for the Senate, whose members were to be elected by the state legislatures. He made numerous proposals for indirect elections of the chief executive, most of them involving the state governors and electors. He was also active in supporting an amendment provision, believing that "the novelty and difficulty of the experiment requires periodical revision." Agreeing, the Convention adopted such a provision.

The critical issue facing Gerry and the Convention in June was the relationship of the central government to the states. By the end of the month, the Convention was on the verge of collapse as a result of the members being unable to resolve this issue. During the last days of June and first of July, Gerry continually called for compromise.

On July 2, after a deadlock vote on whether the states would be equally represented in the Senate, Gerry stated "We must make concessions on both sides" because "accommodation is absolutely necessary, and defects may be amended by a future convention."

If the Convention failed, he told his colleagues, "we shall not only disappoint America, but the rest of the world."

Agreeing that a compromise was needed, a committee was appointed to produce one, and Gerry was appointed its chairman. During the committee discussions, he was willing to compromise on certain issues, such as equal representation in the Senate, in order to save the Convention from collapse. But on other issues, such as prohibiting the Senate from originating money bills, a motion he had earlier unsuccessfully offered, he was unwilling to compromise.

A compromise was finally achieved, which among other things, provided for proportional representation in the lower house and equal representation in the Senate and provided that the lower house would raise revenue and appropriate money. After presenting the committee's report, Gerry told the Convention that although he had some objections to it, compromise was needed if the Convention was to avoid collapsing and quite possibly, to prevent the Confederation from dissolving.

"If we do not come to some agreement among ourselves," he maintained, "some foreign sword will probably do the work for us." Addressing the central government-state relationship, he informed his colleagues, "We were neither the same Nation nor different Nations. . . . We ought not therefore pursue the one or the other of these ideas too closely." He argued that the committee compromise provided the best solution, a government that would be "partly national, partly federal."

On July 15, after 10 days of debate on the report, during which Gerry continually called for compromise, it was put to a vote. It passed by a 5-4 margin. In calling for compromise, chairing the committee, asking the Convention to accept the "Great Compromise," and voting for it, Gerry played a crucial role in saving the Convention at its critical point.

Once the report was accepted, the Convention got down to working out the details relating to the powers to be granted to the central government, the jurisdiction of the judiciary, and the election of the President. From July 17 to 26, Gerry made 29 speeches on these issues, two-thirds of them on the powers and election of the executive branch. Although fearing one-man rule, he opposed the executive being too dependent upon another branch of government. He opposed the idea of direct elections, believing the people could be easily misled by a few designing men or manipulated by certain groups.

He also opposed the idea of Congress electing the President, as he would be dependent upon that body. What he preferred was letting the governors do the electing, or letting them do the selecting of electors, who would elect the President. When the Convention seemed determined to have Congress do the electing, Gerry successfully got motions adopted that would allow the President to serve a relatively long term and be ineligible for reelection, making him less likely to be dependent on Congress.

Like the other members, Gerry assumed that Washington would be the first President. But that did not prevent him from calling for impeachment provisions. "A good magistrate," he maintained, "will not fear them," and "a bad one ought to be kept in fear of them." He also expressed his hope that "maxim would never be adopted here that the chief magistrate can do no wrong." Agreeing, the Convention adopted an impeachment provision.

Gerry was also successful in getting the Convention to kill the idea of blending together the executive and members of the judiciary into a council of revision to review legislation, something the nationalists desired because of their fear of legislative supremacy. Gerry called such a council an "improper coalition," violating the principles of separation of powers, and reminded the Convention that the representatives were the best guardians of the people's rights and interests.

In one other area Gerry was successful in getting the Convention to accept his views. This was the manner in which senators voted. On July 23, Gerry, in keeping with his promise to support the "Great Compromise," did not object to the principle of equal representation in the Senate and voted to give each state two senators. But he did move that the senators vote as individuals, which would mean if the senators split their votes, a state would lose its status of equality within the Senate. Up to this point it was assumed that the senators would cast their votes as a unit, as had been done in the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Convention itself. His novel idea was appealing to many and was adopted.

During the latter part of July, sentiment was growing to prepare a draft constitution to summarize what had been decided on a piecemeal basis during the preceding two months. So, at Gerry's prompting a committee was appointed for that purpose. In early August, when Gerry saw the draft, he believed it contained too many anti-republican principles, with the central government being made too powerful, the liberties of the people threatened, and the sovereignty of the states subverted. Thus, during the remaining six weeks of the Convention he attempted to correct as many perceived shortcomings in the proposed constitution as he could, constantly reminding his colleagues, as he had before, that the document they produced would not be ratified unless it was acceptable to the people.

During those weeks Gerry was one of the most active participants, making 78 speeches, most of them relating to the powers of the central government. He successfully got motions passed prohibiting Congress from passing bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, but he was unsuccessful in urging frequent elections and prohibiting plural office holding.

Of all the powers given to the central government, Gerry most feared the military power, a view shared by many of his contemporaries. Continually he offered motions to limit the military power and to prevent conditions that could lead to military despotism. He was successful in getting the Convention to limit the power of the central government to send military forces into the states and empowering the chief executive only to "make war" but not "declare war." He also successfully fought off attempts by the nationalists to give the central government total control over the state militias. He was, however, unsuccessful in preventing a peacetime standing army or limiting it to a size of no more than 3,000 soldiers.

By the end of August, Gerry, fearing the proposed constitution threatened the liberties of the people and the rights of the states, concerned about the health of his wife and infant daughter, as well as tired and frustrated by the Convention debates, contemplated leaving the Convention as others had and would do. But he decided to stay so that no one could later charge he attempted to break up the Convention and so he could correct as many defects as he could.

During the first week of September, he spoke frequently on limiting the military power, the manner of electing the President, checking the power of the chief executive, and against having a Vice President, especially one who was to be the president of the Senate. The latter provision he maintained violated the principles of separation of powers. "We might as well put the President himself at the head of the Legislature," he had argued on September 7. "The close intimacy that must subsist between the president and vice president makes it absolutely improper." His colleagues were not persuaded. In fact, all of his motions were rejected, as most members were satisfied with the document they had created. Ironically, a quarter of century later, Gerry would be Madison's Vice President and die on the way to preside over the Senate.

Despite his setbacks during the first week of September, Gerry continued during the second week calling for reconsideration of certain provisions. One of the most important to him was the ratification provision. Having previously questioned the propriety and legality of dissolving the Confederation without referring the constitution to the Confederation Congress for approval, he again raised that point and objected to the requirement that only nine states, not all, were needed for ratification. When his motion for unanimous consent was defeated, Gerry turned his attention to measures to protect individual rights and to curtail the power of the central government. On September 12, believing there was nothing else he could do to stop the proposed constitution from being adopted by the Convention, he moved that a national bill of rights be incorporated into it. He was seconded by George Mason. When his motion was rejected, Gerry unsuccessfully offered numerous specific provisions to guarantee individual liberties.

On September 15, after the members had gone over the final draft, Edmund Randolph, Mason, and Gerry spoke in opposition to the proposed constitution. Gerry, after detailing his minor objections, told the Convention that he could live with them if individual rights had not been rendered insecure by the power of the government to make laws it may call necessary and proper, to raise armies and money without limit, and to establish tribunals without juries. He then joined Mason and Randolph in calling for a second constitutional convention where measures could be adopted to adequately protect individual rights.

Two days later Gerry addressed the Convention for the 153rd and last time. After giving his objections to the proposed constitution, he stated he could not sign the document. Then he watched as 39 men affixed their signatures to the document. It must have been distressing to him, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, not to sign. But it was even more distressing to think about the document itself, containing so many things he opposed and not including so many things he believed it should. Nevertheless, it must have pleased him to see that many of his motions and beliefs that protected the rights of citizens and the sovereignty of the states had been incorporated into the document and that he had been able to check many of the excesses of the extreme nationalists, thereby preventing the establishment of an even more powerful government.

