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Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain
Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain

Who Was the "Gerry" of Gerrymandering?

Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain
Elbridge Gerry // Public Domain

Earlier this year, President Obama gave his final State of the Union address. Toward the end, he took aim at a centuries-old issue. “I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around,” the commander-in-chief said. Applause ensued.

How, exactly, do elected officials “pick their voters,” as the president claimed? Their main tactic is as simple as it is unfair. By redrawing the borders of electoral districts, members of a given political party can cram the opposition’s supporters into as few precincts as possible—thus grabbing a disproportionate amount of power.

Today, we call this tactic “Gerrymandering.” It's named after a man who helped make the Bill of Rights happen, a one-time Vice President, and the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who's buried in Washington D.C.

“A MAN OF IMMENSE WORTH”

Elbridge Gerry was born on July 17, 1744. He was a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and both his parents were linked to the merchant business. Gerry took up the trade in 1762 and became an exporter of cod (a profitable fish upon which countless fortunes have been built).

At age 28, he won a seat on the colony’s general court, where he’d come to share Samuel Adams’s revolutionary rhetoric. In 1776, Gerry joined the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Throughout his tenure there, Gerry demanded pay raises for patriot troops, earning him the nickname “soldier’s friend.” The merchant’s integrity was widely admired, even by John Adams (a notoriously hard person to impress). “[He] is a man of immense worth,” wrote the future President. “If every man here was a Gerry, the liberties of America would be safe against the gates of Earth and Hell.”

In 1787, with the war long over, Gerry took part in the Constitutional Convention. The importance of his presence cannot be understated. After all, it was he who moved to include a Bill of Rights—an idea that his colleagues shot down. Five days after the proposal, the newly completed constitution was ready to be signed. Since a Bill of Rights was nowhere to be found, Gerry—along with just two other delegates who made it to the end of the Convention—withheld his signature.

A subsequent letter to the Massachusetts State Legislature explained this choice. “It was painful for me, on a subject of such national importance, to differ from the respectable members who signed the Constitution; but conceiving, as I did, that the liberties of America were not secured by the system, it was my duty to oppose it,” Gerry stated. He may have lost that battle, but he ultimately won the war. Thanks in part to dissenters like him, a 10-amendment Bill of Rights was formally adopted on December 15, 1791.

Had he retired from politics right then and there, Elbridge Gerry might have gone down in history as the “Father of the Bill of Rights.” Instead, he’s remembered first and foremost for another, less admirable claim to fame.  

REDRAWING HIS LEGACY

Massachusetts made Gerry its eighth governor in 1810. By then, America had turned into a nation divided. Two rival parties now split the electorate: Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and the late Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists.

Gerry belonged to the former group, which backed his successful re-election campaign in 1811. At the time, Democratic-Republicans represented the Massachusetts legislature’s majority party. This gave them enough votes to pull off a rather devious scheme that secured big wins in the state Senate one year later.    

The plan was brilliant in its straightforwardness. Early in 1812, Democratic-Republican legislators laid out brand new districts which shoehorned most Federalist Party supporters into a handful of precincts.

Behind closed doors, Governor Gerry denounced this plot, calling it “highly disagreeable.” Unfortunately, that didn’t stop him from signing the proposed new districts into law anyway. The result was a monstrously slanted election season. Overall, Federalist candidates for the state Senate earned 1602 more votes than their Jeffersonian opponents did. Yet, because of these new precincts, the Democratic-Republican Party nabbed 29 seats to the Federalist’s 11.  

The new state electoral map looked positively absurd. Thanks to partisan manipulation, districts now came in all manner of spastic shapes. Particularly infamous was one such division in Essex County. To the staff of The Weekly Messenger—a prominent Federalist newspaper—this squiggly precinct looked like a mythical salamander. Thus, the name “Gerrymander” was born—and it stuck.

The Federalist surge meant that Governor Gerry was ousted from office, but Gerry’s career wasn’t quite over yet. On the contrary, it saw a swift rebound when James Madison chose him to become his second Vice President the following year. But like Madison’s previous VP, Gerry didn’t last long. Death took him while he was still in office on November 23, 1814.

