Little Bits of History

February 11

Posted in History by patriciahysell on February 11, 2017

1812: Elbridge Gerry signs a Massachusetts bill into law. He was born in 1744 in the then-colony of Massachusetts to a merchant shipping family in Marblehead. He was one of eleven children, five of which survived to adulthood. He entered Harvard College just before he turned fourteen and earned both a BA and MA there before joining his father in business. The family was one of the wealthiest merchants in Massachusetts by the 1770s and had connections in Spain, the West indies, and all along the North American coast. His father was active in local politics and part of the militia. Elbridge was a vocal opponent of Parliamentarians and British taxation. He was friends with Samuel Adams, John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and others who tried to halt British imports to the colony.

Gerry’s first political position was to the General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay – the legislative assembly of the colony. He was involved in many portions of the Revolutionary War and made a name for himself. He served on the Second Continental Congress and was influential in getting the United States Declaration of Independence signed. He was adamant about a strong separation of state and federal government bodies and was against the original version of the US Constitution, citing the lack of a Bill of Rights. His advocacy of both personal and state rights help gain him Anti-Federalist backing. He finally agreed to ratification of the Constitution as written as long as a Bill of Rights was added and gained more support. He was elected to the inaugural House of Representatives and served two terms.

Gerry was a Democratic-Republican and ran against Caleb Strong, a moderate Federalist. He lost his bid in 1803 and decided not to run in 1804 but to remain in semi-retirement. In 1807, James Sullivan won the governorship for his party but the Federalists retook the post in 1809 with Christopher Gore. Gerry beat Gore in 1810 by a narrow margin and again in 1811. Gerry’s first year as governor was less controversial because the Federalists controlled the state senate. Republicans took control of the legislative branch in 1811 and enacted many reforms. Caleb Strong came out of retirement to run against Gerry in the next election. And the senate wrote a bill to restructure voting districts. It was this bill that was signed on this day.

The restructuring of voting districts gave a clear advantage to the Democratic-Republican Party. When the newspapers printed out the new mapped areas, it was noted the contortions of districts in the Boston area looked rather like a salamander. The portmanteau word combining the Governor’s name with the amphibian has stuck and today gerrymandering takes place worldwide. Today, with all the data available from voter databases, the redistricting can be far more precise. The process still exists and it remains questionable. The redistricting cost Gerry his job but did help to stack the legislative arm of the state government with Democratic-Republicans.

Redistricting has made a tiny slice of ideological activists the power brokers in who gets sent to Congress.- Reuters

One of the reasons people hate politics is that truth is rarely a politician’s objective. Election and power are. – Cal Thomas

People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election. – Otto von Bismarck

The right of election is the very essence of the constitution. – Junius

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