Gerry, although believing the constitution being sent to the states for ratification contained too many provisions that were inconsistent with republican principles, was reluctant to take an extreme stand against its ratification. He was afraid that if the ratification debate was too acrimonious, it would create conditions favoring social instability and quite possibly civil war and disunion. Thus, once the ratification process began, he dropped his call for a second convention, believing the best course would be to favor the constitution with amendments.

In October he wrote the Massachusetts legislature that "it was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable members who signed the constitution. But conceiving as I did that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it." In this letter he gave his specific reasons for not signing, stressing the lack of any national bill of rights and the fact that the government was national, not federal in composition. If the people adopted the document as it stood, he maintained, they were in danger of losing their liberties. But, if they rejected it altogether, "anarchy may ensue." "In many respects," he wrote, "I think it has great merit, and by proper amendments, may be adapted to the 'exigencies of Government' and preservation of liberty." He concluded the letter by pledging to "support that which is finally adopted."

The Massachusetts convention on February 7, 1788, by a 187-167 vote, ratified the Constitution with recommendatory amendments, many of them relating to a national bill of rights. Before this convention, none of the states had requested amendments. After it, all but one ratified the Constitution and proposed amendments at the same time. This must have pleased Gerry, as it was he who had first made the suggestion to the Massachusetts convention as well as suggesting specific amendments.

Once the Constitution was ratified, Gerry kept his word about supporting it, and agreed, once elected, to serve in the first House of Representatives. After his election, he wrote a friend that many members of the First Congress would consider him an enemy of the Constitution, but he maintained nothing was more "remote from truth."

"Since the commencement of the revolution," he wrote, "I have been ever solicitous for an efficient federal government, conceiving that without it we must be a divided and unhappy people." But he never wanted extremes, desiring a government "that should possess power sufficient for the welfare of the union" but balanced "to secure the governed from the rapacity and domination of lawless and insolent ambition." He stated he wanted amendments before ratification, but since that had not been the case, he would support the Constitution and hoped amendments would be adopted that "will remove just apprehensions."

Gerry arrived at Congress in the spring of 1789 ready to see that the proposed amendments were given due consideration and to ensure the Constitution was implemented and administered so as to protect the liberties of the people. He also desired to raise issues, such as the location of the seat of government and the assumption of the national and state war debts, that he had first brought up at the Constitutional Convention but which had been deferred to the First Congress.

The First Federal Congress established many of the government's major institutions and policies, including setting up the executive department and judiciary system, and recommending a national bill of rights. Gerry, who had spoken the sixth most times at the Constitutional Convention, was an active participant, especially during the first five-month session, speaking more times than any other member save James Madison. Setting forth the same themes he had expounded at the Constitutional Convention, Gerry hoped the national government would find a true balance between liberty and power. He continually worked to protect the liberties of the people and the rights of the states. Avoiding political party affiliation, he preached the politics of conciliation and republicanism.

In 1793, after two terms in Congress and tired of the political factions then evolving, Gerry retired from public service. But his retirement was only temporary. During the following 20 years he would serve on a diplomatic mission to France, two terms as governor of Massachusetts, and as Vice President. During those years, Gerry continually attempted to restore his country to the idealism, virtue, patriotism, and revolutionary republicanism of the early days of the American Revolution. During his 40 years of public service, Gerry made many enemies, yet very few questioned his motives and sincerity. William Pierce, at the Constitutional Convention, wrote that Gerry's "character is marked for integrity and perseverance" and that he "cherishes as his first virtue, a love for his country."

Today, Gerry is all but forgotten, yet his presence (which was often a nuisance to his colleagues), persistence, and political skills were important factors in shaping the system of government under which we live. He certainly deserves remembering. And indirectly he is.

When visitors to the Rotunda of the National Archives view the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, they often look up at the murals above the cases. One depicts members of the Constitutional Convention. There stands Gerry, guardian over the documents he helped to bring to life. While Gerry is gone and forgotten, his work is not. All these visitors have to do is walk outside the Rotunda and look around Washington, D.C., to see evidence of his work and that of his contemporaries (both remembered and unremembered): the Capitol, the Supreme Court building, and the White House, representing the institutions he and his generation gave us.

Note on Sources

To large extent the story of the Constitutional Convention and Elbridge Gerry's role in its proceedings are found in the Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention (Record Group 360), Max Farrand's The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (4 vols., 1911), Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 Reported by James Madison (introduced by Adrienne Koch, 1966), and George Athan Billias's Elbridge Gerry: Founding Father and Republican Statesman (1976).


Elbridge Gerry’s Monster Salamander that Swallows Votes

As Americans prepare to vote in local and state elections on Election Day, tens of thousands--even millions--will find their votes chewed, swallowed, and discarded by a monstrous &ldquosalamander&rdquo&mdashthe two-hundred-year-old creation of Founding Father Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

Gerry created the metaphorical salamander to reshape voting districts and ensure his own election and re-election and that of loyal political office holders. The son of a wealthy merchant in Marblehead, Mass., Gerry used his salamander in the 1812 national election, when his friend James Madison announced for the presidency and asked Gerry to run for vice president.

To ensure his victory, Gerry slick-talked a majority of his state&rsquos legislators into redrawing the state&rsquos voting-district boundaries. By extending borders of one district to incorporate larger numbers of opposition voters from neighboring districts, redistricting left selected districts with voter majorities that favored Gerry and ensured his election as America&rsquos fifth vice president

A Boston Centinal cartoonist drew a caricature of what he called the state&rsquos &ldquogerrymandered&rdquo districts, with the overpopulated district that opposed Gerry depicted as a monstrous salamander.

A Boston Centinal cartoon in March 1812 shows then-Governor Elbridge Gerry&rsquos creation

of a new salamander-shaped political district that he had &ldquogerrymandered&rdquo to favor his political party.

Gerry&rsquos &ldquosalamander&rsquo undermined what most Americans believed had been one goal of the American Revolution&mdashelimination of England&rsquos pocket boroughs and rotten boroughs that gave a handful of English noblemen out-sized voting control of Britain&rsquos Parliament. Gerry, however, had not served in the military during the Revolutionary War. Like many signers of the Declaration of Independence, Gerry had supported independence to protect his family&rsquos wealth against British taxation&mdashnot to give Americans universal voting privileges.

When the war erupted in Boston, Gerry smuggled food supplies into the city to offset British Army efforts to starve Bostonians for opposing British rule, but he earned handsome profits from the sale of those good&mdashas did other American merchants such as John Hancock and Robert Morris. Few, if any, thought ill of profiting from the war. When polemicist Thomas Paine objected in Congress, Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris retorted, &ldquoBy becoming a delegate [in the Continental Congress]&hellipI did not relinquish my right of forming mercantile connections.&rdquo

With American independence, Gerry refused to sign the Constitution, arguing that executive power over the army gave the president the potential to become a despot. Married and father of thirteen children by then, he told Congress a President with control of a standing army was like &ldquoa standing penis: An excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.&rdquo

With ratification of the Constitution, Gerry ran for and won election to America&rsquos First Congress, where he joined Virginia&rsquos James Madison in winning passage of a Bill of Rights that limited federal government powers to curtail certain individual rights, such as free speech, free press, and the right to assembly.

