To gerrymander is to draw the boundaries of electoral districts in an irregular way so as to create an unfair advantage for a particular political party or faction.
The origin of the term gerrymander dates back to the early 1800s in Massachusetts. The word is a combination of the words Gerry, for the state's governor, Elbridge Gerry, and salamander, as a particular electoral district was jokingly said to be shaped like a lizard.
The practice of creating oddly shaped electoral districts to create advantages has endured for two centuries.
Criticisms of the practice can be found in newspapers and books going back to the time of the incident in Massachusetts that inspired the term.
And while it has always been viewed as something done wrongfully, nearly all political parties and factions have practiced gerrymandering when given the opportunity.
The Drawing of Congressional Districts
The United States Constitution specifies that seats in Congress are apportioned according to the U.S. Census (indeed, that's the original reason why the federal government has conducted a census every ten years). And the individual states must create congressional districts which will then elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The situation in Massachusetts in 1811 was that the Democrats (who were political followers of Thomas Jefferson, not the later Democratic Party which still exists) held the majority of seats in the state legislature, and could therefore draw the required Congressional districts.
The Democrats wanted to thwart the power of their opponents, the Federalists, the party in the tradition of John Adams. A plan was devised to create Congressional districts that would divide any concentrations of Federalists. With the map drawn in an irregular way, small pockets of Federalists would then be residing within districts where they would be heavily outnumbered.
The plans to draw these peculiarly shaped districts were, of course, highly controversial. And the lively New England newspapers engaged in quite a battle of words, and, eventually, even pictures.
The Coining of the Term Gerrymander
There has been dispute over the years of who exactly coined the term "gerrymander." An early book on the history of American newspapers stated that the word arose from a meeting of the Boston newspaper editor Benjamin Russell and the famed American painter Gilbert Stuart.
In Anecdotes, Personal Memoirs, and Biographies of Literary Men Connected With Newspaper Literature, published in 1852, Joseph T. Buckingham presented the following story:
"In 1811, when Mr. Gerry was governor of the commonwealth, the legislature made a new division of the districts for the election of representatives to Congress. Both branches then had a Democratic majority. For the purpose of securing a Democratic representative, an absurd and singular arrangement of towns in the county of Essex was made to compose a district.
"Russell took a map of the county, and designated by a particular coloring the towns thus selected. He then hung the map on the wall of his editorial closet. One day, Gilbert Stuart, the celebrated painter, looked at the map, and said the towns, which Russell had thus distinguished, formed a picture resembling some monstrous animal.
"He took a pencil, and, with a few touches, added what might be supposed to represent claws. 'There,' said Stuart, 'that will do for a salamander.'
"Russell, who was busy with his pen, looked up at the hideous figure, and exclaimed, 'Salamander! Call it Gerrymander!'
"The word became a proverb, and, for many years, was in popular use among the Federalists as a term of reproach to the Democratic legislature, which had distinguished itself by this act of political turpitude. An engraving of the 'Gerrymander' was made, and hawked about the state, which had some effect in annoying the Democratic Party.
The word gerrymander, often rendered in hyphenated form as "gerry-mander," began to appear in New England newspapers in March 1812. For instance, the Boston Repertory, on March 27, 1812, published an illustration representing the oddly shaped Congressional district as a lizard with claws, teeth, and even the wings of a mythical dragon.
A headline described it as "A New Species of Monster." In the text below the illustration an editorial said: "The district may be exhibited as a Monster. It is the offspring of moral and political depravity. It was created to drown the real voice of the majority of the citizens in the country of Essex, where it is well known there is a large federal majority."
Outrage Over the "Gerry-Mander" Monster Faded
Though New England newspapers blasted the newly drawn district and the politicians who created it, other newspapers in 1812 reported the same phenomenon had occurred elsewhere. And the practice had been given a lasting name.
Incidentally, Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts governor whose name wound up being the basis for the term, was the leader of the Jeffersonian Democrats in the state at the time. But there is some dispute whether he even approved of the scheme to draw the oddly shaped district.
Gerry had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and had a long career of political service. Having his name dragged into the conflict over the Congressional districts seemed not to harm him, and was a successful vice-presidential candidate in the election of 1812.
Gerry died in 1814 while serving as vice president in the administration of President James Madison.
Gratitude is expressed to the New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of the early 19th century illustration of "The Gerry-Mander."