Founding Fathers - Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry

Born: July 17, 1744 (Marblehead, Massachusetts)

Died: November 23, 1814 (Washington, District of Columbia)


This week we will get to know a man who may well be best known for a common term that was coined as a derogatory play on his name.  As the third child of Captain Thomas Gerry and his wife, Elizabeth, Elbridge Gerry was born along the coast just north of Boston.  Little is definitively known about his upbringing, but he was a capable student who graduated from Harvard in 1762, then again with a Master's degree at just 20 years of age.  Harvard was a hotbed of Whig ideology at the time, a viewpoint marked by distrust of centralized authority that was central to the spirit of the American Revolution, and the influence it had on young Elbridge is evidenced by the fact that his Master's dissertation focused on opposition to the recently-passed Stamp Act.  Once his formal schooling was completed Elbridge joined his father's shipping and mercantile business, and was soon entrusted with running a significant portion of the business which was quite lucrative and made the family very wealthy.  Like his father before him, Elbridge soon became politically active and the pair were both involved in efforts to enforce boycotts against British goods.  By 1772, he won his first election and became a member of the Massachusetts legislature.

Participating in Massachusetts politics, including the fledgling Committee of Correspondence, meant that Elbridge Gerry crossed paths with revolutionary leaders such as Samuel Adams.  When the British forced the closure of Boston's port, Gerry began funneling goods through the alternative port in his hometown of Marblehead with noted efficiency.  After being appointed to the Provincial Assembly in 1774 he was soon added to the Committee of Safety, responsible for acquiring and storing arms and ammunition while also helping raise a fighting force.  Such actions made him a wanted man on the night when riders set out from Boston to warn that the Redcoats were coming, and Gerry and a pair of colonels were forced to flee their beds at the Menotomy Tavern on the road to Lexington, hiding in nearby fields in their night clothes as soldiers searched in vain for them.  Once he returned to the assembly in Boston he committed the treasonous act of submitting a proposal allowing for naval vessels to be armed, and for Massachusetts to award prizes for the supplies they would capture.  In early 1776, Gerry was sent as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress where he actively persuaded others to support the call for freedom, and then later voted for and proudly signed the Declaration of Independence.  Just one year later, he became one of 16 men to also sign the Articles of Confederation.

Throughout the war Elbridge Gerry frequently championed the cause of soldiers, advocating for better pay and supplies from his seat in Congress.  He also developed a reputation as being a rebel, however, and in 1780 he withdrew from the legislative body when he believed they were limiting states rights in favor of centralized authority.  He eventually returned in 1783 until the end of his term in 1785.  One year after leaving Philadelphia, Gerry was finally married at the age of 41 to Ann Thompson, who was the daughter of an affluent merchant family from New York.  The couple moved to a new home in Cambridge, MA, and eventually had nine children together.  When the Constitutional Convention took place, Gerry was an active member but eventually had so many misgivings about how the new federal government would be formed that he refused to sign the document.  Once the Constitution was ratified, however, he changed his mind and decided to support it, becoming instrumental in developing the Bill of Rights.  Gerry continued to speak out and write against the agenda of the Federalists that he believed would add ambiguous powers to both the executive and legislative branches, but once elected to the House of Representatives in 1789 he once again changed positions and supported the efforts of Alexander Hamilton to create a state bank and consolidate war debts at the federal level.

After two terms in Congress, Elbridge Gerry returned home in 1793 as a private citizen, but it wasn't long before the president called upon him.  John Adams sent Gerry as one of three negotiators to France in order to establish a treaty with Napoleon's government.  An attempt to secure a bribe by French foreign minister Talleyrand was uncovered, resulting in the scandalous XYZ Affair, and two of the three Americans departed in disgust.  Gerry remained, however, hoping to finalize the terms and was roundly criticized back home for the attempt.  The two nations remained hostile towards one another until an agreement was finally reached in 1800.  Gerry returned home and attempted on three separate occasions to win election as Governor of Massachusetts before finally succeeding on his fourth attempt in 1810.  He won re-election in 1811, but lost support the following year when he attempted to redraw congressional districts to favor his Democratic-Republican party.  A political cartoon labeled the unusual shape of the resulting districts a "gerrymander", and the name stuck.  Although he was voted out of office, Gerry was nevertheless a significant national figure who could influence voters in New England, and within two weeks he was offered a position as James Madison's running mate in the 1812 election.  Upon their victory, Gerry was a strong vocal supporter of the administration even as the War of 1812 weighed heavily on it.  Despite his advancing years he enjoyed the social activities associated with being Vice President, especially when compared against his monotonous duties while presiding over the Senate.  After two years his failing health finally caught up with him and he suffered from a hemorrhage of the lungs while on his way to the capitol building, dying at the age of 70.  He was buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. - the only signer to be laid to rest in the nation's capital.

The signature of Elbridge Gerry can be found as the sixth name in the sixth (farthest right) column beneath the Declaration of Independence.

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