After two terms in Congress, Gerry served as a diplomat in Paris before becoming governor of his state and then vice president. He died in November 1814, leaving as his principle legacy the powerful and dangerous political weapon of &ldquogerrymandering.&rdquo

For more than a century since the Civil War, each political party in almost every state has used and continues to use gerrymandering to strip millions of their voting powers. Leaders in every southern state&mdashDemocrats and Republicans alike--gerrymandered for the sole purpose of depriving African-Americans of political influence in local, state, and federal elections. Apart from the impact of racial exclusion in local and state elections, gerrymandering has sent two candidates with fewer votes than their opponents to the White House. Indeed, Donald J. Trump lost the popular vote by an astounding total of more than three million votes, but gerrymandering ensured him 304 of the 538 Electoral College Votes and the presidency of the United States.

In state after state across America, each political party with a legislative majority is now trying to gerrymander to perpetuate its political power. Only a court decision blocked the most recent effort by North Carolina Republicans, and it was not too long ago that voters across the South needed more than five years of massive popular uprisings, rioting, and the lives of men, women, and children to lop off the head of Gerry&rsquos monstrous salamander.

Some gerrymandering of sorts often occurs naturally, without the machinations of scheming politicians. The depopulation of farm areas in many states has given remaining land owners of such districts far more voting clout than voters in heavily populated cities.

The beast will continue to regenerate, therefore, until states or the federal government kill it with legislation that imposes lower limits on district population as a percentage of state population to qualify as an election district.


To Elbridge Gerry

Your favor of Nov. 12. was safely delivered to me by mr ——,1 but not till Dec. 28. as I arrived here only three days before that date. it was recieved with great satisfaction. our very long intimacy as fellow-labourers in the same cause, the recent expressions of mutual confidence which had preceded your mission, the interesting course which that had taken, & particularly & personally as it regarded yourself, made me anxious to hear from you on your return. I was the more so too, as I had myself during the whole of your absence, as well as since your return, been a constant butt for every shaft of calumny which malice & false-hood could form, & the presses, public speakers, or private letters disseminate. one of these too was of a nature to touch yourself as if, wanting confidence in your efforts, I had been capable of usurping powers committed to you, & authorising negociations private & collateral to yours. the real truth is that though Dr. Logan, the pretended missionary,2 about 4. or 5. days before he sailed for Hamburgh, told me he was going there, & thence to Paris, & asked & recieved from me a certificate of his citizenship, character, & circumstances of life, merely as a protection should he be molested on his journey in the present turbulent & suspicious state of Europe, yet3 I had been led to consider his object as relative to his private affairs and tho’ from an intimacy of some standing, he knew well my wishes for peace, and my political sentiments in general, he nevertheless4 recieved then no particular declaration of them, no authority to communicate them to any mortal, nor to speak to any one in my name, or in any body’s name, on that, or any other subject what ever5 nor did I write by him a scrip of a pen to any person what ever. this he has himself honestly & publicly declared since his return & from his well known character & every other6 circumstance, every candid man must percieve that his enterprize was dictated by his own enthusiasm, without consultation or communication with any one that he acted in Paris on his own ground, & made his own way. yet to give some colour to his proceedings which might implicate the republicans in general, & myself particularly,7 they have not been ashamed to bring forward a supposititious paper drawn by one of their own party in the name of Logan, & falsely pretended to have been presented by him to the government of France counting that the bare8 mention of my9 name therein would connect that in the eye of the public with this transaction. in confutation of these & all future calumnies, by way of anticipation, I shall make to you a profession of my political faith in confidence that you will consider every future imputation on me of a contrary complexion as bearing on it’s front the mask of falsehood & calumny.

I do then with sincere zeal wish an inviolable preservation of our present federal constitution, according to the true sense in which it was adopted10 by the states, that in which it was advocated by it’s friends, & not that which it’s enemies apprehended, who therefore became it’s enemies: and I am opposed to the monarchising it’s features by the forms of it’s administration, with a view to conciliate a first transition to a President & Senate for life, & from that to a hereditary tenure of these offices, & thus to worm out the elective principle. I am for preserving to the states the powers not yielded by them to the Union,11 & to the legislature of the Union it’s constitutional share in the division of powers: and I am not for transferring all the powers of the states to the general government, & all those of that government to the Executive branch. I am for a government rigorously frugal & simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the national debt: and not for a multiplication of officers & salaries merely to make partizans, & for increasing, by every device, the public debt, on the principle of it’s being a public blessing. I am for relying, for internal defence, on our militia solely till actual invasion, and for such a naval force only as may protect our coasts and harbours from such depredations as we have experienced: and not for a standing army in time of peace which may overawe the public sentiment nor for a navy which by it’s own expences and the eternal wars in which it will implicate us, will grind us with public burthens, & sink us under them. I am for free commerce with all nations, political connection with none, & little or no12 diplomatic establishment: and I am not for linking ourselves, by new treaties13 with the quarrels of Europe, entering that field of slaughter to preserve their14 balance, or joining in the confederacy of kings to war against the principles of liberty. I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another:15 for freedom of the press, & against all violations of the constitution to silence by force & not by reason16 the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents. and I am for encouraging the progress of science in all it’s branches and not for raising a hue and cry against the sacred name of philosophy, for awing17 the human mind, by stories of rawhead & bloody bones, to a distrust of it’s own vision & to repose implicitly on that of others to go backwards instead of forwards to look for improvement, to believe that government, religion, morality & every other science were in the highest perfection in ages of the darkest ignorance, and that nothing can ever be devised more perfect than what was established by18 our forefathers. to these I will add that I was a sincere wellwisher to the success of the French revolution, and still wish it may end in the establishment of a free & well ordered republic:19 but I have not been insensible under the atrocious depredations they have committed on our commerce. the first object of my heart is my own country. in that is embarked my family, my fortune, & my own existence. I have not one farthing of interest, nor one fibre of attachment out of it, nor a single motive of preference of any one nation to another but in proportion as they are more or less friendly to us. but though deeply feeling the injuries of France, I did not think war the surest mode of redressing them. I did believe that a mission sincerely disposed to preserve peace, would obtain for us a peaceable & honourable settlement and retribution & I appeal to you to say whether this might not have been obtained, if either of your collegues had been of the same sentiment with20 yourself.—these my friend are my principles they are unquestionably the principles of the great body of our fellow citizens,21 and I know there is not one22 of them which is not yours also. in truth we never differed but on one ground, the funding system and as from the moment of it’s being adopted by the constituted authorities, I became religiously principled in the sacred discharge of it to the uttermost farthing, we are now united even on that single ground of difference.

