scorecardresearch Skip to main content

The Gerry behind gerrymandering

A painting of Elbridge Gerry, a former Massachusetts governor and American vice president.

In announcing it will consider Monday whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional, the Supreme Court has refocused attention on a 205-year-old practice with a Massachusetts backstory.

The birth of gerrymandering goes all the way back to 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a Marblehead native who was daunted by the rise of the opposing Federalist party, signed a now-infamous bill allowing his Democratic-Republican party to redraw state Senate districts to its advantage.

Local newspapers gleefully declared the practice dead just one year after Gerry signed the bill into law after his party’s attempt to edge out the opposition failed miserably. But the practice, of course, did not die, and has continued to be used across the nation, to the consternation of many.


Here’s a look at the man behind the practice.

— Gerry was the son of wealthy Boston merchants and started at Harvard when he was just 14. He was the father of 10 children.

— The term “gerrymander” is a portmanteau referring to a strangely shaped state Senate district that was created in Essex County as a result of the redistricting. The Boston Gazette published a cartoon comparing the shape to a salamander, and the name stuck.

—The term is probably an unfair one — there’s no evidence to support that Gerry authored or even vocally supported the redistricting law, and no one, including members of his own family, was able to clarify his own thoughts on his legacy.

— Although most remember Gerry for his role in redistricting, fewer know that he served as the fifth vice president of the United States, under James Madison, until Gerry’s death in 1814. He also signed the Declaration of Independence, but refused to sign the Constitution because it did not contain a Bill of Rights. He is the only signer of the Declaration to be buried in Washington, D.C.


— Gerry, who had been an influential figure during the Revolutionary War, was previously well-regarded by his peers. John Adams once wrote, “If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.”

Catie Edmondson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.