Those interested may find his grave in the capital city of the nation he helped create. Nestled inside Washington’s Congressional Cemetery is Elbridge Gerry’s tomb. Above it sits the first monument ever funded in full by the federal government, where visitors can read Gerry’s personal creed: “It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country.”

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
How Do You Steer a Bobsled?
 Quinn Rooney, Getty Images
Quinn Rooney, Getty Images

Now that the Olympics are well underway, you might have developed a few questions about the games' equipment. For example: How does one steer a bobsled? Let's take a crack at answering this pressing query.

How do you steer a bobsled?

Bobsled teams careen down an icy, curving track at up to 90 miles per hour, so steering is no small concern. Drivers steer their sleds just like you steered your childhood sleds—by manipulating a pair of ropes connected to the sled's steel runners. The driver also gets help from the rest of the crew members, who shift their weight to aid with the steering.

Why do speed skaters wear glasses?

speed-skating

Speed skaters can fly around the ice at upwards of 40 mph, so those sunglasses-type specs they wear aren't merely ornamental. At such high speeds, it's not very pleasant to have wind blowing in your eyes; it's particularly nightmarish if the breeze is drying out your contact lenses. On top of that, there's all sorts of ice and debris flying around on a speed skating track that could send you on a fast trip to the ophthalmologist.

Some skaters also say the glasses help them see the track. American skater Ryan Bedford recently told the Saginaw News that his tinted shades help him focus on the track and filter out distracting lights and camera flashes from the crowd.

What kind of heat are the biathletes packing?

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As you might guess, there are fairly strict rules governing what sort of rifles biathletes carry on the course. They are equipped with guns chambered for .22 LR ammunition. The gun must weigh at least 3.5 kilograms without its magazines and ammunition, and the rifle has to have a bolt action or a straight-pull bolt rather than firing automatically or semi-automatically.

Is a curling stone really made of stone?

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You bet it is, and it's not just any old stone, either. Curling enthusiasts swear by a very specific type of granite called ailsite that is only found on the Scottish island of Ailsa Craig. Ailsite supposedly absorbs less water than other types of stone, so they last longer than their competitors.

Ailsa Craig is now a wildlife sanctuary, so no new ailsite has been quarried since 2002. As a result, curling stones are incredibly expensive. Kays of Scotland, which has made the stones for every Olympics in which curling has been an official event, gets prices upwards of $1,500 per stone.

What about the brooms?

The earliest curling brooms were actual brooms made of wood with straw heads. Modern brooms, though, are a bit more technologically advanced. The handles are usually made of carbon fiber, and the heads can be made of synthetic materials or natural hair from horses or hogs. Synthetic materials tend to be more common now because they pull all of the debris off of the ice and don't drop the occasional stray bristle like a natural hair broom might.

What are the ski jumpers wearing?

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It may look like a ski jumper can pull on any old form-fitting bodysuit and hit the mountain, but things are a bit more complicated than that. Their suits have to be made of a spongy material and can't be thicker than five millimeters. Additionally, the suits must allow a certain amount of air to pass through them; jumpers wearing suits without sufficient air permeability are disqualified. (This rule keeps jumpers from wearing suits that could unfairly act as airfoils.) These rules are seriously enforced, too; Norwegian skier Sigurd Petterson found himself DQed at the 2006 Torino Games due to improper air permeability.

Those aren't the only concerns, though. In 2010, judges disqualified Italian jumper Roberto Dellasega because his suit was too baggy.

What's up with the short track speed skaters' gloves?

Gloves
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

If you watch a bit of short track speed skating, the need for gloves quickly becomes apparent. When the skaters go to make passes or careen around a turn, they need the gloves to keep from cutting their hands due to incidental contact with other skaters' blades.

There's more to the gloves than just safety, though. Since the skaters' hands often touch the ice during turns, they need hard fingertip coverings that won't add friction and slow them down. The tips can be made of any material as long as it's hard and smooth, but you've got to give American skater Apolo Ohno some style points for the gold-tipped left glove he broke out in 2010.

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