Political accusations of gerrymandering of voting districts in North Carolina, Texas and other states are again tarnishing the name of one of America’s Founding Fathers — Elbridge Gerry.
In North Carolina last week, the GOP-controlled state legislature approved new political boundaries that the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project says would give Republicans a “significant advantage.” Although the state’s vote has been nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats in recent years, the new map is expected to favor Republicans in 10 or 11 out of the state’s 14 congressional districts.
In Texas and Colorado, Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to reshape political boundaries to reduce the power of Latinos, who tend to vote Democratic. In Illinois, Republicans contend Democrats are remapping districts unfairly to their advantage. In Virginia, a bipartisan redistricting commission is deadlocked along party lines over proposals to end gerrymandering.
That term was coined in early 1812 after Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, reluctantly approved an oddly shaped new state Senate district drawn to favor his Democratic-Republican Party. On March 26, the Boston Gazette, a Federalist newspaper, published a cartoon showing the new district as a giant monster with wings, claws and a scary dragon head.
The Gazette said that because the new district’s elongated shape resembled a salamander, the creature was called a “Gerry-Mander.”
The name caught on immediately as a synonym for partisan redistricting, a practice that had been around since the first days of the Republic. Initially, it was pronounced like Gerry’s name with a hard “g,” but “Gary”-mander soon evolved to “Jerry”-mander.
Over the years, various people were credited with drawing the monstrous Senate district that brought Gerry eternal infamy. Some cited Gilbert Stuart, the artist famed for his iconic painting of George Washington and a Boston resident. In 1892, Boston historian John Ward Dean, writing in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, concluded that the true account of the district’s origin was written in 1873 by inventor Samuel Batchelder of Cambridge, Mass.
Batchelder wrote that the journalist Nathan Hale had drawn the geographical map of the revamped district, which ran from Boston nearly to the New Hampshire border, and published it in his Boston Weekly Messenger newspaper on March 16, 1812. At a dinner party in the home of “an eminent merchant of the day in Boston,” Batchelder wrote, the Hale map was put on display. “The form of the district was a subject of remark, and it was said that it resembled some horrible animal, and only wanted wings to a make a frightful political dragon.”
According to Batchelder, artist Elkanah Tisdale “took his pencil and sketched wings, and there was a discussion about the name, some suggesting that of Salamander.” Another guest, poet Richard Alsop, called it a Gerrymander, “which was adopted.” The Tisdale etching appeared first in the Gazette and then in other Federalist newspapers around the country.
The Independent Chronicle, a Democratic-Republican newspaper, tried to turn the monster tables on the Federalists. The Federalists of Boston “drew their own portrait without intending it. They exposed at one view all their magnificent, venomous and lizard-like qualities,” the Chronicle wrote, adding that the monster should have been named the “Federal Gander.”
The redistricting produced mixed results in the state’s April election. Gerry’s Democratic-Republican Party did win the state Senate thanks to the reshaping of the former Federalist district. But the Federalists won the House, and Gerry lost reelection.
The Salem Gazette, a Federalist newspaper, then printed a drawing of the bones of the dead creature. “We announce in our paper of today, we confess with no regret, the Death of that far famed and ill-begotten Monster the Gerry-Mander.”
But the gerrymander wasn’t dead. Far from it. The term for political manipulation has lived on to this day. Meanwhile, most people have long forgotten the many accomplishments of the pejorative term’s namesake.
Gerry was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Another signer, rotund Benjamin Harrison V of Virginia, said jokingly to the scrawny Gerry, “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry, when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body, I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” (Harrison was the father of the ninth president, William Henry Harrison, and great-grandfather of the 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison.)
In 1787, Gerry was a member of the U.S. Constitutional Convention but refused to sign the initial Constitution because it didn’t have a Bill of Rights. As a congressman, he proposed creating the Library of Congress. In 1797, Elbridge was one of three U.S. diplomats in the “XYZ Affair” who rejected a demand by French agents that America pay a bribe to speak to France’s foreign minister about relations between the two countries.
Soon after losing reelection as Massachusetts governor in 1812, Gerry was elected vice president under President James Madison. He died in office in 1814 at age 70.
More than two centuries later, the Founding Father’s name pops up all the time in the news, but not for his work on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the Library of Congress, or for his integrity or his term as vice president. Recently, after seeing the redistricting map proposed by Democrats in the Illinois legislature, Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bost declared, “This map is a gerrymandered mess.”
Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to U.S. Rep. Mike Bost as a state representative. It also incorrectly said that Samuel Batchelder lived in Camden, Mass. He lived in Cambridge, Mass. The article has been corrected.