Elbridge Gerry was one of 12 children born to Thomas and Elizabeth Gerry. Little is known of his youth, from his birth on July 17, 1744, in Marblehead, Mass., to his 1758 entrance to Harvard College. Upon graduation in 1762, he entered his father's prosperous mercantile firm. He joined a Marblehead social group that became increasingly political as Massachusetts felt the impact of Britain's imperial policy. In 1765 Gerry argued publicly that Americans might in conscience evade the new Stamp Act duties. In 1770 he served on the local Committee of Inspection to enforce the boycott of the Townshend Act, and 2 years later he aided Sam Adams in setting up committees of correspondence. With John and Sam Adams, Gerry made up the patriot triumvirate in the Bay Colony.
Prelude to Revolution
Gerry early became militantly anti-British. He opposed British efforts to place judges out of reach of public control, to send Anglican bishops to America, and to enlarge the royal civil and military establishment in the Colonies. He was equally hostile to popular democracy: when Marble-head mobs in 1774 destroyed a local hospital he had helped establish, he denounced the "savage mobility" and withdrew from politics.
Gerry returned to public life when the Coercive Acts (1774) closed the port of Boston, and Marblehead became the port of entry for donations from other Colonies. He organized the relief effort and sought to prevent profiteering. He resumed his place on the local committee of correspondence and became one of the leading figures in the Provincial Congress. Active with John Hancock in collecting military stores, Gerry was almost captured by the British troops en route to Concord on April 18, 1775.
With the Revolutionary War under way, Gerry labored in the Second Continental Congress to prepare his colleagues for separation from Britain. He urged state taxes adequate to maintain a stable currency and preserve public credit and worked to create an effective military establishment, although he preferred a citizen militia in peacetime. He considered the new national government under the Articles of Confederation "the finishing stroke of our Independence."
In 1780 Gerry left Congress in a huff over what he considered an affront to his state and did not resume his seat until 1783. In the interim he tended to his personal fortune. He bought a large confiscated Tory estate in Cambridge and retired from active business. In 1786 he married Ann Thompson, daughter of a New York merchant.
At the Constitutional Convention (1787) Gerry favored congressional payment of the national debt and assumption of state debts. He expressed fears of excessive democracy and opposed popular election of Congress. But, equally fearful of aristocracy, he demanded annual elections, an enumeration of the powers of the national government, and, especially, a Bill of Rights. He refused to sign the Constitution and spoke vigorously against ratification in Massachusetts on the ground that without a safeguard such as a Bill of Rights, Federal government would eventually subvert republicanism. What Gerry sought was a workable balance between governmental power and popular liberty.
Despite his objections, Gerry accepted a seat in the Federal Congress in 1789, where he endorsed Alexander Hamilton's funding scheme, demanded full justice for the public creditors, and bought shares in the Bank of the United States. He returned to private life from 1793 until 1797, when President John Adams appointed him to a three-member delegation to France. Gerry was as shocked as his colleagues by the French government's demand for a bribe as a precondition for treaty negotiations. But, convinced that hostility between the two republics must be avoided, Gerry remained after his colleagues departed. Publication of the "XYZ" papers at home, while he was still attempting to negotiate with Talleyrand, damaged Gerry's reputation. However, Adams defended his conduct as opening the door to the later and more successful mission which produced the Franco-American Convention of 1800.
Governor and U.S. Vice President
Elected governor of Massachusetts in 1810, Gerry followed a moderate policy toward Federalist officeholders but later turned more partisan. In addition to large-scale replacement of Federalist by Republican officials, Gerry approved a bill in 1812 to redistrict the state so as to give Republicans disproportionate representation in the legislature. (The new shape of Essex County, roughly similar to a salamander, was caricatured by opponents with Gerry's profile at its head, thus coining the word "gerrymander.") In the 1812 election Gerry lost the governorship. He was made vice president under James Madison and held this post until his death on Nov. 23, 1814.
