Monday, March 26, 2018

This Day in History

Meet Elbridge Gerry (hard G, like "gum" or "gap" or "goulash"), the 5th Vice-president of the United States (under James Madison), but it's not that line of work that interests us today. 

Gerry was also one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, but, again, we're not interested in that, either. So what exactly does interest us about him?

Well, there's the political party he belonged to, the Democratic-Republicans. Founded by Thomas Jefferson and the aforementioned James Madison in 1792 to oppose the policies of a group of politicians (most notably, current Broadway star Alexander Hamilton), it was very rarely referred to as the Democratic-Republican Party by Jefferson, Madison, or anyone else around back then. As far as they were concerned it was simply the Republican Party. So why is it that if you pick up a history book today and look at the list of presidents sandwiched between John Adams and Andrew Jackson, it has that hyphenated title ascribed to them?

So as not to confuse it with that OTHER Republican Party, the one that came along in the middle of the 19th century.

Back to (hard G--gum, gap, goulash) Gerry. In 1910, after several failed attempts, the Democratic-Republican Gerry was elected Governor of the state (or, as people living there like to call it, commonwealth) of Massachusetts, and then re-elected two years later. So, was he a good governor or a bad governor? More to the point, is he someone you--yes, I'm talking to you--would have voted for? It's hard to say, as the Right-Left political spectrum that so dominates politics these days was more like a pretzel back then (the liberal Democratic-Republicans believed in small government and even smaller business, whereas the conservative Federalists believed in big government and even bigger business. Donald "Art of the Deal" Trump probably would have been a Federalist, which means he would never have made it to the White House as what passed for "red states" back then all voted Dem-Rep. See how confusing it gets?) Actually, during his first term, Gerry governed from the center. He had to, as the Massachusetts legislature was controlled by the Federalists. That all changed in the election of 1812, when, for whatever reason, the Feds were kicked out. With his own party now in control of both the executive and the legislative branches, Gerry felt free to move to the Left. Um, no, that's not right, because he would have believed in small government. So he moved to the Right. No, that's not right, either, because the capitalists back then all wanted government as big as possible. So Gerry would have had to ...Well, Gerry moved somewhere. Let's leave it at that.

One of the first orders of business for the new Democratic-Republican-dominated legislature had to do with the 1810 census. According to the U.S. Constitution "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States, which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers."  Once a State knows many people are living between its borders, it's up to legislature to decide how the various electoral districts will be drawn. Not painted, not sculpted, but drawn. Very simple. Except it must not have seemed all that simple to the Massachusetts legislature.

It could have been simple. For example, when figuring out how the state senatorial districts should be drawn up, they could have just taken a map of Massachusetts and rendered a tic-tac-toe-like grid across the state. Whatever box voters fell in, voters fell in. Except it seems these voters weren't  falling in the boxes that the Democratic-Republican-dominated legislature wanted them to fall in. In other words, too many of these boxes would have been evenly divided between Dem-Rep voter and Federalist voters,  meaning the next election might be anything but a landslide in the Dem-Reps favor. So it was back to the drawing board, as the legislature tried thinking outside the box.

For instance, why have a straight line...

...when you can have a curve?

In fact, the more curves the better.

By the time the legislature was done drawing up the electoral map, the average state district look like something out of a Rorschach ink blot test, but the Democratic-Republicans now had a better chance winning the next election. To his credit, Governor Gerry expressed doubts about the new map. To his discredit, he signed it into law anyway, thus assuring a kind of immortality he may have not wanted, for the Dem-Fed scheme did not go unnoticed.

On March, 26, 1814, the following cartoon appeared in the Boston Gazette:

It's a drawing of one of those new state senatorial districts (albeit with eyes, fangs, tongue, wing, and claws added.) Now, lets look at the name of that new species of monster. The Gerry part is easy enough to understand (you sign it, you own it), but what with this "Mander"?

A salamander. No wings, but there's a certain resemblance nonetheless.

The creature's name stuck, though with time the hyphen was dropped, so it was now called a gerrymander. Actually, it became a verb (though a noun if you add an -ing to the end.) I don't know how and why, but it also came to be pronounced differently, so today it's gerrymander with a soft G (gym, genuine, gingerbread.)

Over the years, all of the major political parties have been guilty of gerrymandering (including parties that have come and gone, like the Whigs.) And each time the party out of power screams foul (all the while looking to get back in power so they get a chance to gerrymander, too.)

In recent years, it's the Republicans who've had the gerrymandered upper hand.

However, that all could change during the mid-term elections in November. Widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican pictured above has led some political prognosticators to predict that people may actually vote across party lines.

No matter how those lines have been drawn.


  1. Hi, Kirk!

    Happy Stormy Monday! :) I can't wait to see what happens in the mid-terms. If ever there was a time and a good reason to vote across party lines, this be it.

    1. Shady, I see last night 60 Minutes had its highest ratings in 10 years. And it didn't even follow a playoff game!

  2. If you had asked me who Madison's VP was or who Elbridge Gerry was, i would have had no clue!

    1. I didn't either, Mitchell. I just saw that it was the anniversary of the coining of the term "gerrymander" and did some quick research.

  3. Fascinating! I knew "gerrymandering" was named for someone but didn't know any details.

    1. Debra, what does it say about the office of Vice-President when was of its occupants' name becomes more well-known for a term implying political chicanery that occurred before he even made it that far?

  4. I always said it like Jerry-mander

    instead of how his name was called Gary-Mander

    that's probably why

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Adam, I looked up the pronunciation on an online dictionary as well as an old-fashion book dictionary I have at home, and the 'j' sound is the correct 21st century pronunciation. Yet, according to anything I can find on Elbridge Gerry (an interesting guy who may have been a step above the average politician; he fought to have the Bill of Rights included in the Constitution at a time when some better-known and more highly-esteemed Founding Fathers were against it) and his name was pronounced, as you said, Gary.

      So how did the pronunciation end up changing? I can only offer a theory, so here goes. No TV or radio back when this fellow lived, and not for a long time afterwards either. So you would only know his name from reading it in a book or newspaper, and then have to come up with a pronunciation yourself. If you knew someone named Gerry, the first letter of whose name was pronounced with a J, you might assume Elbridge's last name was pronounced the same way, as well as the word coined after him, gerrymander. Enough people make that mistake enough times, the lexicographers take note, and make it official. That's the best I can come up with.