The political cartoon that led to the coining of the term "Gerrymander." The district depicted was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor incumbent Democratic-Republican party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists in 1812.
Long and thin, the redrawn state senate district in Massachusetts stretched from near Boston to the New Hampshire border, where it hooked east along the Merrimack River to the coast. It sliced up Essex County, a political stronghold for the Federalist Party – all by design of its ascendant political rival, the Democratic-Republicans. It worked: the freakishly shaped district elected three Democratic-Republicans that year, 1812, breaking up the county’s previous delegation of five Federalist senators.
It wasn’t the first time in American history that political machinations were behind the drawing of district boundaries, but it would soon become the most famous.
Gerrymandering, the politicians’ practice of drawing district lines to favor their party and expand their power, is nearly as old as the republic itself. Today, we see it in Ohio’s “Lake Erie Monster” and Pennsylvania’s “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.” But where did the name come from, and who was the namesake for the much-maligned process?
Elbridge Gerry, the governor who signed the bill creating the misshapen Massachusetts district, was a Founding Father: signer of the Declaration of Independence, reluctant framer of the Constitution, congressman, diplomat, and the fifth vice-president. Well-known in his day, Gerry was a wild-eyed eccentric and an awkward speaker, a trusted confidant of John Adams and a deep (if peculiar) thinker. He could also be a dyspeptic hothead—a trait that got the better of him when he signed the infamous redistricting bill.