I turn now to your enquiries. the inclosed paper will answer one of them. but you also ask for such political information as may be possessed by me & interesting to yourself in regard to your embassy. as a proof of my entire confidence in you I shall give it fully & candidly. when Pinckney, Marshal, and Dana were nominated to settle our differences with France, it was suspected by many, from what was understood23 of their dispositions, that their mission would not result in a settlement of differences but would produce circumstances tending to widen the breach, and to provoke our citizens to consent to a war with that nation, & union with England. Dana’s resignation, & your appointment gave the first gleam of hope of a peaceable issue to the mission. for it was believed that you were sincerely disposed to accomodation: & it was not long after your arrival there before symptoms were observed of that difference of views which had been suspected to exist.—In the mean time however24 the aspect of our government towards the French republic25 had become so ardent that the people of America generally took the alarm. to the Southward their apprehensions were early excited. in the Eastern states also they at length began to break out. meetings were held in many of your towns, & addresses to the government agreed on in opposition to war. the example was spreading like wild fire. other meetings were called in other places, & a general concurrence of sentiment against the apparent inclinations of the government was imminent, when, most critically for the government, the dispatches of Oct. 22. prepared26 by your collegue Marshall with a view to their being made public,27 dropped into their laps. it was truly a God-send to them, & they made the most of it. many thousands of copies were printed & dispersed gratis at the public expence & the zealots for war co-operated so heartily that there were instances of single individuals who printed & dispersed 10, or 12,000 copies at their own expence. the odiousness of the28 corruption supposed29 in those papers excited a general & high indignation among the people. unexperienced30 in such maneuvres, they did not permit themselves even to suspect that the turpitude of private swindlers might mingle itself unobserved, & give it’s own hue to the communications31 of the French government, of whose participation there was neither proof nor probability. it served however, for a time, the purpose intended. the people in many places gave a loose to the expressions of their warm indignation, & of their honest preference of war to dishonour. the fever was long & succesfully kept up, and in the mean time war measures as ardently crouded.—still however as it was known that your collegues were coming away, & yourself to stay, though disclaiming a separate power to conclude a treaty, it was hoped by the lovers of peace that32 a project of treaty would have been prepared, ad referendum,33 on principles which would have satisfied our citizens, & overawed any bias of the government towards a different policy. but the expedition of the Sophia, and, as was supposed, the suggestions of the person charged with your dispatches, & his probable misrepresentations34 of the real wishes of the American people, prevented these hopes. they had then only to look forward to your return for such information either through the Executive, or from yourself, as might present35 to our view the other side of the medal. the dispatches of Oct. 22. 97. had presented one face. that information, to a certain degree, is now recieved & the public will see from your correspondence with Taleyrand that France, as you testify, ‘was sincere & anxious to obtain a reconciliation, not wishing us to break the British treaty, but only to give her equivalent stipulations, and in general was disposed to a liberal treaty.’36 and they will judge whether mr Pickering’s report shews37 an inflexible determination to believe no declarations the French government can make, nor any opinion which you, judging on the spot & from actual view, can give of their sincerity, and to meet their designs of peace with operations of war. the alien & sedition acts have already operated in the South as powerful sedatives of the XYZ. inflammation. in your quarter where violations of principle are either less regarded or more concealed, the direct tax is likely to have the same effect, & to excite enquiries into the object of the enormous expences & taxes we are bringing on. and your information supervening that we might have a liberal accomodation if we would, there can be little doubt of the reproduction of that general movement which had been changed for a moment by the dispatches of Oct. 22. and tho’ small checks & stops, like Logan’s pretended embassy, may be thrown in the way from time to time, & may a little retard it’s motion, yet the tide is already turned and will sweep before it all38 the feeble obstacles of art. the unquestionable republicanism of the American mind will break through the mist under which it has been clouded, and will oblige it’s agents to reform the principles & practices of their administration.39

You suppose that you have been abused by both parties, as far as has come to my knowledge you are misinformed. I have never seen or heard a sentence of blame uttered against you by the republicans, unless we were so to construe their wishes that you had more boldly cooperated in a project of a treaty, and would more explicitly state whether there was in your collegues that flexibility which persons earnest after peace would have practised? whether, on the contrary, their demeanor was not cold, reserved and distant at least, if not backward? and whether, if they had yielded to those informal conferences which Taleyrand seems to have courted, the liberal accomodation you suppose might not have been effected, even with their agency? your fellow citizens think they have a right to full information in a case of such great concernment to them. it is their sweat which is to earn all the expences of the war, and their blood which is to flow in expiation of the causes of it. it may be in your power to save them from these miseries by full communications and unrestrained details,40 postponing motives of delicacy to those of duty. it rests with you to come forward independantly, to take your stand on the high ground of your own character, to disregard calumny, and to be borne above it on the shoulders of your grateful fellow citizens, or to sink into the humble oblivion to which the Federalists (self-called)41 have secretly condemned you, and even to be happy if they will indulge you with oblivion while they have beamed on your collegues meridian splendor.42 pardon me, my dear Sir, if my expressions are strong. my feelings are so much more so, that it is with difficulty I reduce them even to the tone I use. if you doubt the dispositions towards you, look into the papers on both sides for the toasts which were given through all the states on the 4th. of July. you will there see whose hearts were with you, and whose were ulcerated against you. indeed as soon as it was known that you had consented to stay in Paris, there was no measure observed in the execrations of the war-party, they openly wished you might be guillotined, or sent to Cayenne, or any thing else: and these expressions were finally stifled43 from a principle of policy only, & to prevent you from being urged to a justification of yourself. from this principle alone proceeds the silence, & cold respect they observe towards you. still they cannot prevent at times the flames bursting from under the embers, as mr Pickering’s letters, report, & conversations testify as well as the indecent expressions respecting you indulged by some of them in the debate on these dispatches. these sufficiently shew that you are never more to be honoured or trusted by them, & that they wait to crush you for ever only till they can do it without danger to themselves.44

When I sat down to answer your letter, but two courses presented themselves. either to say nothing or every thing for half-confidences are not in my character. I could not hesitate which was due to you. I have unbosomed myself fully & it will certainly be highly gratifying if I recieve a like confidence from you. for even if we differ in principle more than I believe we do, you & I know too well the texture of the human mind, & the slipperiness of human reason, to consider differences of opinion otherwise than differences of form or feature. integrity of views, more than their soundness, is the basis of esteem. I shall follow your direction in conveying this by a private hand tho’ I know not as yet when one worthy of confidence will occur:45 & my trust in you leaves me without a fear that this letter, meant as a confidential communication46 of my impressions, may ever go out of your own hand, or be suffered in any wise to commit my name.47 indeed, besides the accidents which might happen to it even under your care, considering the accident of death to which yourself are liable, I think it safest to pray you, after reading it as often as you please to destroy at least the 2d. & 3d. leaves. the 1st. contains principles only, which I fear not to avow but the 2d. & 3d contain facts stated for your information, and which though sacredly conformable to my firm belief, yet would be galling to some, & expose me to illiberal attacks. I therefore repeat my prayer to burn the 2d. & 3d. leaves. and did we ever expect to see the day when, breathing nothing but sentiments of love to our country & it’s freedom & happiness, our correspondence must be as secret as if we were hatching it’s destruction! Adieu, my friend, and accept my sincere & affectionate salutations. I need not add my signature.48

Gerry did not reply to this letter until January 1801. recent expressions of mutual confidence between TJ and Gerry preceding the latter’s journey to France included nine letters they exchanged between 27 Mch. and 6 July 1797 (see Vol. 29:326–7, 355–6, 361–6, 387, 398–9, 402, 448–9, 475–6). Their last previous correspondence had been a letter from TJ to Gerry of 26 Feb. 1793.

See 4 June 1798 for TJ’s certificate for George Logan.

For Francis dana’s resignation as envoy to France, or more properly his declining the nomination, and Adams’s appointment of Gerry in his place, see Senate Resolution on Appointment of Charles C. Pinckney, [5 June 1797]. The dispatches of Oct. 22. prepared by your collegue Marshall were the reports from Marshall, Pinckney, and Gerry, dated 22 Oct. 1797 through 8 Jan. 1798, released to Congress in April 1798 (see TJ to John Wayles Eppes, 11 Apr., and Monroe to TJ, 4 May 1798).


Elbridge Gerry’s Objections to the Constitution

I expected e’er this to have been in Massachusetts but am detained here longer than I expected—I inclose some papers on the subject of the Constitution to be reprinted if you think it convenient. I know not who the authors are of the anonymous pieces & it is a Matter of no consequence to the public, the Sentiments are in many respects just. My opinion with respect to the proposed constiution, is, that if adopted it will lay the foundation of a Government of force & fraud, that the people will bleed with taxes at every pore, & that the existence of their liberties will soon be terminated. The wealth of the Continent will be collected in Pennsylvania, where the Seat of the federal Government is proposed to be, & those who will use the greatest address in obtaining an acceptance of this despotic System, will hereafter scourge the people for their folly in adopting it.

