November 23, 2016

gerrymander

November 23 is the anniversary of the death of Elbridge Gerry, the slippery statesman whose name has become synonymous with the serpentine strategy known as gerrymandering.

v. to divide (a voting area) in such a way as to give an unfair advantage to one political party
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition

Were it not for the artistic pen of a political cartoonist, the sharp wit of a newspaper editor, and his own brazen corruption, Elbridge Gerry might be remembered for signing the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and serving as both a governor and vice president of the United States. Instead, his legacy is an eternal pairing with a salamander.

Gerry was a lifelong Massachusetts man, born in 1744 in Marblehead, graduating from Harvard, and serving as a delegate from the Bay State (then the Bay Colony) to the Continental Congress in 1776, where he refused to sign the Constitution until it included a Bill of Rights. After a short stint in Congress, Gerry eventually joined the Democratic-Republican Party in 1800 and lost four consecutive bids to be the governor of Massachusetts before finally securing one-year terms in 1811and 1812. He then blew his chance at a respectable legacy with some cartographical chicanery.

As the incumbent political party, Gerry’s Democratic-Republicans hoped to preserve their power by redrawing several voting districts to concentrate opposing Federalist support in a few isolated districts while maintaining their own majority everywhere else. Benjamin Russell, the outraged editor of the Centinel, a Federalist newspaper, allegedly hung a map in his office illustrating the absurd new serpentine senatorial district of Essex County approved by then governor Gerry. Some early accounts report that celebrated portraitist Gilbert Stuart (who drew George Washington’s face on the one-dollar bill) added a head, wings, and claws to the map to create the political “salamander” that Russell dubbed the “Gerry-mander.” However, the more widely accepted theory is that painter, designer, and engraver Elkanah Tisdale drew the political cartoon of the now infamous namesake that would ultimately be published in the Boston Gazette and spawn a household word within months.

Most often employed by an incumbent power, gerrymandering typically either concentrates blocks of voters into one district to minimize their impact on other districts or spreads them out over multiple districts to dilute their power. Though a single word for it did not enter the political lexicon until after the Massachusetts map scandal of 1812, the practice had been around since the country’s founding and exists to this day. In 1778 Patrick “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” Henry and his anti-Federalist cronies famously overhauled a Virginia congressional district to keep future president James Madison out of the House of Representatives, while more than 220 years later Pennsylvania Republicans gerrymandered a finger-shaped district so meticulously that it stopped at a rival candidate’s street and included his house but not his parking space.

As for the original gerrymanderer, the stinging portmanteau did little to ruin the Massachusetts governor’s political career. The year after his namesake was coined, Gerry was chosen to be the fifth vice president of the United States, under James Madison, serving for a year and a half before dying of heart failure in 1814.