Founders and the Constitution

Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814)

Clock One 45-minute class period.

In this lesson, students will study the life of Elbridge Gerry. Students will learn about Gerry’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny, his opposition to the Constitution, the tactic of gerrymandering, and much more.

Founding Principles

Federalism image

Federalism

The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.

Quotes

Something must be done or we shall disappoint not only America but the whole world. - Elbridge Gerry, at the Constitutional Convention (1787)

Introduction

Elbridge Gerry is remembered today for his controversial attempt as governor to draw congressional districts in Massachusetts to the advantage of his party. Indeed, “gerrymandering” is a common political tactic today and undeniably part of Gerry’s legacy. But Gerry was more than a cunning politician. He was also a leader of the American independence movement, an important critic of the Constitution, and a wartime vice president of the United States.

Cantankerous and obstinate, Gerry seemed to shift his political views according to circumstances. His unpredictable nature often frustrated even his allies. At the Constitutional Convention, he first played the role of moderate and mediator but ended up a critic of the final document. Gerry feared that the central government set up by the Constitution would become dangerously powerful. He was one of three delegates who stayed until the end of the convention but who refused to sign the Constitution.

Once the document was ratified, however, Gerry accepted a seat in the new Congress and even began to sympathize with the Federalist Party, which favored a strong central government. But after being criticized by the Federalists for his role in the “X, Y, Z Affair” that strained the relationship between France and the United States during the administration of John Adams, Gerry embraced the rival Democratic-Republicans. As a member of this party, Gerry served as governor of Massachusetts and as vice president under James Madison during the War of 1812. He died while serving in the latter office, a public servant until the end of his life.

Relevant Thematic Essays

Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about Elbridge Gerry. They should first read as background homework Handout A—Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions. After discussing these questions in class, the teacher should have the students answer the Critical Thinking Questions as a class. Next, the teacher should introduce the students to the primary source activity, Handout B—By His Own Hand: Elbridge Gerry and Gerrymandering, in which the students will draw congressional districts to one political party’s advantage.

There are Follow-Up Homework Options that ask the students to consider how gerrymandering can be used to discriminate against certain ethnic and religious groups. Extensions provides opportunities for reflection on historical and contemporary controversies; students are asked to research Supreme Court cases that deal with gerrymandering as well as their state’s most recent experience with reapportionment.

Objectives

Students will:

  • appreciate Gerry’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
  • analyze the reasons for Gerry’s opposition to the Constitution
  • understand how Gerry drew congressional districts in Massachusetts to favor the Federalist Party
  • apply Gerry’s redistricting tactics (gerrymandering) in a hypothetical scenario

Materials

Student Handouts

  • Handout A—Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814)
  • Handout B—By His Own Hand: Elbridge Gerry and Gerrymandering

Additional Teacher Resource

  • Answer Key

Standards

CCE (9–12): IIA1, IIC1, IIIA1, IIIA2
NCHS (5–12): Era III, Standards 3A, 3B
NCSS: Strands 2, 5, 6, and 10

Background Homework

Ask students to read Handout A—Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

Warm-up 10 min.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Elbridge Gerry.

    Elbridge Gerry was a Massachusetts merchant who became a leader of the American independence movement. As a member of the Continental Congress he signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. He represented Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he chaired the committee that forged the Great Compromise that resolved the dispute about representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. He was one of three delegates who stayed until the end of the convention but who refused to sign the final document. Gerry feared that the national government as designed by the Constitution was too powerful. In 1797, John Adams chose Gerry as one of a three-member delegation to negotiate with the French government. In France he became involved in the divisive “X, Y, Z Affair.” In 1810, Gerry became governor of Massachusetts and approved a controversial redistricting plan. The plan created new, irregularly shaped congressional voting districts designed to give his party an advantage in the elections for state senate, a tactic called “gerrymandering.”

Context 5 min.