I shall submit on my return, or by Letter, if I should not leave this City in a few Days, my Resons to the legislature for dissenting from the Convention, & shall write them by post a short Letter to this effect—

P.S. As the object of the Supporters of the Constitution, is to carry it thro by Surprize, it is hoped that the Legislature of Massachuesetts will not propose a Convention till the next Session, & thus give to the people an opportunity to consider of the Constiution before they are called on to adopt it—Colo R H Lee informs me, the Judges, all the Bar, & some many of the principle Gentlemen of Virginia are high against this System—

Elbridge Gerry to the General Court, New York, 18 October

I have the honor to inclose, pursuant to my Commission, the constitution proposed by the federal Convention.

To this system I gave my dissent, & shall submit my objections to the honorable Legislature.

It was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable Members who signed the constitution: but conceiving as I did, that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it—

My principal objections to the plan, are that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the People—that they have no security for the right of election—that some of the powers of the Legislature are ambiguous, & others indefinite & dangerous—that the executive is blended with & will have an undue influence over the legislature—that the Judicial department will be oppressive—that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the president with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the Senate—& that the System is without the Security of a Bill of rights, these are objections which are not local, but apply equally to all the States—

As the Convention was called for “the sole & express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, & reporting to Congress & the several Legislatures such alterations & provisions as shall render the federal constiution adequate to the exigencies of Government, & the preservation of the union,” I did not conceive that these powers extended to the formation of the plan proposed, but the Convention being of a different opinion, I acquiesced in it, being fully convinced that to preserve the union, an efficient Government was indispensibly necessary & that it would be difficult to make proper amendments to the articles of confederation.

The Constitution proposed has few, if any federal features, but is rather a system of national government: nevertheless, in many respects I think it has great merit, & by proper amendments, may be adapted to the “exigencies of Government” & preservation of Liberty.

The question on this plan involves others of the highest importance. 1st Whether there shall be a dissolution of the federal Government? 2dly Whether the several State Governments shall be so altered, as in effect to be dissolved? And 3dly Whether in lieu of the federal & state Governments, the national constiution now proposed shall be substituted without amendment? 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 ensue. It is evident therefore that they should not be precipitate in their decissions that the subject should be well understood, lest they should refuse to support the Government, after having hastily accepted it.

If those who are in favor of the Constitution, as well as those who are against it, should preserve moderation, their discussions may afford much information & finally direct to any happy issue.

It may be urged by some, that an implicit confidence should be placed in the Convention: but however respectable the members may be who signed the constiution, it must be admitted, that a free people are the proper Guardians of their rights & liberties—that the greatest men may err—& that their errors are sometimes, of the greatest magnitude.

Others may suppose, that the constitution may be safely adopted, because therein provision is made to amend it: but cannot this object be better attained before a ratification than after it? And should a free people, adopt a form of Government, under conviction that it wants amendment?

And some may conceive, that if the Plan is not accepted by the people they will not unite in another: but surely whilst they have the power to amend, they are not under the necessity of rejecting it.

I have been detained here longer than I expected, but shall leave this place in a day or two for Massachusetts to support that which shall be finally adopted, sincerely hoping it will secure the Liberty & happiness of America.

I have the Honor to be Gentlemen with the highest respect for the honorable Legislature & yourselves, you most obedt & very hum servt E Gerry


Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry was born on July 17, 1744 at Marblehead, Massachusetts, the third son of Thomas Gerry and Elizabeth Greenleaf. Elbridge’s father, Captain Thomas Gerry, was born in 1702 and came to America in 1730 from Newton Abbott, Devonshire, England. He was master of his own vessel and became a wealthy and

Wife – Ann Thompson
(died 1849)

politically active merchant shipper. Thomas was a pillar of the Marblehead community, serving as a justice of the peace, selectman and as moderator of the town meeting. On December 16, 1734 he married Elizabeth Greenleaf, the daughter of a Boston merchant. The Gerry family was pious, faithfully attending the First Congregational Church and avoiding ostentatious display.

Gerry’s great-great-grandfather, Edmond Greenleaf, was born in Malden, England, came to America in 1635 and settled in Newbury. He and his family removed to Boston in 1650. One of his descendants was the famous New England poet, John Greenleaf Whittier.

Little is known of the childhood of Elbridge Gerry. He entered Harvard College at the age of 14 and graduated in 1762, ranking 29th in a class of 52. Elbridge went on to receive a Master’s degree in 1765 at the age of 20. His Master’s dissertation argued that America should resist the recently passed Stamp Act.

Upon graduation Elbridge entered his father’s counting house. The Gerrys owned their own vessels and shipped dried codfish to the Barbados and Spanish Ports, and returned with bills of exchange and goods. He eventually became one of the wealthiest and most enterprising merchants in Marblehead. The Encyclopedia of American Wealth ranks Gerry 11th in wealth among the 56 signers of the Declaration.

Gerry’s first venture into politics occurred in 1770 when he served on a local committee to enforce the ban on the sale and consumption of tea. In December 1771 his father Thomas Gerry moderated a meeting in Marblehead of the new Committee of Correspondence to discuss the resolves put forward by Samuel Adams. Elbridge joined his father there and helped craft the fiery resolves that were adopted. In May 1772 Elbridge was elected representative to the General Court and met Sam Adams, with whom he immediately bonded. When Parliament closed the port of Boston in June 1774, Marblehead became a major port of entry for goods and supplies, which Gerry then transported to Boston. Mercy Otis Warren stated that Gerry coordinated the procurement and distribution of arms and provisions with “punctuality and indefatigable industry.”

In 1774 Gerry was appointed to the Provincial Congress where he was appointed to the Executive Committee of Safety. On the famous night of April 18, 1775, when Paul Revere rode into history and poetry, Gerry and two American colonels were in bed at the Menotomy Tavern, after a meeting there of the Committee of Safety. The Tavern was on the road which the British took to Lexington. When a detachment of redcoats stopped to search the house, Gerry and his companions escaped in their night clothes and hid in a nearby cornfield.

During the remainder of 1775 Gerry remained in Boston, helping to raise troops and supplies for the Provincial army. Gerry submitted a proposal in the Provincial Congress for a law to encourage the fitting out of armed vessels and to provide for the adjudication of prizes. For a colony to authorize such an act was rebellious if not treasonable. John Adams pronounced this law one of the most important measures of the Revolution. Under its provisions, Massachusetts vessels captured a number of British ships, procuring cargoes and supplies needed by the colonies.

Elbridge Gerry was elected a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and took his seat there on February 9, 1776. Gerry’s efforts to persuade delegates from the middle colonies to support independence, earned praise from John Adams: “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.” Gerry voted for independence on July 2, and signed the engrossed copy of the Declaration of Independence on September 3.

Gerry was re-elected to Congress in 1777 and signed America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, on November 15, 1777. He was one of only 16 members of Congress who signed both the Declaration and the Articles. Gerry remained in Congress, technically speaking, until 1785. However, in 1780 he was offended by actions that he felt impinged on states’ rights and withdrew from Congress. He resumed his seat in 1783. During his time in Congress he earned the nickname “soldiers’ friend” for his advocacy of better pay and equipment, and was recognized as a diligent legislator.

But he was also viewed as a maverick by some. Adams criticized him for his “obstinacy that will risk great things to secure small ones,” and Secretary Thomson observed that “his pleasure seems proportioned to the absurdity of his schemes.” Along with his friend Robert Treat Paine Gerry supported resolutions against theatrical entertainment and horse racing, and those favoring days of fasting, humiliation and prayer.

