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Elbridge Gerry (1744-1814)

45 min

Students will:

  • appreciate Gerry’s role as a leader of the American opposition to British tyranny
  • analyze the reasons for Gerry’s opposition to the Constitution
  • understand how Gerry drew congressional districts in Massachusetts to favor the Federalist Party
  • apply Gerry’s redistricting tactics (gerrymandering) in a hypothetical scenario

Ask students to read Handout A—Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814) and answer the Reading Comprehension Questions.

  1. Review answers to homework questions.
  2. Conduct a whole-class discussion to answer the Critical Thinking Questions.
  3. Ask a student to summarize the historical significance of Elbridge Gerry.

Elbridge Gerry was a Massachusetts merchant who became a leader of the American independence movement. As a member of the Continental Congress he signed the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. He represented Massachusetts at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he chaired the committee that forged the Great Compromise that resolved the dispute about representation in the Senate and House of Representatives. He was one of three delegates who stayed until the end of the convention but who refused to sign the final document. Gerry feared that the national government as designed by the Constitution was too powerful. In 1797, John Adams chose Gerry as one of a three-member delegation to negotiate with the French government. In France he became involved in the divisive “X, Y, Z Affair.” In 1810, Gerry became governor of Massachusetts and approved a controversial redistricting plan. The plan created new, irregularly shaped congressional voting districts designed to give his party an advantage in the elections for state senate, a tactic called “gerrymandering.”

Context [5 minutes]

Briefly review Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution (as amended by Section 2of the Fourteenth Amendment), which explains how representatives are to be apportioned among the states every ten years according to the national census. Point out to the students that the Constitution leaves the method of electing representatives to each individual state. The states were left to decide whether their allotted number of representatives would be chosen at large (by a state-wide election) or by districts. Today, after reapportionment, states usually undertake redistricting, the process of redrawing district lines for each office so that all districts have nearly identical voter population. This process is often influenced by political considerations, as the party in power in the state legislature and in the governor’s office ordinarily attempts to draw district boundary lines to its advantage.

Be sure to show the students the original political cartoon of 1812 that depicts Gerry’s salamander-shaped district: <>.

By His Own Hand [25 minutes]

Divide the class into an even number of groups. Each group should be composed of three to five students.

Tell the class that each group will have the task of drawing Massachusetts’ congressional districts so as to favor a particular political party. Assign half the groups the task of favoring the Federalist Party and the other half the job of favoring the Republican Party.

Distribute Handout B—By His Own Hand: Elbridge Gerry and Gerrymandering. Tell the students that this map depicts the political affiliation of the population of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts around 1810. (This is a fictional map, not based on actual statistics.) Each F represents a group of voters likely to vote for Federalists; each R represents a group of voters who are inclined to vote for Republicans. Each letter represents an equal number of people.

There are fifty letters on the map—twenty-five representing Federalist voters and twenty-five representing Republican voters. Students must create ten congressional districts of five letters each. For the purposes of this activity, districts must be contiguous (that is, there cannot be separate “islands” that comprise one district).

Each district will favor one party. The job of each group is to make as many districts as possible favor its assigned party. They must make at least six districts favor their party. HINT: Tell the students that they might want to concentrate the opposition in a small number of districts.

Have each group present its map to the class and discuss the tactics it used to draw district boundary lines so as to favor one party.(It may be easier to make an overhead of the Massachusetts map and let each group draw its finished map on the surface on which the map is projected.)

After the presentations and discussion, ask the students these questions: Is it realistic to think that a state legislature could put aside political considerations when drawing congressional districts? If not, can you think of a fair and impartial way for a state to draw district boundaries? Should independent commissions be created to oversee redistricting?
Answers will vary.

Have the students answer this question in one to two paragraphs:

  • How could gerrymandering be used to discriminate against certain ethnic and religious groups?

  1. Ask the students to research one or more of the following Supreme Court cases that deal with redistricting, and then write a one-paragraph summary of the Court’s decision:
    • Baker v. Carr (1962)
    • Reynolds v. Sims (1964)
    • Lucas v. Colorado (1964)
    • Davis v. Bandemer (1986)
    • Shaw v. Reno (1993)
    • Abrams v. Johnson (1997)
    • Easley v. Cromartie (2001)
  2. Ask the students to research your state’s most recent experience with reapportionment. They should be ready to tell the class whether your state gained or lost representatives after the 2000 census (reapportionment) and whether there was any controversy about redistricting.

Student Handouts

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