A Twisted Tale of Gerrymandering

by Jill Christensen


In 1812 Massachusetts Governor, Elbridge Gerry approved a measure to draw the boundaries of a critical election district to preserve the seat for his own political party.  Understandably the opposing Federalist Party was not especially happy with the new district.

At a dinner party at the home of a Boston merchant Israel Thorndike, one of the guests, an artist named Elkanah Tisdale, was shown a map of the redrawn district.  He promptly drew wings, claws and teeth on it. 

The drawing was published in a Boston newspaper under the title “Gerry-Mander”  described as a new species of monster resembling a salamander. The word Gerry-mander was born.  And partly because of the ensuing controversy, Governor Gerry lost re-election.  But that’s not the end of the story.

The practice of gerrymandering was decades old by the time Gerry’s name was given to it.  In 1788 in one of the first acts of gerrymandering in the U.S., Patrick Henry conspired with others to redraw the boundaries of Virginia’s 5th Congressional District to keep the Federalist candidate – James Madison - from being elected to office. Despite the gerrymandering, Madison won the election and become a member of the newly established House of Representatives. 

Madison, as most Americans know, went on to become President of the United States.  In 1812 he was running for a second term.  His first Vice President George Clinton had died in office and a replacement had not been nominated.  Madison was approached by a former colleague in the House of Representatives.  The colleague had fallen upon hard financial times and had recently lost his own reelection as governor of his state.  Madison evidently was sympathetic and helped his former colleague to win nomination as the Vice Presidential candidate in the 1812 election.  They won.  And so Elbridge Gerry became the fifth Vice President of the United States - serving with Madison who might never have been President if Patrick Henry had succeeded with a political tactic named for the new Vice President.