After leaving Congress, Elbridge Gerry married Ann Thompson on January 12, 1786 and they had nine children. Ann was the daughter of New York merchant James Thompson and Catharine Walton. Ann’s grandfather, Jacob Walton, first married Maria Beekman and later Polly Cruger. Both wives were members of distinguished colonial families in New York. In the same year 1786 Gerry acquired the Cambridge home of a former loyalist official and Harvard graduate, and moved his family there from Marblehead. The Gerrys called this their home until the death of Elbridge in 1814. Ann Thompson lived until 1849, becoming the oldest surviving widow of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She is buried in the Old Cemetery in New Haven, Connecticut.

Gerry home in Cambridge (later known as Elmwood)

In 1786 Gerry took his seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and in 1787 he attended the Federal Convention in Philadelphia that produced the new Constitution of the United States. At first he advocated a strong central national government, but then changed his mind as the form of the Constitution developed. He believed that both the executive and legislative branches of government were granted ambiguous and dangerous powers, and he refused to sign the Constitution. Gerry published his anti-Federalist beliefs in Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions.

Overcoming his objections to the Constitution, Gerry served in the House of Representatives from 1789 to 1793. To the dismay of his anti-federalist friends, he supported the Federalist agenda, including Hamilton’s proposals to fund the War debt and establish a national bank.

On June 20, 1797, President John Adams sent Gerry along with Charles Pinckney and John Marshall to France, to negotiate a peace treaty with Talleyrand, Napoleon’s new foreign minister. The mission was a disaster, with the French trying to bribe the American commissioners, and came to be known as the XYZ affair with the letters representing the three chief French bribers. Finally the Treaty of Mortefontaine was completed in 1800, and is considered a great achievement by the Adams administration in keeping the United States neutral in the expanding war between Britain and France.

In 1800, maligned by federalists who believed him partial to France, and concerned about the likelihood of Alexander Hamilton becoming General of the army, Gerry joined the moderate wing of the Republican party. He ran for Governor of Massachusetts, a strong Federalist stronghold, in the early 1800s but was unsuccessful.

In 1810 Gerry ran again as the Democratic-Republican candidate and was elected governor of Massachusetts. He was re-elected in 1811, but was defeated in 1812. He had become unpopular after supporting a redistricting bill that gained him lasting fame. By rearranging voting districts around Amesbury and Haverhill to favor the Republicans, the resulting district resembled a salamander, thus earning the famous sobriquet of a “gerrymander.” He also prosecuted Federalist editors for libel and appointed family members to state office—both adding to his unpopularity.

Two weeks after Gerry was defeated in his re-election bid in Massachusetts, he was invited to run as Vice President with President Madison in 1812, and thus became Vice President of the United States. The Madison administration became increasingly unpopular during the War of 1812 and the controversy split the Republican majority in Congress. Gerry found it increasingly difficult to remain impartial in such a highly charged environment, but continued to be an energetic defender of the administration and the war.

Unpleasant as his Senate duties had become, Gerry still enjoyed the endless round of dinners, receptions, and entertainments that crowded his calendar. With his elegant manners and personal charm, the vice president was a favorite guest of Washington’s Republican hostesses, including first lady Dolley Madison. He maintained an active social schedule that belied his advanced years and failing health, visiting friends from his earlier days who were now serving as members of Congress or in the administration. He paid special attention to Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, the American-born sister-in-law of Napoleon, whose revealing attire caused a stir wherever she went.

On November 23, 1814 Elbridge Gerry died on his way to preside over the Senate in Washington, D.C. Congress paid for his burial expenses, but the partisan House rejected a Senate bill providing the vice president’s salary to be paid to his widow for the remainder of his term.

Gerry’s monument in the Congressional Cemetery at Washington, D.C. bears this inscription:

The Tomb of
ELBRIDGE GERRY
Vice President of the United States
Who died suddenly in this city on his
way to the Capitol, as President of the Senate
November 23, 1814,
Aged 70

Elbridge Gerry was a small, dapper gentleman possessed of pleasant manners, but never very popular because of his aristocratic traits. He had no sense of humor, frequently changed his mind on important issues, and was suspicious of the motives of others. But he was a conscientious businessman who paid attention to detail. His patriotism and integrity could never be questioned.

While Gerry’s actions can be considered those of a maverick, they can also be viewed as those of a man of principle with independence of thought and action independent of party influence. He signed the Declaration and the Articles of Confederation but vigorously opposed the Constitution. He then served in Congress where he supported Alexander Hamilton’s federalist agenda ensuring the future financial security of the young republic. He became a Republican in 1800, lost several contests for Governor of Massachusetts. But he was elected Madison’s Vice President, and stayed loyal to him when the majority of the Republicans split off over Madison’s handling of the war.

Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote that he was “a genuine friend of republican forms of government.” One of Gerry’s own statements was “I hold it to be the duty of every citizen, though he may have but one day to live, to devote the day to the good of his country.”

The Georgian style Cambridge home of Elbridge Gerry, from 1786 to his death in 1814, has a long and distinguished Harvard pedigree. It stands today at the end of a newly-created dead-end road, a half mile from the Harvard campus. Except for a brief period during the revolutionary era the house has been the home since 1767 of Harvard graduates, professors and presidents. The house was built in 1767 by Andrew Oliver, Harvard class of 1753, a former stamp-collector then serving as royal secretary of Massachusetts. Surrounded in his home by an angry crowd in 1774, Oliver resigned his office and soon after left for England. Oliver’s home was confiscated during the revolution and served as a field hospital for Washington’s troops and then the command post of Benedict Arnold.

Gerry, Harvard class of 1762, purchased the house in 1787 and moved his family there from Marblehead. Not long after Gerry’s death in 1814, Harvard graduate James Russell Lowell, who would become a distinguished man of letters and an accomplished diplomat, was born in the house and it became his lifelong home. He named it Elmwood and it became a National Historic Landmark. Harvard University acquired Elmwood in 1962 and it has been the home of Harvard’s president since 1971.


Descriptions of Elbridge Gerry

John Adams, Autobiography, February 1776

Mr. Gerry was chosen [as a delegate to Congress], who went with me to Philadelphia, and We took our Seats in Congress on Friday 9 February 1776. In this Gentleman I found a faithful Friend, and an ardent persevering Lover of his Country, who never hesitated to promote with all his abilities and Industry the boldest measures reconcilable with prudence.

John Adams to James Warren, 15 July 1776

The News, you will learn from my very worthy Friend Gerry. He is obliged to take a Ride for his Health, as I shall be very soon or have none. God grant he may recover it for he is a Man of immense Worth. If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.

Charles Thomson to Hannah Thomson, 20 October 1783

. . . though he is far from being distinguished for his talents in Oratory, and cannot boast of the thunder of his voice, the harmony of his periods or any of those high strokes of eloquence which transport and captivate the hearers, nor of a just arrangement of arguments or soft insinuating address which commands the attention of an Audience and leads them insensibly and almost involuntarily to the point he means to carry, yet with his feeble voice and uncouth delivery broken and interrupted with many a heck & hem & repetition of ofs & ands he assumed such a superiority over [his opponents].

John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, 6 May 1785

I promise myself from Mr. Gerry’s Attendance in Congress all those changes for the better in the Management of the general Affairs of the Union, which I have often seen proceed from the Clearness of his Head and the goodness of his heart. I know of scarcely any Man of more Address, more Industry or Perseverance. He never appeared in Congress without a great Influence. He deserves to stand higher in the Estimation of Massachusetts than he has appeared to me at this distance to stand. He has merited more of that State than I am afraid they know of.

