April 11, 2006
Prologue Magazine Recalls the Founding Father Remembered for 'Gerrymandering'
Long after Elbridge Gerry played a key role in drafting the U.S. Constitution and served in the nation's first Congress, he took an action as governor of Massachusetts that turned his name into a word that today has a distinct undemocratic connotation.
As governor, Gerry approved a legislative redistricting plan designed to give his party an unfair political advantage, and as a result it was said that a district so designed looked like a salamander, which quickly led to the term "gerrymandered." The term now refers to an irregularly shaped district created to benefit a particular party or candidate. Suits alleging "gerrymandered" districts remain a major issue in our courts today.
But Gerry, who went on to serve as Vice President under James Madison, had a much more significant and positive role in the shaping of the republic because of his work during the Constitutional Convention of 1787, writes Greg Bradsher in the Spring issue of Prologue, the quarterly magazine of the National Archives.
"Today, Gerry is all but forgotten, yet his presence (which was often a nuisance to his colleagues), persistence, and political skills were important factors in shaping the system of government under which we live," writes Bradsher, an archivist at the National Archives, in an article, "A Founding Father in Dissent."
Gerry had been a major participant in the debates over the Constitution, addressing it 153 times. And he had served as chairman of a committee that was appointed to produce a compromise plan, one that both sides in the debate over the shape of the new government could support. Gerry, Bradsher writes, felt that if the convention failed, the confederation of states might dissolve.
In the end, Gerry got his compromise approved after 10 days of debate and the narrowest of votes. "In calling for compromise, chairing the committee, asking the Convention to accept the 'Great Compromise,' and voting vote it, Gerry played a crucial role in saving the Convention at its critical point," Bradsher writes.
In the full convention, Gerry did not vote for the new Constitution because it did not contain a national bill of rights and because it contained things he had opposed. Once it was adopted, however, he became an ardent supporter and urged its ratification in Massachusetts, which did so by a close vote.
After the Constitution was ratified, Gerry agreed to serve in the first Congress, beginning in 1789, to work on amendments that now are part of the Bill of Rights. Gerry died in 1814, halfway through his term as Madison's Vice President.
The Spring Prologue also includes an article, "Beyond the Box Score," which describes the agency's records-documents, drawings, photographs, and motion pictures-about professional baseball; many of the records are patent and court documents.
Another article, "When an American City Is Destroyed," recalls how the U.S. military units stationed in the San Francisco area became the "first responders" when the historic earthquake struck that city a century ago in April.
For nearly four decades, Prologue has shared with readers the rich resources and programs of the National Archives, its regional archives, and the Presidential libraries. Each issue features historical articles-drawn from National Archives' holdings and written by noted historians, archivists, and experts-as well as articles explaining and describing many of the National Archives' activities and programs as the nation's recordkeeping agency. The Washington Post said, "Prologue . . . can be regarded quite literally as an invitation for further study. It is also consistently absorbing reading."
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