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Redistricting 101: The inside story of America’s first gerrymander

Nefarious cartographic shenanigans are nothing new in America — they go back to the nation’s founding days.

In fact, they go back farther than Elbridge Gerry himself, the man whose name has been synonymous with the intentional drawing of political boundaries to favor one party’s candidates.

More than two decades before Gerry helped draw district lines that saved his Democratic-Republican Party’s majority in the Massachusetts state Senate, another powerful perpetrator tried to draw a rival out of a seat in Congress.

Had he succeeded, America might not have a Bill of Rights.

The great clash between Federalists who backed a strong centralized government and the Anti-Federalists who wanted more autonomy for the states came to a head in the summer of 1788 at the Virginia Federal Convention. For nearly a month, James Madison, who had laid out the framework for the Constitution the previous year in Philadelphia, battled Patrick Henry, who led the Anti-Federalist faction arguing against ratification.

The two men had been at odds for years over the balance of power between state and federal governments. Henry, a former governor who later served as a member of Virginia’s General Assembly, had so antagonized Madison and his ally Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson wished him grievous ill: “What we have to do I think is devoutly to pray for [Henry’s] death,” Jefferson wrote to Madison in 1784.

Though Henry was the most powerful politician in Virginia, Madison got the best of him in Richmond. The delegates voted, 89 to 79, to ratify the Constitution.

But Henry’s scheming had only just begun. His control of the General Assembly, where he commanded as many as three-quarters of the delegates, was comparable to the French monarch’s control over Parliament, George Washington wrote to Madison: “He has only to say Let this be Law — and it is Law.”

Henry tried to use that power to keep Madison out of Congress.

Madison first sought a seat in the U.S. Senate, then elected by the legislature. Henry, not without his own hyperbolic streak, said electing Madison to the Senate would send “rivulets of blood throughout the land,” according to one Madison ally. Anti-Federalists Richard Henry Lee and William Grayson beat out Madison for the right to represent Virginia in the Senate.

As legislators began contemplating the shape of the state’s 10 U.S. House districts, Henry tried again to keep Madison out.

Today, partisans use comprehensive and complex political and demographic data to craft maps in their favor. In 1788, Henry had no such information — and, since only white male landowners could vote, there may not have been any value in demographic data anyway.

But he did have one data point at his disposal: The vote over ratification at the previous summer’s convention.

The Anti-Federalist majority drew Madison’s mansion at Montpelier in Orange County into a district with seven other counties — five of which had sent Anti-Federalist delegates to the ratification convention, and a sixth that had sent a split delegation. The two most powerful political bosses in the district were both committed Anti-Federalists.

“Henry parlayed his dominant role in Virginia politics into getting the tide turned against Madison,” said Thomas Kidd, a historian at Baylor University and author of the 2011 biography “Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.” “He certainly didn’t want to put Madison in a district that would elect him easily.”

Madison’s allies thought the fix was in. “The object of the majority of to day has been to prevent yr. Election in the house of Representatives as demonstratively as if they had affirmed it,” George Lee Turberville wrote his friend, the day before the bill passed. Madison himself, examining the district he would have to run in, lamented that “a successful opposition seems unavoidable.”

Henry’s Anti-Federalists even had a hand-picked opponent in mind: A 30-year old veteran of the Continental Army named James Monroe, one of Spotsylvania County’s two delegates who had opposed ratification.

Madison and Monroe set out to campaign across the new district. In an early example of today’s well-practiced political smears, Madison complained to friends that his opponents had unfairly portrayed him as immovably wedded to the Constitution as it was written, and inarguably against amendments that would enumerate individual liberties and states’ rights.

“It has been very industriously incalcated that I am dogmatically attached to the Constitution in every clause, syllable & letter, and therefore not a single amendment will be promoted by my vote, either from conviction or a spirit of accomodation. This is the report most likely to affect the election, and most difficult to be combated with success, within the limited period,” Madison wrote to Washington.

To combat the perception, Madison wrote letters to local leaders and newspapers outlining his views of the Constitution. He promised to be open to accepting amendments. He even proposed a new amendment specifically aimed at protecting the religious liberties of the large Baptist minority in his district. And he stooped so low as to show up and ask for votes.

The Virginia winter was harsh and unforgiving — at one joint appearance, Madison’s ear was frost-bitten, a scar he carried for the rest of his life. Two days before Election Day, a foot of snow fell across the district.

When the votes were counted, Madison won a convincing 57 percent of the 2,280 votes cast. He walloped Monroe in Orange County and blunted Monroe’s home-field advantage in Spotsylvania. Madison won majorities in four of the eight counties, and lost another Anti-Federalist stronghold, Goochland County, by a single vote.

The race remains the only contest in American history in which two future presidents would run against each other for a seat in Congress.

Running in a competitive district had forced Madison to campaign for votes, something the father of the Constitution had once thought distasteful. But that campaigning, and the concessions Madison had to make to win votes, ultimately changed his views on amending the Constitution.

“Up until then he argued we don’t need what would eventually be called the Bill of Rights,” said Joseph Ellis, a historian at Mount Holyoke who has written 10 books on the Founding Fathers. “The position that he has to move to is a position closer to Henry’s and to his constituency’s.”

Four months after winning office, on June 8, 1789, Madison introduced 17 proposed amendments. Ten survived the ratification process over the next two years to become the Bill of Rights.

“Had Monroe been victorious, our ultimate constitutional framework might have been quite different,” the historian Thomas Rogers Hunter wrote in an account of Henry’s effort to draw an Anti-Federalist district.

In spite of the bitter feud between them, Madison ultimately saw a Bill of Rights as a necessary concession to Anti-Federalists like Henry. In his speech before Congress, Madison offered a nod to the minority whose support they would need for the Republic to survive.

“[T]here is a great number of our constituents who are dissatisfied with it; among whom are many respectable for their talents, their patriotism, and respectable for the jealousy they have for their liberty, which, though mistaken in its object, is laudable in its motive,” Madison told the House.

Madison served four terms in the House. He served as secretary of State in his friend Jefferson’s administration, and succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809.

Running for a second term, Madison turned to an ironic choice to serve as his running mate: Elbridge Gerry, the recently defeated governor of Massachusetts whose own attempt at creative map-making may have cost him reelection.

When the charges and countercharges of partisan gerrymandering begin to fly next year, spare a thought for its unfortunate namesake. Perhaps Gerry did not deserve his reputation as a mischievous mapmaker.

In an 1887 biography of Henry, Moses Coit Tyler wrote: “[I]t was a rare bit of luck, in the case of Patrick Henry, that the wits of Virginia did not anticipate the wits of Massachusetts by describing this trick as ‘henrymandering.’”

Tags Elbridge Gerry Gerrymandering James Madison Patrick Henry Redistricting Thomas Jefferson
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