Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts was an early voice calling for the American colonies to separate from England and declare independence. However, Gerry and his accomplishments are largely forgotten today.
Gerry was born on July 17, 1744 in Marblehead, Massachusetts. At that time, Marblehead was one of the leading seaports in North America. Gerry’s father was a prosperous merchant operating ships out of that port, primarily exporting dried cod to the Caribbean and Spain.
Elbridge received an excellent education as a child from private tutors and then attended Harvard where he graduated with two degrees, the second of which came in 1764. Gerry soon thereafter joined his father and two brothers in the family business.
In 1765, Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, the first of several legislative measures to raise revenue by taxing the colonies. The recently completed French and Indian War had depleted the British Treasury and England hoped to remedy this situation partly on the backs of their American subjects.
Gerry became an early opponent of these acts by Parliament, and he soon allied himself with Samuel Adams and other leading political figures in Massachusetts. In 1772, Gerry was elected to the Massachusetts Bay legislature which proved to be the start of a successful political career.
In 1775, as relations between England and its American colonies deteriorated, Gerry was assigned to lead a Committee of Safety charged with supplying the Continental Army which was surrounding Boston and the British army located there. His experience in the shipping business proved to be a great asset.
When the Second Continental Congress was convened in 1776, Gerry was selected by Massachusetts to be one of their representatives. At the convention, Gerry was a strong advocate for separating from England. John Adams stated, “If every man here was a Gerry, the liberties of America would be safe.” When the Declaration of Independence was adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, Gerry proudly affixed his signature to this historic document.
Gerry continued to serve in Congress and was a signer of the Articles of Confederation, but he left that assembly in 1780 over a concern that too much power was being concentrated in the central government. In 1783, Gerry was persuaded to return to the Confederation Congress which was meeting in New York. While there, Elbridge met Ann Thompson and the two were married in 1786. Over the course of the next fifteen years, the couple had ten children.
When issues arose due to weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation, the states called the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to fix them. Gerry represented Massachusetts but was against the proposed Constitution because he felt the new document vested too much power in the federal government.
Gerry worried the country would drift towards monarchy or aristocratic rule with the new system of government. He also felt the Constitution should include a bill of rights guaranteeing personal freedoms to the people. As it turned out, Gerry was one of only three delegates to the Constitutional Convention that refused to sign the Constitution (George Mason and Edmond Randolph were the other two).
Following the establishment of the new Federal government, Gerry served two terms in the House of Representatives (1789-1793). He chose not to seek a third term and returned home to care for Ann, who was ill, and help care for the children. During this interval, Gerry maintained good relations with then Vice President John Adams.
When Adams became President in 1800, Adams selected Gerry, along with John Marshall and Charles Pinckney, to act as commissioners to France to settle some maritime disputes. This delegation ended badly when French representatives demanded bribes before starting negotiations and the Americans left France in disgust. This episode was called the XYZ Affair with the initials representing the three Frenchmen who demanded the bribes.
Gerry returned home to criticism that he had handled the situation poorly. Following this controversy, Gerry spent the next decade unsuccessfully trying to get elected as Governor of Massachusetts. Finally, in 1811, Gerry achieved his goal and served in this capacity until 1812.
Interestingly, one of his final acts as Governor was to sign a bill which created Congressional districts that benefitted his party, the Democratic-Republicans. One was shaped like a salamander and a cynical correspondent dubbed this district a “Gerrymander,” a name which is still widely used today.
Finally, in 1812, Gerry was selected to be President James Madison’s Vice President for Madison’s second term. It was felt that Gerry could help Madison, a Virginian, secure Northern votes. While serving in this office, Gerry died on November 23, 1814 and was buried in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Interestingly, Gerry is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence interred in our nation’s capital.
WHY IT MATTERS: So why should Elbridge Gerry and what he did for America matter to us today?
Elbridge Gerry devoted the better part of his life to the service of his country. Starting in 1770, when he sat on a commission trying to enforce a ban on British goods to when he died in 1814 while Vice President of the United States, Gerry faithfully served America.
This gifted man served in the Second Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the United States House of Representatives, and as Vice President. That is an impressive resume. Largely forgotten today, Elbridge Gerry deserves to be remembered for all he did to help create this great country of ours.
SUGGESTED READING: If you want to read more about our founding era, an excellent book is “The Founding Fathers; An Essential Guide to the Men Who Made America.” Published in 2007 and authored by Encyclopedia Britannica, it has concise narratives of our nation’s critical documents and Founding Fathers, including Elbridge Gerry.
Tom Hand is creator and publisher of Americana Corner. Tom is a West Point graduate, and serves on the board of trustees for the American Battlefield Trust as well as the National Council for the National Park Foundation. Click Here to Like Tom’s Facebook Page Americana Corner. Click Here to follow Tom’s Instagram Account.
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