Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814), American patriot and statesman, signed the Declaration of Independence and was vice president under James Madison.

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."

An Antifederalist

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.

National Politics

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.

Further Reading on Elbridge Gerry

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).

Additional Biography Sources

Billias, George Athan, Elbridge Gerry, founding father and republican statesman, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

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