The map that popularized the word ‘gerrymander’

The practice wasn’t new in 1812. But a map in a newspaper gave it a name that stuck.

It was an abomination to democracy, critics said. The popular vote was nearly evenly split between the two parties, yet one party won 29 of the 40 seats at stake. The reason was a creative redrawing of electoral districts—what we now know as gerrymandering.

The practice dates back to the earliest days of the country—it’s even older than Congress—and it’s still alive and well today. In June 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed for the first time to hear a case involving what’s alleged to be purely political gerrymandering in Wisconsin. (The Court has previously heard gerrymandering cases where race was a factor.) But the term itself originates with the lopsided election described above, which took place in 1812 for the state Senate in Massachusetts.

The year before, the state’s governor, Elbridge Gerry, had approved a redrawing of the electoral districts to favor his Democratic-Republican Party over the opposition, the Federalists. The two parties had split the vote more or less evenly in recent elections, and the Democrats clung to a slim majority in the state legislature. The newly redrawn districts surgically removed Federalist-leaning towns in Worcester, Hampshire, and Essex counties to create new Democrat-friendly districts.

One of these new districts snaked its way around the outskirts of Essex County in a shape that reminded some critics of a salamander. A map published in the March 26, 1812 issue of The Boston Gazette added wings, claws, and fearsome teeth, along with a satirical “natural history” of the creature it called a “Gerry-mander.” (The version above comes from a broadside published around 1820 that reprinted the original Gazette article and added a “political history” updated with recent events.)

The term became the thing that Gerry is best remembered for. Never mind that he’d only signed the redistricting law reluctantly, and had done a number of other notable things as well: signing the Declaration of Independence, refusing to sign the Constitution (because it didn’t originally include a Bill of Rights), and serving as James Madison’s vice president. Or that his name was pronounced with a hard “g”—more like “Gary” than “Jerry”—in contrast to the pronunciation of “gerrymander.”

The political history included on the 1820 broadside (see below) notes that a public backlash following the 1812 election led to passage of a new districting law. It reports that the Gerry-mander was dead. But it warns “that it was but an empty coffin that was followed to the tomb.”

Indeed, more than two centuries later, the “horrid monster” still lives.

If you're interested in political maps, check out our post on the history of election mapping—and learn what's wrong with those ubiquitous red-state, blue-state maps.
This story originally published on June 28, 2017. It has been updated.

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