This Day in History – March 26th, 1812

The word gerrymander (originally written Gerry-mander) was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette on March 26th, 1812. The word was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under Governor Elbridge Gerry (pronounced /ˈɡɛri/; 1744–1814). In 1812, Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. When mapped, one of the contorted districts in the Boston area was said to resemble the shape of a salamander.

The_Gerry-Mander

The original gerrymander, and original 1812 gerrymander cartoon, depict the Essex South state senatorial district for the legislature of The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Governor Elbridge Gerry

Governor Elbridge Gerry

Gerrymander is a portmanteau of the governor’s last name and the word salamander. The redistricting was a notable success. Although in the 1812 election both the Massachusetts House and governorship were won by Federalists by a comfortable margin and cost Gerry his job, the redistricted state senate remained firmly in Democratic-Republican hands.

The author of the term gerrymander may never be definitively established. Historians widely believe that the Federalist newspaper editors Nathan Hale, and Benjamin and John Russell coined the term, but the historical record does not have definitive evidence as to who created or uttered the word for the first time.

Appearing with the term, and helping spread and sustain its popularity, was a political cartoon depicting a strange animal with claws, wings and a dragon-like head satirizing the map of the oddly shaped district. This cartoon was most likely drawn by Elkanah Tisdale, an early 19th-century painter, designer, and engraver who was living in Boston at the time. Tisdale had the engraving skills to cut the woodblocks to print the original cartoon. These woodblocks survive and are preserved in the Library of Congress.

Flourish 3

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