On this date in 1744, Elbridge Gerry was born. Gerry was an American revolutionary, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the Constitution but refused to sign the document and campaigned against its ratification.

Gerry later served as James Madison’s vice president and died while in office.

Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1744. He was educated by private tutors and entered Harvard College at the age of 13. He made a fortune as a merchant and by the late 1700s was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts.

Gerry was an early opponent of British taxation and worked closely with Samuel Adams, Mercy Otis Warren and other Massachusetts patriots opposing British policy.

Gerry was elected as a representative to the First Continental Congress, but he declined the position because he was grieving the death of his father. He subsequently served in the Second Continental Congress from 1776 until 1780. His voice was instrumental in convincing some reticent members of that body to support the Declaration of Independence. During the war, Gerry was heavily involved in obtaining supplies for the Continental Army.

Gerry was one of only three members of the Philadelphia Convention who refused to sign the Constitution. (The other two were George Mason and Edmund Randolph.) He proclaimed that the Constitution was “full of vices,” including inadequate representation of the people, overbroad and ambiguous legislative powers, and a judicial branch that he said would be “oppressive.” He was also concerned about the possibility of a standing army, calling it “the bane of liberty.”

Gerry was particularly concerned about the lack of a bill of rights and led the charge against the ratification of the Constitution in Massachusetts. He was invited to the Massachusetts ratifying convention by the federalists to “answer any questions of fact” on the Constitution. But when he began to speak, federalists complained he was engaging in debate, so he left.

Despite his misgivings, Gerry was nominated for a seat in the first Congress and won the election. There, he was an influential voice in support of the Bill of Rights. He opposed some of the proposals because he didn’t believe they went far enough, and he was influential in getting freedom of assembly included in the First Amendment. He was also instrumental in crafting the Fourth Amendment.

Gerry was elected governor of Massachusetts in 1810. In his inaugural address, he spoke out against parties saying, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Ironically, he was later involved in a redistricting plan passed by Democrat-Republicans that was clearly intended to help the party maintain power. While Gerry he didn’t create the plan, he approved it. This is where we get the term gerrymandering.

When DeWitt Clinton died in April 1812, Madison chose Gerry to serve as his vice president. Madison hoped Gerry’s support of the war with Great Britain and his Massachusetts roots would help win New England votes in the 1812 election.

Gerry died on Nov. 23, 1814.

Mike Maharrey

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