With the exception of James Madison, Elbridge Gerry is quite possibly the most complex character of the Founding generation. He was an important contributor to both the fervor leading to the Revolution and the Anti-Federalist crusade against the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. He served as governor of Massachusetts, as a member of the House of Representatives, and as vice president of the United States. Both admirers and critics alike charged him with inconsistency at one point or another—he simply declared that he was “independent” in mind and spirit—and it was this elusive and antagonistic nature that in many ways defined his life.
Elbridge Gerry was born on 17 July 1744 in Marblehead, Massachusetts. His father, Thomas Gerry, settled in New England in 1730, and his mother, Elizabeth Greenleaf, was a native of Boston. Thomas Gerry established a merchant business in Marblehead and made enough money to send his son to Harvard College in 1759. Elbridge Gerry was an average student and was graduated in 1762. He then joined his two older brothers and his father in the family business, where he gained an appreciation for commerce and finance. Gerry was a small man with a broad forehead and a long nose. Contemporaries admired his integrity and attention to detail.
He may have been something of a “ladies man,” but he was also described as humorless and suspicious, qualities that don’t always incite attraction from the opposite sex. He remained a bachelor until the age of forty-four, when he married the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant, twenty-one years his junior. The Gerry family became early opponents of the Stamp Act and Sugar Act in Marblehead, and their anti-British tone was influenced by the nature of their business, international trade, which was circumscribed by British regulations.
Elbridge Gerry helped organize a boycott of tea in 1770, and he was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1772 where he met and befriended Samuel Adams. The two men corresponded extensively, and Adams considered Gerry an intelligent and trustworthy patriot. Gerry served in the legislature until it was shut down by the royal military governor Thomas Gage. He then served in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, holding a seat in that body until being sent to the Second Continental Congress in 1776.
While in the Provincial Congress, Elbridge Gerry was appointed to the Executive Committee of Safety. This group included Samuel Adams and John Hancock and was charged with the military preparedness of Massachusetts. On the night of 18 April 1775, the British attempted to capture Gerry while he was sleeping at a tavern. Though still wearing his night clothes, he escaped into a field and avoided capture. The War for Independence began the next morning at Lexington and Concord, and the men who fought the British that day benefitted from the preparations the Committee of Safety had made the weeks before. The Provincial Congress named Gerry the chairman of the Committee of Supply, a charge that made him almost personally responsible for the supply of the Massachusetts troops. Much of the work was conducted from the family business at Marblehead, and Gerry sank a good portion of his personal fortune into the cause.
Elbridge Gerry took his seat in the Continental Congress on 9 February 1776. He was immediately elected to serve on the Treasury Board. He supported immediate independence from Great Britain, and had a gift for the politics of persuasion. He once wrote, “Some timid minds are terrified at the word Independence. If you think caution in this respect good policy, change the name.” His work in the Continental Congress was invaluable to the cause, and his attention to detail on the Treasury Board served the group well. He was in Philadelphia on 4 July 1776 but was exhausted from his labors, left the city, and did not sign the Declaration of Independence until he returned in September. Gerry’s primary concern during the war was military supply. He often argued against profiteering and favored price-fixing on essential commodities, but the Gerry family prospered by selling military supplies, and
Elbridge Gerry himself made a fortune on privateering (pirating) and heartily endorsed this type of activity. Gerry supported long-term enlistments during the war, but was openly distrustful of a standing military. He opposed both Washington and Franklin during the war, believing that Washington was unfit to lead the army and that Franklin had grown too attached to the French.
Elbridge Gerry left the Congress in 1778 after a dispute arose over whether Massachusetts had provided its quota of supplies. He accused Congress of violating the rights of his state in the dispute, and though still nominally a member of the Congress, he stayed away from Philadelphia for three years and instead served in the Massachusetts legislature. He resumed his place in Congress in 1781. He took a special interest in the Northwest Territory (covering what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota) because he had investments in the region. He also argued for a stronger commercial relationship among the states.
He returned to Massachusetts in 1786 and again took a seat in the state legislature. With a fortune in real estate and government securities, he retired from business in that year, married, and acquired Elmwood, a confiscated Loyalist estate. He refused to attend the Annapolis Convention in 1786 but was chosen as a delegate for the Philadelphia Convention in 1787, which he supported enthusiastically. Gerry’s support for a stronger central government, though he had previously been an advocate for states’ rights, was likely motivated by Shay’s Rebellion in 1786—he detested democracy—and a fear of mob rule (some of his property had been destroyed before the Revolution by a mob). “The people,” he said, “feel rather too much their own importance; it requires great skill in gradually checking them to such subordination as is necessary to good government.”
The “self-serving” politician?
When Elbridge Gerry entered the Philadelphia Convention, he declared, “The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.” In a typical Gerry turnabout, he initially supported Madison’s Virginia Plan but quickly reversed course and became one of the most outspoken opponents of the document. While seeing a need for a central government that would help check democracy, he simultaneously feared that the proposed Constitution would reduce the power of the states, which in turn would reduce the power of men like himself who dominated the politics of their respective states.
He spoke over one hundred times at the Convention and consistently argued for a bill of rights, limited executive and judicial powers, and cautioned against unlimited federal power under the “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution. Gerry believed Congress should have little power and the other branches of government even less. He fired off impressive salvos against a standing military and congressional control of the militia. His colleagues accused him of irascibility. One said he “objected to everything he did not propose.” Gerry was often self-interested, and he proved that by advancing the idea that the new government assume both the federal and state debts, a good portion of which he held personally.