An early biography is by Gerry's son-in-law, James T. Austin, The Life of Elbridge Gerry, 2 vols. (1828-1829). It has been superseded by a modern scholarly biography by George A. Billias (see below). Two collections of source materials provide valuable information on Gerry's congressional career and the "XYZ" affair: Russell W. Knight, ed., Elbridge Gerry's Letterbook: Paris, 1797-1798 (1966), and C. Harvey Gardiner, ed., A Study in Dissent: The Warren-Gerry Correspondence, 1776-1792 (1968). Gerry's role in the "XYZ" affair is treated fully in Alexander De Conde, The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801 (1966). His activities in the Constitutional Convention are traced in Max Farrand, ed., Records of the Federal Convention, 4 vols. (1911-1937). A perceptive account of Gerry's career is Samuel E. Morison's essay, "Elbridge Gerry, Gentleman Democrat" (1929), which was republished in Morison's By Land and by Sea (1953).
Billias, George Athan, Elbridge Gerry, founding father and republican statesman, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. □
GERRY, ELBRIDGE. (1744–1814). Signer. Massachusetts. Born on 17 July 1744 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Gerry graduated from Harvard in 1762 and joined the family shipping business. Returning to Harvard to get his master's in 1765, he spoke out against British injustices in a college paper. As a merchant and businessman, he soon became wealthy and entered public life in 1772 as a representative in the general court. He met and came under the influence of Samuel Adams at this time, and also served on the Committee of Correspondence, writing the circular letter sent to the other provinces. In 1774 he was elected to the Massachusetts provincial congress, and was active over the next two years in the Committee of Safety and in gathering militia supplies, particularly when enforcement of the Boston Port Bill made Marblehead a leading port of entry. He was chairman of the Committee of Supply until 25 January 1776, when he was sent to the Continental Congress. There he sat on the financial and militia supply committees. He was an early advocate of independence and an eager signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation.
Alarmed by continuing inflation, Gerry proposed measures to halt the currency depreciation and served with Robert Morris on a committee to examine George Washington's plans for the 1777–1778 winter campaign. Their report showed dissatisfaction with the commander's vigor, and Gerry was an avowed supporter of General Thomas Conway. Gerry was not in favor of the French alliance. He supported Arthur Lee, believing that Benjamin Franklin had been corrupted by his stay in France. In 1780, as chairman of the treasury committee, he antagonized Benedict Arnold by examining his financial accounts. In February 1781 he resigned from Congress, charging that personal privilege and states' rights had been infringed upon. He then spent his time in trade and privateering.
Gerry was called to the state senate twice as joint representative, but accepted a seat in the lower house only. He returned to Congress in 1783 and was active in the peace negotiations with Great Britain. After the war, he worked to abolish the standing army and the Order of the Cincinnati, both of which he saw as posing a threat to republican government. In November 1785 he left Congress and took a seat in the Massachusetts legislature. Although he had been opposed to a strong Federal government, he reversed himself after Shays's Rebellion, 1786–1787, persuaded him that the country was on the verge of anarchy. He sat in the Federal Constitutional Convention and followed an erratic course, proposing and opposing almost at will. He refused to sign the Constitution, largely because it lacked a bill or rights, but supported Washington's government while serving in the House of Representatives from 1789 to 1793.
In 1797 President John Adams sent Gerry to France as part of a special peace mission. When Talleyrand's agents (known as X, Y, and Z) demanded bribes, the other two emissaries, John Marshall and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, went home. Gerry stayed behind and, in Adams's view, made peace possible through his continued negotiations. After several unsuccessful bids for governor, he was elected to that office in 1810 on the Republican ticket, and was re-elected in 1811. This term brought about the "Gerrymander Bill" of 1812, which redistricted the state in such a way as to create Republican senators in excess of the party's voting strength and which created one district that had a salamander-like shape on the map (thus "gerrymander:" Gerry plus salamander). Although the act worked with spectacular success to elect 29 Republican senators and only 11 Federalists, despite nearly equal votes for the two parties, Gerry himself was defeated. Gerry, who favored war with Britain, was elected Madison's vice-president in the 1812 election. He died in Washington on 23 November 1814.
SEE ALSO Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
Gerry Papers. Massachusetts Historical Society: Boston, Mass.
revised by Michael Bellesiles