Elbridge Gerry was born at Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1744. His father had emigrated to America in 1730, soon after which, he established himself as a merchant in Marblehead, where he continued to reside until his death, in 1774. Elbridge Gerry was the third of twelve children. He was a graduate of Harvard College, where he studied to be a doctor, attending there from age fourteen. The family was prosperous, thanks to a thriving mercantile and shipping business and an inheritance from Elizabeth Gerry's side of the family. The Gerrys were also pious, faithfully attending the First Congregational Church and avoiding ostentatious display.
Elbridge Gerry returned home after graduation to join the family business. A thriving port and commercial center, Marblehead was a hotbed of anti-British activity during the 1760s and 1770s. The future vice president played a limited role in the resistance movement until the spring of 1770, when he served on a local committee to enforce the ban on the sale and consumption of tea.
Elbridge Gerry was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1772, and later to its successor body, the Provincial Congress, serving as chairman of the committee on supplies during the fall and winter of 1774-1775. The historian Mercy Otis Warren--a contemporary--later recalled that Gerry coordinated the procurement and distribution of arms and provisions with "punctuality and indefatigable industry," an effort he would continue while serving in the Continental Congress. Following a practice that was neither unusual nor illegal at the time, Gerry awarded several supply contracts to his family's business. But, unlike many of his fellow merchants, he refused to take excessive profits from wartime commerce, explaining that he would "prefer any Loss to the least Misunderstanding with the public relative of Interest."
Gerry was elected to the second Continental Congress in December 1775, serving until 1780 and again from 1783 to 1785. His efforts to persuade wavering middle colony delegates to support independence during the summer of 1776 evoked paeans of praise from John Adams. "If every Man here was a Gerry," Adams claimed, "the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell."
One of four delegates chosen by the Massachusetts legislature to attend the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Gerry was neither an extreme nationalist nor a committed states' rights advocate. As chair of the committee that resolved the impasse between the large and small states over representation in the national legislature, Gerry made several impassioned speeches in support of the "Great Compromise," which provided for equal representation of the states in the Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives.
Soon after the convention adopted the compromise, Gerry began to worry that the constitution that was slowly emerging during those hot and tense days in Philadelphia would create a powerful national legislature capable of jeopardizing the people's liberties and overshadowing the states. Although the convention adopted several of his proposals to limit congressional power, including the prohibition against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws, these provisions failed to satisfy his apprehensions. Struggling to save a document that he now considered seriously flawed, Gerry offered a motion to include a bill of rights and several specific proposals to safeguard popular liberties. The convention's majority disagreed with this approach and defeated each of these initiatives. Abandoning his earlier call for a second convention, he worked to build support for amendments "adapted to the `exigencies of Government' & the preservation of Liberty." Reviled as a traitor to his class by elites who strongly favored ratification, Gerry suffered an overwhelming defeat in the 1788 Massachusetts gubernatorial election. Still, he noted with some satisfaction that his state and four others ratified the Constitution with recommendations for amendments.
Elbridge Gerry served in the United States House of Representatives during the First and Second Congresses (1789-1793). A conciliatory and moderate legislator, he supported Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton's proposals to fund the Revolutionary War debt and to establish a national bank. Disillusioned by the increasingly partisan nature of the debate that Hamilton's proposals generated, Gerry retired at the end of his second term, returning to Elmwood, his Cambridge, Massachusetts, estate, to attend to his business affairs and to care for his large and growing family.
Gerry's brief retirement ended in 1796, when he served as a presidential elector, supporting his friend and former colleague, John Adams. In 1797, with relations between the United States and France steadily worsening after the adoption of the Jay Treaty, President Adams appointed Gerry an envoy to France. The mission failed after representatives of the French government demanded a bribe before they would begin negotiations.
Elbridge Gerry was the unsuccessful Democratic-Republican nominee for governor of Massachusetts in 1800, 1801, 1802 and 1803. In 1810 he was finally elected Governor of Massachusetts as a Democratic-Republican. He was re-elected in 1811 but defeated in 1812 over his support for the redistricting bill that created the word gerrymander. The word "gerrymander" was coined when the Massachusetts legislature redrew the boundaries of state legislative districts to favor Governor Gerry's party. The governor's strategy was to encompass most of the state's Federalists, allowing them to win in that district while his party, the Democratic-Republicans, took control of all the other districts in the state. The term eventually became part of world political vocabulary, and the practice is still in use today.
With the 1812 presidential election fast approaching and the vice-presidency vacant since George Clinton's death in April, Madison was anxious to find a suitable running mate. Although Madison and Elbridge Gerry won the election, he died in office of heart failure in Washington, D.C. and is buried there in the Congressional Cemetery.