He did not sign the Constitution and shortly before returning home sent a letter explaining his objections to the Massachusetts legislature. He wrote that “the Constitution proposed has few, if any, federal features, but is rather a system of national government.” With proper amendments, Gerry believed the government could be charged with the “preservation of liberty,” but as it stands the liberty of the people “may be lost.”
He thought that if the new Constitution were ratified, the state governments could be “altered as in effect to be dissolved.” This, of course, would not be beneficial to the people of Massachusetts. Elbridge Gerry did not attend the ratification convention. The document passed there by a slim margin only after the convention agreed to a demand for a bill of rights. It might be true, as is sometimes said, that Gerry assumed the Constitution would not be ratified and that he would gain political capital from his opposition to it. But it is also true that Gerry displayed a consistent attachment to a “small republic” mentality. He feared both the tyranny of mob rule and the tyranny of distant arbitrary power. The people could be checked in Massachusetts through local or state action, but a powerful central authority with unlimited power would be more difficult to rein in. He could declare democracy the enemy and still favor local control because he always believed the natural ruling class, people like himself, would be in power. Thus, he insisted on state control of the militia and of elections, including those for the federal government.
He was elected to the House of Representatives for the first Congress in 1789, and though he supported a bill of rights, he argued early in the first session “that the vessel ought to be got under way, lest she lie by the wharf till she beat off her rudder and run herself a wreck on shore.”
He claimed he did not support parts of the Constitution but did not think calling for a second convention was wise. He reasoned, “If the Constitution which is now ratified should not be supported, I despair of ever having a government of these United States.” Stability, even with reservations, was more important than changes at this point, but at the same time he wished for a speedy consideration of a bill of rights in order to entice North Carolina and Rhode Island to join the new government and remain in the Union.
He also shocked his fellow Anti-Federalists when he called for an “energetic government.” Had he not attacked this prospect during and after the Philadelphia Convention? Gerry seemed to suggest that this was the government the states wanted—and if states’ rights were protected with a bill of rights, it was the sort of government he would therefore sup- port. When a bill of rights was finally presented to the Congress for approval, he supported the full list.
Elbridge Gerry’s waffling makes him a difficult man to peg. He supported Alexander Hamilton’s Bank of the United States and the “assumption scheme” (of assuming state wartime debts) and appeared to be inclined toward the Federalist Party in the early sessions of Congress. He was, after all, a New England merchant, and the Federalists tended to favor that group. But he also supported an independent treasury commission separate from Hamilton’s control and became increasingly suspicious of apparent Federalist attachment to the British.
He left Congress in 1793 after serving two terms and later supported John Adams for president in 1796. Adams returned the favor by sending him to France in 1798 as part of a three-man diplomatic team charged with avoiding war with France. The French foreign minister, Talleyrand, only wished to negotiate with Gerry, a man he considered an ally because of his “republican” principles, and told the rest of the delegation that they would need to “pay” for diplomatic correspondence. Gerry and Talleyrand worked in secret to reach a diplomatic compromise. When word reached the United States of his unilateral negotiations, Adams recalled him, and Gerry fell into disgrace, at least among the Federalists, as the whole episode became public (as the “XYZ Affair”). Gerry, along with Jefferson and Madison, was now considered at the top of the Federalists’ public enemy list.
No matter. He was soon running as a Democratic-Republican for governor of Massachusetts. He did not win until 1810 and though he had a relatively quiet first term, he exacted political revenge on the Federalists of his state by rigging the legislative districts (from which we get the word gerrymandering) to give the Republicans crushing majorities in the Massachusetts legislature. The Federalists responded with several attacks in the press, and one Federalist threatened to burn his house and tar and feather him. Gerry retaliated by providing a list of more than 200 newspapers that he claimed libeled him. He asked for a revision of libel laws to make criticizing the governor a crime.
Elbridge Gerry was defeated for re-election in 1812, but to honor his “good work” and to balance the ticket with a Northerner, the Republicans nominated him for vice president. Gerry received word of his selection in June shortly before the Congress declared war on Great Britain. Gerry was alarmed by the disunionist sentiment in his home state and warned President Madison that Federalists intended to obstruct the war effort—by violence, if necessary. His addition to the ticket did not help Madison carry Massachusetts, though Madison and Gerry won handily in the Electoral College. Gerry took the oath in 1813 and immediately declared the United States would acquire Canada. Gerry died before the war was over, in November 1814.
Gerry vs. Mason
For all his political ambiguity, Gerry was recognized as a champion of the Anti-Federalist cause. One Anti-Federalist publication admired Gerry for his “manly” resistance to the Constitution, and another scolded supporters of the Constitution for their “indecent” attacks against Gerry and George Mason of Virginia. Without question, both men were fervent supporters of states’ rights and a bill of rights to protect individual liberty, but the similarities stop there. Mason was a man descended from an ordered, agrarian society whose political “philosophy” was based on history and the code of a gentleman.
States’ rights and civil liberty, in Mason’s view, protected Southern states from the designs of Northern capitalists and scheming centralizers; his philosophy was couched not in self-interest but in the interest of his society. Gerry, on the other hand, was a Northern capitalist, and one whose guiding principle was self-interest. Mason retired after the state ratification convention in 1788 and never again served in any level of government. He was a planter, not a politician. Mason believed the Constitution only profited men who lusted after power, privilege, and patronage.
Elbridge Gerry was actually one of those men, and it was to protect his own power, privilege, and patronage that he became an Anti-Federalist. He argued against the Constitution because he believed it would weaken his own power and influence in his state. Gerry’s political flip-flops are most easily explained by his shifting personal interests. Gerry was a merchant who favored a different type of political economy than did Mason and the other Virginia planters, and unlike Mason he was an ambitious politician who never retired from public “service.” Of all the Founding Fathers, Gerry is the one that modern politicians might most identify with.
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