Who Was Elbridge Gerry? - Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Elbridge Gerry was a statesman and politician during the American Revolution and the early years of the American Republic. He was also the Governor of Massachusetts and the 5th Vice President of the United States.

Introduction

For every famous name from American history, there is another man who is slightly lesser known but who also contributed greatly to our nation's history. Elbridge Gerry is one of those individuals. Though many Americans would not recognize his name today, Gerry was an important figure in America's early, formative years, during and following the American Revolution. Let's learn more about this important man.

Revolutionary Leader

A Massachusetts native, Gerry was educated at Harvard University and belonged to an extremely wealthy family. As a prominent Massachusetts merchant, Gerry vocally opposed British policies that increased taxes levied on the colonies. In 1772, he won a seat on the General Court in Massachusetts. As a wealthy and prominent Boston politician, he worked with Samuel Adams and other Boston leaders to oppose British policies. These actions won him a seat as a representative from Massachusetts at the First Continental Congress in 1774. Having just lost his father, Gerry did not go.

In 1775, when hostilities between the British and the colonists in Boston began, Gerry worked to supply the Rebel forces. In 1776, Gerry took a seat in the Second Continental Congress, vocally supporting the votes to declare American independence from Great Britain. He was one of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence. He served in this body until 1780, gaining considerable political experience. In the Congress, Gerry worked to ensure that the civilian body maintained control of George Washington and the standing Continental Army.

Constitutional Statesman

As an advocate of decentralized government, Gerry was skeptical of the Congress's centralized power. In 1783, when the Articles of Confederation were passed, Gerry took a seat in the Confederation Congress and stayed until 1785. He then parlayed his personal wealth into even greater financial success, purchasing land and extravagant estates, and investing in business ventures. By 1787, however, events required his return to national politics.

The Articles of Confederation, ratified in 1783, created a Federal government that was too weak to support and defend the young United States. Thus, in 1787, a Constitutional Convention was held to reconsider the foundation of the government. This convention produced a new constitution for the country which created a stronger central Federal government.

As a delegate to the convention, Gerry strongly opposed several measures of the Constitution. Gerry wanted guarantees separating certain powers between the Federal government and the state governments. He played a key role in forming crucial parts of the U.S. Constitution, such as the 3/5 compromise, which counted all slaves as 3/5 of a person for population purposes (a move that was meant to lessen the political gain extra population would have for Southern slave states).

Gerry also worked to ensure that the U.S. Senate would be comprised of two senators from each state, guaranteeing that small states would have a legitimate voice in that chamber alongside other larger states. Despite these compromises, Gerry was still skeptical of the strong Federal government, and was one of just a few delegates who voted against the Constitution. During the ratification process, Gerry vocally opposed the Constitution.

Congressman and Diplomat

In 1788, Gerry took a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked to create the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing that the new constitution would not trample of liberties of individuals and the rights of various states. Gerry's work ensured that the 1st Amendment passed included freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Gerry also spoke strongly in support of the 2nd Amendment, proclaiming it necessary to preserve the freedom of the people from an oppressive government:

'What, Sir, is the use of a militia? It is to prevent the establishment of a standing army, the bane of liberty. ... Whenever Governments mean to invade the rights and liberties of the people, they always attempt to destroy the militia, in order to raise an army upon their ruins.'

Without Gerry's support and efforts, the Bill of Rights would not have been such a strong defense of individual liberty.

Portrait of Elbridge Gerry
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Over the next decade, Gerry continued to be heavily involved in politics. He ended up supporting many Federalist policies, especially Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton's banking plans. In 1797, President John Adams appointed Gerry as a minister to France to negotiate better relations with the nation, which had seized many American ships as a rising tide of anti-Americanism took root in the country.

Gerry, along with his other commissioners, became embroiled in the infamous X-Y-Z affair, where French Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand and the French government attempted to extort the Americans to continue negotiations. Gerry stood firm and refused to bribe the French, and the matter became an international affair, leading to a period of tensions between the two nations known as the Quasi War.

Governor and Vice President

Upon returning from France, Gerry had become increasingly popular in the Democratic-Republican Party. After several failed attempts, Gerry won election as Governor of Massachusetts in 1810. Among his actions as Massachusetts Governor, Gerry supported a Republican plan to redraw the political districts in Massachusetts so as to maximize the political benefit to their party. This act of redrawing political districts for political benefit has continued throughout American history and is still known as Gerrymandering to this day.

In 1812, after losing a bid for reelection in Massachusetts, Gerry was made the Vice Presidential candidate for James Madison in the presidential election of 1812. Madison won the election, making Gerry the 5th Vice President of the United States. In this position, Gerry supported Madison in taking the nation to war with the British in the War of 1812. Unfortunately, however, Gerry did not live to see the nation through to victory. In November 1814, Gerry became gravely ill and died suddenly. He is buried in Washington, D.C.

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