If Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814) had played his cards right, he could have been a minor but respected figure in American history. He signed the Declaration of Independence, helped draft the Bill of Rights, served two terms in Congress, and was the fifth Vice President of the United States. His contemporaries thought him intelligent, gentlemanly, quirky, and a bit of a hot-head.
Instead his name is permanently linked to the practice of re-drawing political districts for partisan advantage. In 1812, Gerry was a member of the Democratic-Republican party and the governor of Massachusetts. Although he had called for an end to partisan bickering in his inaugural address in 1810, he came to believe that the Federalist party was too close to the British and wanted to restore the monarchy. Gerry went on a partisan power binge. He removed Federalists from state government jobs and replaced them with Democratic-Republicans. He had his attorney-general prosecute Federalist newspapers editors for libel. He even seized control of the Federalist-dominated Harvard College board–presumably recognizing the college as the source of future American political leaders. (Though he may have just gotten carried away. Power is an addictive and intoxicating beverage.)
To put the cherry on the partisan sundae, his fellow Democratic-Republicans, who controlled the legislature, redrew the state’s Senate districts in a way that would benefit their party. Previously, Massachusetts’ senatorial districts followed country boundaries. The new senate map twisted and turned in irrational patterns to insure a Democratic-Republican victory. Gerry may not have been responsible for the map’s design, but he signed it into law in February, 1812.
The Federalist controlled Boston Gazette ran an illustration of the district map in the form of a salamander-like monster and ran it with the title “The Gerry-Mander,” claiming it had been born of “many fiery ebullitions of party spirit, many explosions of democratic wrath and fulminations of gubernatorial vengeance within the year past.”
There are better ways to have your name live on in the language: public toilets for example.
Gerrymander: To manipulate the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class.