Briefly review Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution (as amended by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment), which explains how representatives are to be apportioned among the states every ten years according to the national census. Point out to the students that the Constitution leaves the method of electing representatives to each individual state. The states were left to decide whether their allotted number of representatives would be chosen at large (by a state-wide election) or by districts. Today, after reapportionment, states usually undertake redistricting, the process of redrawing district lines for each office so that all districts have nearly identical voter population. This process is often influenced by political considerations, as the party in power in the state legislature and in the governor’s office ordinarily attempts to draw district boundary lines to its advantage.

Be sure to show the students the original political cartoon of 1812 that depicts Gerry’s salamander-shaped district: http://www.boondocksnet.com/cartoons/mcc253.html

In His Own Words 25 min.

  1. Divide the class into an even number of groups. Each group should be composed of three to five students.
  2. Tell the class that each group will have the task of drawing Massachusetts’ congressional districts so as to favor a particular political party. Assign half the groups the task of favoring the Federalist Party and the other half the job of favoring the Republican Party.
  3. Distribute Handout B—By His Own Hand: Elbridge Gerry and Gerrymandering. Tell the students that this map depicts the political affiliation of the population of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts around 1810. (This is a fictional map, not based on actual statistics.) Each F represents a group of voters likely to vote for Federalists; each R represents a group of voters who are inclined to vote for Republicans. Each letter represents an equal number of people.
  4. There are fifty letters on the map—twenty-five representing Federalist voters and twenty-five representing Republican voters. Students must create ten congressional districts of five letters each. For the purposes of this activity, districts must be contiguous (that is, there cannot be separate “islands” that comprise one district).
  5. Each district will favor one party. The job of each group is to make as many districts as possible favor its assigned party. They must make at least six districts favor their party. HINT: Tell the students that they might want to concentrate the opposition in a small number of districts.
  6. Have each group present its map to the class and discuss the tactics it used to draw district boundary lines so as to favor one party. (It may be easier to make an overhead of the Massachusetts map and let each group draw its finished map on the surface on which the map is projected.)

Wrap-up Discussion 5 min.

After the presentations and discussion, ask the students these questions: Is it realistic to think that a state legislature could put aside political considerations when drawing congressional districts? If not, can you think of a fair and impartial way for a state to draw district boundaries? Should independent commissions be created to oversee redistricting?
Answers will vary.

Follow-Up Homework Options

Have the students answer this question in one to two paragraphs:

  • How could gerrymandering be used to discriminate against certain ethnic and religious groups?

Extensions

  1. Ask the students to research one or more of the following Supreme Court cases that deal with redistricting, and then write a one-paragraph summary of the Court’s decision:
    • Baker v. Carr (1962)
    • Reynolds v. Sims (1964)
    • Lucas v. Colorado (1964)
    • Davis v. Bandemer (1986)
    • Shaw v. Reno (1993)
    • Abrams v. Johnson (1997)
    • Easley v. Cromartie (2001)
  2. Ask the students to research your state’s most recent experience with reapportionment. They should be ready to tell the class whether your state gained or lost representatives after the 2000 census (reapportionment) and whether there was any controversy about redistricting.

Resources

Print

Allen, William B., and Gordon Lloyd. The Essential Anti-Federalist. Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002.
Austin, James T. The Life of Elbridge Gerry. 2 vols. New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.
Billias, George Athan. Elbridge Gerry: Founding Father and Republican Statesman. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Gardiner, C. Harvey. A Study in Dissent: The Warren-Gerry Correspondence, 1776–1792. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.
Storing, Herbert J. What the Anti-Federalists Were For. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Internet

“The Constitutional Convention.” TeachingAmericanHistory.org. http://www.teachingamericanhistory.org/convention/
“Elbridge Gerry.” National Archives and Records Administration. http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/constitution_founding_fathers_massachusetts.html
“Elbridge Gerry (1813–1814).” Reprinted from Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789–1993. Government Printing Office. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/elbridge_gerry.pdf
“Elbridge Gerry’s Reasons for Not Signing the Constitution.” The Library of Congress. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Debates and Documents, 1774–1875. http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/newnatn/usconst/egerry.html
“The Gerrymander.” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trr113.html

Selected Works

By Elbridge Gerry

  • Objections to Signing the National Constitution (1787)

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