Saturday, February 11, 2017
Gerrymander? I Hardly...
The practice of gerrymandering in America long predates the invention of the term, but the Massachusetts law that gave rise to the name dates from 11 February 1812, when Governor Elbridge Gerry, a Jeffersonian Republican, signed a reapportioning act that heavily favored his own party in upcoming elections in the closely divided Bay State legislature. Several different Federalist opponents of the new law are credited with coining the term "gerrymander," and the cartoon has been attributed to a number of notable early American artists including Gilbert Stuart and Washington Allston, but at the end of the nineteenth century, when there still was (almost) living memory of the origin of the term, John Ward Dean presented the text of a memorandum in the pages of the New England Historic and Genealogical Register that attributes the term to the outcome of a dinner party at the home of a Boston merchant Israel Thorndike in February 1812, where Elkanah Tisdale, a miniature painter, drew wings on the salamander shaped map of the new Republican-leaning election district in Essex County.
The gerrymander cartoon was widely reprinted often accompanied, as in the case of this broadside, with lines of comic verse or political commentary. While his Federalist opponents sarcastically noted that the "monstrous" shape of the new election district "denominated a Gerry-mander, a name that must exceedingly gratify the parental bosom of our worthy Chief Magistrate," there is little evidence that Governor Gerry was the author or even a strong supporter of the redistricting law. Ironically, the gerrymander did not save him from defeat for re-election in 1812, although it worked so effectively for the Republicans that while the Federalists won a majority of the popular vote, they won only a third of the seats in the legislature.
So when you get down to it, America is really great again, the way at least one Founding Father might or might not have intended.