Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 17, 1744:

Elbridge Gerry's Birthday

Today is the birthday of Elbridge Gerry, Fifth Vice President of the United States, whose (unintentional) enduring legacy is a word known far and wide in the English-speaking world. That’s a lot more than most vice presidents get, though the fact that he was vice president was completely irrelevant to the creation of “gerrymander.”

With the rise of political parties vying for victory in changeable electoral districts in the early 19th century, it was a word whose time had come. It survives because it’s instantly memorable, and of course because it describes an activity that carries on to this day. The Word Detective has the following to say about "gerrymander."

“Dear Word Detective: I was listening to our estimable BBC Radio 4 the other morning, and heard mention of a word that has subsequently perplexed me, namely ‘gerrymandering,’ to divide land into electoral units for the benefit of one group of people. Could you please be so kind as to explain?” -- Simeon Holdship, Brussels, Belgium.

“ ‘Gerrymander,’ meaning to fiddle with the boundaries of electoral districts in order to favor a particular party or constituency, is one of the most wonderful inventions of what H.L. Mencken called ‘the American Language.’

“It all started back in 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry decided to rearrange the contours of the Congressional districts in Massachusetts to boost his Democratic party's fortunes. His partisan maneuver drew the attention of Gilbert Stuart, editorial artist for the Boston Centinel newspaper, who incorporated a map of the new districts into a cartoon. By adding a few lines to the map, Stuart created a creature closely resembling a salamander, a small lizard-like amphibian. Centinel Editor Benjamin Russell immediately dubbed the creature a "Gerrymander," the cartoon became one of the most famous in American history, and "gerrymander" entered the American political lexicon.

Both Gov. Gerry and artist Gilbert Stuart went on to further fame. Gerry eventually became Vice President under James Madison. Stuart's mark was a bit more lasting. In addition to having drawn the very first ‘gerrymander,’ Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait of George Washington that adorns the U.S. one-dollar bill."

Vice President Gerry did not survive his term. In fact, neither of James Madison's veeps did. George Clinton became the first vice president to die in office in 1812, and Gerry followed suit as the second in 1814, after only about a year and a half in office.


Kevin Deany said...

I think he's referenced in "The Music Man": Just before Professor Harold Hill starts singing the ode to his home town, "Gary, Indiana" he says the town is named after "Elbridge Gary, of judiciary fame." Could he be referring to Elbridge Gerry? I don't know.

Mario said...

That's Elbert Gary, former general council of United States Steel. As board chairman he founded Gary,
where they'd built a mill, in 1906.