Founding Fathers Friday: Elbridge Gerry

by Derrick G. Jeter

Elbridge Gerry was a fishmonger, and a very successful one at that. He oversaw a financially lucrative cod import business when he was elected to the Second Continental Congress. Slightly built and smartly dressed when he showed up in Philadelphia, Gerry oozed a bit of Harvard snobbishness.
Gerry, unlike his fellow delegates, however, did not sign the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. In fact, he asked John and Samuel Adams to sign his John Hancock on the document in his absence. They didn’t. So, sometime in the fall of 1776 Gerry signed his own name.
At end of the American Revolution, in 1787, Massachusetts sent him back to Philadelphia as a member of the Constitutional Convention. While there he took a decidedly Anti-Federalist (as one who opposed the proposed Constitution) position. As one member observed, Gerry “objected to everything he did not propose.” When the Constitution was passed, Gerry refused to sign because it lacked a Bill of Right.
Gerry had an illustrious beginning, as a signer of the Declaration, as a member of the convention that created the Constitution, and eventually as James Madison’s vice president. But he is best known for his political shenanigans.
As the governor of Massachusetts—a election he lost four times in a row before securing the statehouse—Gerry supported a plan intending to redraw state senate voting districts which favored his party, the Republican-Democrats. A political cartoonist, thinking one of the districts looked similar to a salamander, published a cartoon that elicited hoots and hollers from citizens. The meandering salamander-like voting district was quickly dubbed “gerrymandering”—a practice alive and well even today.
When the voters saw the salamander-like district, they decided that Gerry needed to lose one more gubernatorial election. So, in 1812 Gerry was thrown out of the Massachusetts statehouse and landed in the White House, as James Madison’s vice president. In 1814 Gerry was in his carriage on his way to the U.S. Capitol when he suddenly died of a lung hemorrhage.
The once wealthy congressman, at the beginning of the nation, was now, at the end of his life, a virtual pauper. For too many years Gerry neglected his finances, leaving his family nearly destitute. They couldn’t even pay for his funeral. Congress stepped in and appropriated the money to cover the burial expenses.
Gerry was an early version of the politician we’ve come to know and loath. But at sometime in his past, and at least for a brief shining moment, he rose above party politics and uttered a line that all should adopt. It graces his grave: “It is the duty of every citizen, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.”