Political jargon terms often have a short life. Some may remember, but almost no one now uses, terms such as to bork or hanging chad. Gerrymander, however, is one of the more successful political jargon terms of all time, but its survival that is somewhat unfair to its namesake, Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814), a signer of The Declaration of Independence, governor of Massachusetts, and vice president of the United States. To gerrymander is to draw a state’s voting districts in such a way as to give political advantage to one’s own political party, but Gerry was only tangentially and reluctantly associated with the practice.
The U. S. Constitution requires a census be taken every ten years and that state legislatures redraw the districts from which U. S. representatives are elected to reflect changes in population. Of course, this creates lots of opportunities for political mischief as each political party seeks to redraw the district boundaries to favor their own electoral chances.
The idea that one could fashion district boundaries to favor one side or the other is almost as old as the republic itself, and one of the early egregious examples of this practice occurred in 1812 in Essex County, Massachusetts. The Massachusetts legislature, dominated by Democratic-Republicans (the forerunner of the modern Democratic Party) drew one district so that it snaked around the borders of the county, favoring their party over the competition, the Federalists. Gerry, who was a Democratic-Republican and governor at the time, actually objected to the plan, but he signed it into law out of party loyalty. But by doing so, he became the public face of the convoluted district.
The word gerrymander first appears in the pages of the Boston Gazette, a Federalist paper edited by John Russell, on 26 March 1812, accompanied by a political cartoon that depicted the snake-like district as a winged serpent. The drawing was probably a creation of engraver Elkanah Tisdale, and not painter Gilbert Stuart who is often given credit. Exactly who coined the term gerrymander, a blend of the surname Gerry with salamander, is not known, but the likeliest candidate is John Russell. Other candidates include Russell’s brother Benjamin, who edited the Federalist Columbian Centinel and who used the word the following month, and Nathan Hale, nephew of the Revolutionary War patriot who regretted he had one life to give for his country and editor of the Boston Weekly Messenger, another Federalist newspaper.
Thus a political term was born, the term became a Federalist rallying cry in the 1812 election, and Gerry lost his gubernatorial re-election bid because of it. Although he did go on to become vice president.
Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g, but over time the pronunciation of gerrymander shifted to a soft g, probably because as Elbridge faded from memory people gave it the pronunciation of the first name Gerry or Jerry and from the influence of jerry-built, a term meaning of shoddy construction.
Kenneth C. Martis, “The Original Gerrymander,” Political Geography, 27, 2008.
“gerrymander, n.,” “gerrymander, v.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition 1989.
William Safire, “gerrymander,” Safire’s Political Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 2008, 275–76.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton