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Where does the term gerrymandering come from?

The gerrymander is named after early 19th-century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. After Gerry took office in 1810, his Democratic-Republican party redrew the map of the state’s Senate districts in a particularly dramatic and unusual manner. The aim was to weaken the opposing Federalist Party as much as possible.

Gerry
Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, as painted by James Bogle.

The new map of the state’s Senate districts was widely mocked in the press, as in the cartoon below. One strangely shaped district was said to look like a salamander, and was combined with the governor’s name to create the term gerrymander.

Gerry-Mander Boston Centinel, 1812

According to Christopher Klein of the Boston Globe, Gov. Gerry was actually barely even involved in the map-drawing process, though he did sign the new map into law. But the press and the opposition Federalist Party trained their fire on Gerry, and the controversy helped contribute to his re-election defeat in early 1812.

The “gerrymander” succeeded that year; though the Federalists won the governor’s mansion, they could not retake the state Senate. But the very next year, the Federalists won such an overwhelming election victory that they took the state Senate, including the infamous gerrymandered district. Supportive media outlets celebrated the downfall of the gerrymander, as you can see in this cartoon:

gerrymander skeleton Via rarenewspapers.com

Gerry’s name has been inextricably attached to gerrymandering ever since. Even his name is frequently mispronounced because of the term — gerrymander is typically pronounced with a “J” sound, like “jerry,” but Gerry’s name should be pronounced with a hard “G.”

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