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Elbridge Gerry

[gehr E'] signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Massachusetts, Vice-President of the United States

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1744, the son of Thomas Gerry, a prosperous Marblehead merchant. He graduated from Harvard College in 1762 and subsequently entered his father's business.

Gerry first entered active politics when he served as a member of the Massachusetts General Court, in 1772 and 1773. While on the court Gerry became a follower of Samuel Adams, who enlisted him in the colonial activities preceding the American Revolution. In 1773 he served on the Committee of Correspondence. From 1774 to 1775 he was a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. The passage of a bill proposed by him to arm and equip ships to prey upon British commerce (November 1775) was, according to many, the first actual act of offensive hostility towards Great Britain. From 1776 to 1781 Gerry was a member of the Continental Congress, where he was an early advocate of independence and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He again served in the Continental Congress from 1783 to 1785.

Although he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Gerry refused to sign the final document because it did not include a Bill of Rights. As a member of the first House of Representatives (1789-1793), Gerry often changed his position on matters of national policy. He sided with Thomas Jefferson against the concept of a strong central government, while simultaneously stating that he wished to protect the "commercial and monied interest."

Sent by President John Adams to obtain a treaty with France in 1797, Gerry became one of those involved in the notorious XYZ Affair. Ignoring his fellow diplomats, John Marshall and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Gerry negotiated secretly with the French Foreign Minister, Talleyrand, and was finally recalled by Adams in 1798.

Elected Governor of Massachusetts in 1810, Gerry's administration was especially notable for the enactment of a law by which the state was divided into new senatorial districts in such a manner as to consolidate the Federalist vote in a few districts, thus giving the Democratic-Republicans an unfair advantage. The outline of one of these districts, which was thought to resemble a salamander, gave rise in 1812, through a popular application of the Governor's name, to the term "Gerrymander." Gerry was defeated for re-election in 1812.

In 1812 Gerry, who was an ardent advocate of war with Great Britain, was elected Vice-President of the United States, on the ticket with James Madison. He served in that capacity until his death on November 23, 1814.

Samuel Adams
American Revolution
Constitutional Convention
Thomas Jefferson
President John Adams
XYZ Affair
John Marshall
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney
James Madison

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> 1775/1783-1861 >> Individual Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on June 18, 2018.