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Gerry, Elbridge (1744–1814)

GERRY, ELBRIDGE (1744–1814)

A Massachusetts merchant, Elbridge Gerry was particularly active in Revolutionary politics and served as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He signed the declaration of independence as an early and vigorous supporter of separation from a government and people that he believed had become "corrupt and totally destitute of Virtue."

Gerry devoted most of his life to public service. He represented Massachusetts in Congress from 1779 to 1785, signing the articles of confederation. As a Massachusetts delegate to the constitutional convention of 1787, Gerry was, at the outset, a moderate nationalist who favored a strong central government although emphasizing the need for certain "federal features." Gerry opposed democracy—"the evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy"—and he often supported his own business interests. Indeed, he early recognized the need for congressional power "competent to the protection of" foreign commerce in order for Congress to "command reciprocal advantages in trade." A firm believer in republicanism, Gerry insisted on the need for a separation of powers and the inclusion of additional checks on the national government. He chaired the committee that formulated the great compromise and helped secure its adoption. The absence of a bill of rights, however, and the concentration of power in the federal government led Gerry to oppose ratification of the constitution.

Elected to Congress in 1789, he served for four years as a strong supporter of alexander hamilton's financial program. Gerry retired from Congress in 1793 and was elected Republican governor of Massachusetts in 1810 and 1811. He so opposed the idea of legitimate opposition that his second term saw the passage of a bill radically redistricting the state to assure the Republicans greater representation in the state legislature than their actual strength justified. This political technique was satirized in a cartoon showing one oddly shaped district in the form of a salamander, hence the name gerrymander. james madison selected Gerry as his vice-presidential running mate in 1812, and until his death in 1814 Gerry championed Madison's administration.

David Gordon


Billias, George A. 1976 Elbridge Gerry, Founding Father and Republican Statesman. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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