William Pierce, “Character Sketches”, 1787

Mr. Gerry’s character is marked for integrity and perseverance. He is a hesitating and laborious speaker possesses a great degree of confidence and goes extensively into all subjects that he speaks on, without respect to elegance or flower of diction. He is connected and sometimes clear in his arguments, conceives well, and cherishes as his first virtue, a love for his Country. Mr. Gerry is very much of a Gentleman in his principles and manners—he has been engaged in the mercantile line and is a Man of property. He is about 37 years of age.

Unknown to Thomas Jefferson, 11 October 1787

After four months session the house [i.e., the Constitutional Convention] broke up. The represented states, eleven & a half, having unanimously agreed to the act handed to you, there were only three dissenting voices one from New England, a man of sense, but a Grumbletonian. He was of service by objecting to every thing he did not propose.

Benjamin Goodhue to Samuel Phillips, 11 August 1789

Gerry . . . has as high notions of profusive grants as any person I ever knew, and has manifested such an illiberal and ugly a disposition since he has been in Congress that I believe no man has fewer friends than Mr. Gerry.

Abigail Adams to Cotton Tufts, 1 September 1789

Mr. G —- What can I say. You see him always in the minority, you see him very frequently wrong and the poor man looks ghastly. I believe he is worried, mortified and quite in the horrors. A constant correspondent of W[arre]n and his Wife, all of whom see nothing but ruin & destruction before them, & who will again Set our State by the ears if possible. Watch them closely.

John Adams to Abigail Adams, 21 June 1795

One of the Company expressed such Inveteracy against my old Friend Gerry that I could not help taking up his Vindication. The future Election of a Governor, in Case of an empty Chair, excites Jealousy which I have long perceived. These Things will always be so. Gerry’s Merit is inferior to that of no Man in Massachusetts, except the present Governor [i.e., Samuel Adams], according to My Ideas and Judgment of Merit. I wish he was more enlarged however and more correct in his Views. He never was one of the threads tyed into the knot, and was never popular with that Sett.

William Vans Murray to John Quincy Adams, 13 April 1798

Though I know that he is a very well informed one upon Congress business, and of a most friendly turn of heart, good husband, father and neighbor, yet I know him so well as to say that of all men I know in America he is perhaps the least qualified to play a part in Paris, either among the men or the women. He is too virtuous for the last, too little acquainted with the world and with himself for the first, and could do no possible good but in a relative character as one of three envoys.

Benjamin Rush, Sketches-c. 1800

He was a respectable young merchant, of a liberal education, and considerable knowledge. He was slow in his perceptions and in his manner of doing business, and stammering in his speech, but he knew and embraced truth when he saw it. He had no local or state prejudices. Every part of his conduct in 1775, 1776, and 1777 indicated him to be a sensible, upright man, and a genuine friend to republican forms of government.

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 21 May 1812

Though Mr. Gerry is not too old for the most arduous Service, he is one of the earliest and oldest Legislators in the Revolution and has devoted himself, his fortune and his family in the Service of his Country.


To Elbridge Gerry

Your favor of the 4th. inst. came to hand yesterday. That of the 4th. of Apr. with the one for Monroe has never been recieved. The first of the 27th. of March did not reach me till Apr. 21. when I was within a few days of setting out for this place, and I put off acknoleging it till I should come here. I entirely commend your dispositions towards Mr. Adams, knowing his worth as intimately, and esteeming it as much, as any one, and acknoleging the preference of his claims, if any I could have had, to the high office conferred on him. But in truth I had neither claims nor wishes on the subject, tho’ I know it will be difficult to obtain belief of this. When I retired from this place and the office of Secretary of state, it was in the firmest contemplation of never more returning here. There had indeed been suggestions in the public papers that I was looking towards a succession to1 the President’s chair. But feeling a consciousness of their falsehood, and observing that the suggestions came2 from hostile quarters, I considered them as intended merely to excite public odium against me. I never in my life3 exchanged a word with any person on the subject till I found my name brought forward generally4 in competition with that of Mr. Adams. Those with whom I then communicated could say, if it were necessary, whether I met the call with desire or even with a ready acquiescence, and whether from the moment of my first acquiescence I did not devoutly pray that the very thing might happen which has happened.5 The second office of this government is honorable and easy. The first is but a splendid misery.6 You express apprehensions that stratagems will be used to produce a misunderstanding between the President and myself. Tho’ not a word having this tendency has ever been hazarded to me by any one, yet I consider as a certainty that nothing will be left untried to alienate him from me. These machinations will proceed from the Hamiltonians by whom he is surrounded,7 and who are only a little less hostile to him than to me. It cannot but damp the pleasure of cordiality when we suspect that it is suspected. I cannot help fearing that it is impossible for Mr. Adams to believe that the state of my mind is what it really is that he may think I view him as an obstacle in my way. I have no supernatural power to impress truth on the mind of another,8 nor he any to discover that the estimate which he may form on a just view of the human mind as generally constituted, may not be just in it’s application to a special constitution. This may be a source of private uneasiness to us. I honestly confess that it is so to me at this time. But neither of us are capable of letting it have effect on our public duties.9 Those who may endeavor to separate us, are probably excited by the fear that I might have influence on the executive councils. But when they shall know that I consider my office as constitutionally confined to legislative functions, and that I could not take any part whatever in executive consultations, even were it proposed, their fears may perhaps subside, and their object be found not worth a machination. I do sincerely wish with you that we could take our stand on a ground perfectly neutral and independant towards all nations. It has been my constant object through public life and with respect to the English and French particularly, I have too often expressed to the former my wishes, and made to them propositions verbally and in writing, officially and privately, to official and private characters, for them to doubt of my views, if they would be content with equality.10 Of this they are in possession of several written and formal proofs, in my own handwriting. But they have wished a monopoly of commerce and influence with us. And they have in fact obtained it. When we take notice that theirs is the workshop to which we go for all we want, that with them center either immediately or ultimately all the labors of our hands and lands,11 that to them belongs either openly or secretly the great mass of our navigation, that even the factorage of their affairs here is kept to themselves by factitious citizenships, that these foreign and12 false citizens now constitute the great body of what are called13 our merchants , fill our seaports, are planted in every little town and district of the interior country, sway every thing in the former place by their own votes and those of their dependants,14 in the latter by their insinuations and the influence of their ledgers,15 that they are advancing fast to a monopoly of our banks and public funds, and thereby placing our public finances under their controul,16 that they have in their alliance the most influential characters in and out of office, when they have shewn that by all these bearings on the differenct branches of the government they can force it to proceed in any direction they dictate, and bend the interests of this country entirely to the will of another,17 when all this I say is attended to, it is impossible for us to say we stand on independant ground,18 impossible for a free19 mind not to see and to groan under the bondage in which it is bound.20 If any thing after this could excite surprise, it would be that21 they have been able so far to throw dust into the eyes of our own citizens as to fix on those who wish merely to recover self-government the charge of sub-serving one foreign influence, because they resist submission to another. But they possess our printing presses,22 a powerful engine in their government of us. At this very moment they would have drawn us into war on the side of England23 had it not been for the failure of her bank. Such was their open and loud cry and that of their gazettes till this event. After plunging us in all the broils of the European nations, there would remain but one act to close our tragedy, that is, to break up our union: and even this they have24 ventured seriously and solemnly to propose and maintain by argument,25 in a Connecticut paper. I have been happy however in believing, from the stifling of this effort that that dose was found too strong, and26 excited as much repugnance there as it did horror in other parts of our country,27 and that whatever follies we may be led into as to foreign nations, we shall never give up our union, the last anchor of our hope, and that alone which is to prevent this heavenly country from becoming an arena of gladiators. Much as I abhor war, and view it as the greatest scourge of mankind, and anxiously as I wish to keep out of the broils of Europe, I would yet go with my brethren into these rather than separate from them.28 But I hope29 we may still keep clear of them, notwithstanding our present thraldom, and that time may be given us to reflect30 on the awful crisis we have passed through, and to find some means of shielding ourselves in future from foreign influence, commercial, political, or in whatever other form it may be attempted.31 I can scarcely withold myself from joining in the wish of Silas Deane that there were an ocean of fire between us and the old world. A perfect confidence that you are as much attached to peace and union as myself, that you equally prize independance of all nations and the blessings of self government, has induced me freely to unbosom myself to you, and let you see the light in which I have viewed what has been passing among us from the beginning of this war. And I shall be happy at all times in an intercommunication of sentiments with you, believing that the dispositions of the different parts of our country have been considerably misrepresented and misunderstood in each part as to the other,32 and that nothing but good can result from an exchange of opinions and information33 between those whose circumstances and morals admit no doubt of34 the integrity of their views. I remain with constant & sincere esteem Dear Sir Your affectionate friend & servt

