Elbridge Gerry was born in 1744 at Marblehead, MA,
the third of 12 children. His mother was the daughter
of a Boston merchant; his father, a wealthy and politically
active merchant-shipper who had once been a sea captain.
Upon graduating from Harvard in 1762, Gerry joined his
father and two brothers in the family business, exporting
dried codfish to Barbados and Spain. He entered the
colonial legislature (1772-74), where he came under
the influence of Samuel Adams, and took part in the
Marblehead and Massachusetts committees of correspondence.
When Parliament closed Boston harbor in June 1774, Marblehead
became a major port of entry for supplies donated by
patriots throughout the colonies to relieve Bostonians,
and Gerry helped transport the goods.
Between 1774 and 1776 Gerry attended the first and
second provincial congresses. He served with Samuel
Adams and John Hancock on the council of safety and,
as chairman of the committee of supply (a job for which
his merchant background ideally suited him) wherein
he raised troops and dealt with military logistics.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Gerry attended a meeting
of the council of safety at an inn in Menotomy (Arlington),
between Cambridge and Lexington, and barely escaped
the British troops marching on Lexington and Concord.
In 1776 Gerry entered the Continental Congress, where
his congressional specialties were military and financial
matters. In Congress and throughout his career his actions
often appeared contradictory. He earned the nickname
"soldiers' friend" for his advocacy of better pay and
equipment, yet he vacillated on the issue of pensions.
Despite his disapproval of standing armies, he recommended
Until 1779 Gerry sat on and sometimes presided over
the congressional board that regulated Continental finances.
After a quarrel over the price schedule for suppliers,
Gerry, himself a supplier, walked out of Congress. Although
nominally a member, he did not reappear for 3 years.
During the interim, he engaged in trade and privateering
and served in the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature.
As a representative in Congress in the years 1783-85,
Gerry numbered among those who had possessed talent
as Revolutionary agitators and wartime leaders but who
could not effectually cope with the painstaking task
of stabilizing the national government. He was experienced
and conscientious but created many enemies with his
lack of humor, suspicion of the motives of others, and
obsessive fear of political and military tyranny. In
1786, the year after leaving Congress, he retired from
business, married Ann Thompson, and took a seat in the
Gerry was one of the most vocal delegates at the Constitutional
Convention of 1787. He presided as chairman of the committee
that produced the Great Compromise but disliked the
compromise itself. He antagonized nearly everyone by
his inconsistency and, according to a colleague, "objected
to everything he did not propose." At first an advocate
of a strong central government, Gerry ultimately rejected
and refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked
a bill of rights and because he deemed it a threat to
republicanism. He led the drive against ratification
in Massachusetts and denounced the document as "full
of vices." Among the vices, he listed inadequate representation
of the people, dangerously ambiguous legislative powers,
the blending of the executive and the legislative, and
the danger of an oppressive judiciary. Gerry did see
some merit in the Constitution, though, and believed
that its flaws could be remedied through amendments.
In 1789, after he announced his intention to support
the Constitution, he was elected to the First Congress
where, to the chagrin of the Antifederalists, he championed
Gerry left Congress for the last time in 1793 and retired
for 4 years. During this period he came to mistrust
the aims of the Federalists, particularly their attempts
to nurture an alliance with Britain, and sided with
the pro-French Democratic-Republicans. In 1797 President
John Adams appointed him as the only non-Federalist
member of a three-man commission charged with negotiating
a reconciliation with France, which was on the brink
of war with the United States. During the ensuing XYZ
affair (1797-98), Gerry tarnished his reputation. Talleyrand,
the French foreign minister, led him to believe that
his presence in France would prevent war, and Gerry
lingered on long after the departure of John Marshall
and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the two other commissioners.
Finally, the embarrassed Adams recalled him, and Gerry
met severe censure from the Federalists upon his return.
In 1800-1803 Gerry, never very popular among the Massachusetts
electorate because of his aristocratic haughtiness,
met defeat in four bids for the Massachusetts governorship
but finally triumphed in 1810. Near the end of his two
terms, scarred by partisan controversy, the Democratic-Republicans
passed a redistricting measure to ensure their domination
of the state senate. In response, the Federalists heaped
ridicule on Gerry and coined the pun "gerrymander" to
describe the salamander-like shape of one of the redistricted
Despite his advanced age, frail health, and the threat
of poverty brought on by neglect of personal affairs,
Gerry served as James Madison's Vice President in 1813.
In the fall of 1814, the 70-year old politician collapsed
on his way to the Senate and died. He left his wife,
who was to live until 1849, the last surviving widow
of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as well
as three sons and four daughters. Gerry is buried in
Congressional Cemetery at Washington, DC.
(National Archives and Records Administration)