Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Elbridge Gerry (1813-1814)

Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1744. His father was a prosperous business man who owned a shipping and mercantile company. After graduating from Harvard University in 1762, Gerry worked for his father’s company.

During the colonial period, Gerry became caught up in the anti-British fervor and served in the Massachusetts state legislature. In 1775, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and he was a signer of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He served in the Continental Congress until 1780 and again from 1783 to 1785. Gerry was considered a diligent legislator but could also be contrary and impractical.

In 1787, Gerry attended the Constitutional Convention. Although he had been a strong proponent of independence, he was part of the moderate bloc of the convention. However, he came to oppose the Constitution because he believed it took away too much power from the states and gave too much power to the federal government. He did not sign the Constitution although he became more supportive of it after the Bill of Rights was added.

Gerry served in the House of Representatives from 1789 to 1793. He then took a break from public office until 1797 when President John Adams asked Gerry to go to France as part of a diplomatic mission. Although the mission ultimately failed, Gerry credited himself with staving off war with France. In 1810, he was elected governor of Massachusetts and served two terms. It was during his time as governor that Gerry entered the political lexicon. When he approved a controversial redistricting plan that gave Democratic-Republicans an advantage in state elections, the Federalist press noted that the districts were shaped like salamanders and dubbed the plan the Gerrymander. Still today, creating an irregularly shaped district to favor one political party is known as Gerrymandering.

In April 1812, Vice President George Clinton died in office, and President James Madison was looking for a new vice president before the election. The Democratic-Republicans wanted a Northerner to balance the Virginian President, and they chose Gerry. As vice president, Gerry supported the War of 1812 and was a defender of President Madison and his administration. He died in office in November 1814.