The hints of disunion in a Connecticut paper were contained in two pseudonymous letters which appeared in the Connecticut Courant in November and December 1796. The letters’ author, “Pelham,” suggested that the North should consider separating from the states south of the Potomac, citing differences between the regions and calling particular attention to the political advantage given to the South by the three-fifths clause of the United States Constitution, which counted that ratio of the slave population for purposes of representation. The suggestion elicited strong responses both in New England and in other parts of our country (Hartford Connecticut Courant , 21 Nov., 12 Dec. 1796 Stewart, Opposition Press description begins Donald H. Stewart, The Opposition Press of the Federalist Period , Albany, 1969 description ends , 348–50).


Elbridge Gerry and the Original Gerrymander

Elbridge Gerry—signer of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Constitutional Convention (follow the links to documents by and about Gerry in the Gilder Lehrman Collection), congressman, diplomat, governor, and vice president—had a distinguished political career, but his legacy largely rests on one word: gerrymander.

Gerrymander refers to the act of manipulating the borders of a voting district to favor one party. This often results in serpentine, labyrinthine districts. The practice of gerrymandering has persisted with no clear rules on what constitutes acceptable versus illegal and overly partisan redistricting. This may change in October, when the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in Gill v. Whitford on the constitutionality of a redrawn district in Wisconsin. But where does the term—and the practice—originate?

In 1812, Massachusetts Democratic-Republicans drew up a plan for new voting districts to retain control of the state senate in upcoming elections. Governor Gerry, a Democratic-Republican, found the plan "disagreeable" but reluctantly signed it. The plan was mocked by the Boston Gazette, which depicted an affected district in Gerry’s home county of Essex as a salamander, calling it "The Gerry-mander." The plan, though criticized, worked as intended. In the 1812 election, the Democratic-Republicans retained control of the state senate with 29 seats to the Federalists’ 11, although the party lost control of the state house of representatives, and Gerry lost his reelection bid.

Perhaps ironically, Gerry spent most of his political career as a moderate nonpartisan, viewing the growing political divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans with distaste and preferring to follow his own principles rather than those of either party. He refused to sign the US Constitution in 1787 on the grounds that it had no bill of rights, and then joined with anti-Federalists to pass the Bill of Rights in Congress. However, he went on to support the economic policies of Federalist Alexander Hamilton and served as a diplomat to France under Federalist president John Adams. It was only after Federalists blamed the XYZ Affair on Gerry’s actions as a diplomat that he formally joined the Democratic-Republicans.


Elbridge Gerry’s Monster Salamander that Swallows Votes

As Americans prepare to vote in local and state elections on Election Day, tens of thousands--even millions--will find their votes chewed, swallowed, and discarded by a monstrous &ldquosalamander&rdquo&mdashthe two-hundred-year-old creation of Founding Father Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.

Gerry created the metaphorical salamander to reshape voting districts and ensure his own election and re-election and that of loyal political office holders. The son of a wealthy merchant in Marblehead, Mass., Gerry used his salamander in the 1812 national election, when his friend James Madison announced for the presidency and asked Gerry to run for vice president.

To ensure his victory, Gerry slick-talked a majority of his state&rsquos legislators into redrawing the state&rsquos voting-district boundaries. By extending borders of one district to incorporate larger numbers of opposition voters from neighboring districts, redistricting left selected districts with voter majorities that favored Gerry and ensured his election as America&rsquos fifth vice president

A Boston Centinal cartoonist drew a caricature of what he called the state&rsquos &ldquogerrymandered&rdquo districts, with the overpopulated district that opposed Gerry depicted as a monstrous salamander.

A Boston Centinal cartoon in March 1812 shows then-Governor Elbridge Gerry&rsquos creation

of a new salamander-shaped political district that he had &ldquogerrymandered&rdquo to favor his political party.

Gerry&rsquos &ldquosalamander&rsquo undermined what most Americans believed had been one goal of the American Revolution&mdashelimination of England&rsquos pocket boroughs and rotten boroughs that gave a handful of English noblemen out-sized voting control of Britain&rsquos Parliament. Gerry, however, had not served in the military during the Revolutionary War. Like many signers of the Declaration of Independence, Gerry had supported independence to protect his family&rsquos wealth against British taxation&mdashnot to give Americans universal voting privileges.

When the war erupted in Boston, Gerry smuggled food supplies into the city to offset British Army efforts to starve Bostonians for opposing British rule, but he earned handsome profits from the sale of those good&mdashas did other American merchants such as John Hancock and Robert Morris. Few, if any, thought ill of profiting from the war. When polemicist Thomas Paine objected in Congress, Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris retorted, &ldquoBy becoming a delegate [in the Continental Congress]&hellipI did not relinquish my right of forming mercantile connections.&rdquo

With American independence, Gerry refused to sign the Constitution, arguing that executive power over the army gave the president the potential to become a despot. Married and father of thirteen children by then, he told Congress a President with control of a standing army was like &ldquoa standing penis: An excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.&rdquo

With ratification of the Constitution, Gerry ran for and won election to America&rsquos First Congress, where he joined Virginia&rsquos James Madison in winning passage of a Bill of Rights that limited federal government powers to curtail certain individual rights, such as free speech, free press, and the right to assembly.

After two terms in Congress, Gerry served as a diplomat in Paris before becoming governor of his state and then vice president. He died in November 1814, leaving as his principle legacy the powerful and dangerous political weapon of &ldquogerrymandering.&rdquo

For more than a century since the Civil War, each political party in almost every state has used and continues to use gerrymandering to strip millions of their voting powers. Leaders in every southern state&mdashDemocrats and Republicans alike--gerrymandered for the sole purpose of depriving African-Americans of political influence in local, state, and federal elections. Apart from the impact of racial exclusion in local and state elections, gerrymandering has sent two candidates with fewer votes than their opponents to the White House. Indeed, Donald J. Trump lost the popular vote by an astounding total of more than three million votes, but gerrymandering ensured him 304 of the 538 Electoral College Votes and the presidency of the United States.

In state after state across America, each political party with a legislative majority is now trying to gerrymander to perpetuate its political power. Only a court decision blocked the most recent effort by North Carolina Republicans, and it was not too long ago that voters across the South needed more than five years of massive popular uprisings, rioting, and the lives of men, women, and children to lop off the head of Gerry&rsquos monstrous salamander.

Some gerrymandering of sorts often occurs naturally, without the machinations of scheming politicians. The depopulation of farm areas in many states has given remaining land owners of such districts far more voting clout than voters in heavily populated cities.

The beast will continue to regenerate, therefore, until states or the federal government kill it with legislation that imposes lower limits on district population as a percentage of state population to qualify as an election district.


Watch the video: Dead, White u0026 Blue Ep. 4: Elbridge Gerry