J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

“I have myself a large share of malicious Slander”

When James Warren wrote to Elbridge Gerry on 20 July 1788, the two political allies were digesting the legal ratification of the new U.S. Constitution, which they had opposed.

Warren and his wife Mercy had just moved out of the mansion in Milton where Gov. Thomas Hutchinson had lived before the war. Gerry was living on the Cambridge estate confiscated from Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver.

That’s the context for the Massachusetts Historical Society’s newly acquired letter, which Warren started by commiserating with Gerry about the political attacks on him. Soon, however, he was complaining about his own troubles:

Neither the stationing of Centries, or the malicious wishes & Obliquy of the federals will ever prevent my visiting my friend at Cambridge when it is in my power. No Man, or at least very few, can at this day possess that invaluable Treasure Mens Conscia recti [from Virgil, “a mind aware of what is right”] as I firmly beleive you do without being marked by detraction & Ill nature.

I have myself a large share of malicious Slander which I never deserved from this Country I heartily despise it. my spirits shall never be affected by it, & among the numerous resources of Consolation it certainly is no inconsiderable one to be associated with a Man who I so much Esteem & with whom I have been associated in the most Zealous & faithful services to this Country. they now wish us to be Bankcrupt, & despondent, or they would not spread such ill founded rumours. they gratify their Malice instead of exerciscing those feelings which pity if not gratitude should Excite on such an occasion if true.

No Man was ever persecuted with such inveterate Malice as I am. it follows me in every step I take. an Instance has lately occurred in which the public certainly had no Concern, but more Noise has been made about my takeing of a few Lockes from Milton House, than would have been made if another Man had burned it[.] it is so in every thing, & I suppose will be so for the same reason it has been so. I will quit this subject after giveing you one anecdote, which I think sufficient to silence Malevolence itself. I went to his Agent & Informed him that there were a variety of Articles which would be very Convenient to Mr Lee, that he should have the preference at a moderate price if he Inclined to have them, & afterwards received this surly answer, that he would not lay out a Shillings there, & now Complains that they are taken away.—

(we are now to see the Operation of the New Constitution with all its splendid Advantages. you must prepare yourself for takeing a part in the Execution in one House or the other. Policy will prevail over Malevolence, & make your Election certain.) and your Acceptance I think must be as certain as your Election, & will be a Choice only of the least evil. I have much to say to you on this & other subjects, which I design to do ere long viva voce in the mean time give my great regards to the federal Lady & believe me to be your Friend &c &c
Warren had just sold his Milton mansion to Patrick Jeffrey, estranged husband of Mary Wilkes Hayley. I can’t identify the “Mr. Lee” whom Warren wrote about.

Trying to milk this letter for further gossip, I note Warren’s phrase “give my great regards to the federal Lady.” Did that refer to Gerry’s wife Ann, and does that mean she favored the Constitution?

In any event, as Warren counseled, Gerry did participate in the new federal government as a member of the first two Congresses, opposing George Washington’s administration; then as a diplomat under John Adams; and finally as Vice President under James Madison. He also slipped in a term as Massachusetts governor. Ann Gerry (1763-1849), nineteen years younger than her husband, was the last surviving widow of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.


Byron DeLear said...

And, of course, to add to your list of Elbridge's political achievements, Gerry (pronounced 'Gary') has the distinction of his name being enshrined in one of the most destructive electoral banes of our time—Gerrymandering: the process through which politicians select their voters, so-to-speak, instead of voters selecting their politicians.

As Governor of Massachusetts, in 1812, Gerry signed a bill redistricting voting districts into incumbent-serving, convoluted shapes, establishing a practice which has enthroned the primacy of partisan control and further pushed our representatives to political extremes, due to their greater fear of being ‘primaried’ than facing a candidate from the opposite party in a general election.

Because of Gerrymandering voters are corralled and congested into safe Red or Blue districts; this is why in the recent election the GOP maintained a 33-seat majority in the U.S. House even though Democrats received millions more votes for their U.S. Representatives than Republicans. The word political-Bantustan comes to mind.

Maybe Elbridge deserved a little slander for the Gerrymander after all.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Elbridge Gerry gets an unfair rap in the word “gerrymander,” which was just as much of a political attack by the Federalists as the Democratic-Republican-drawn electoral map of Massachusetts.

For one thing, other state legislatures had already used the same tactics and, as you point out, continue to do so today. For another, Gerry doesn’t seem to have been particularly involved in drawing the Massachusetts district borders; he just signed the bill. The fact that "gerrymander" stuck may reflect the staying power of the Federalist press in New England more than his particular actions.

Furthermore, achieving fair representation is hard. If all our districts are competitive, that means nearly 50% of each district's voters don’t have their views represented in Congress for two years. On the other hand, if districts are drawn so that each has a strong majority from one party or interest—say, 80%—that means only 20% of people don’t have their views represented. Of course, the same 20% is excluded for a long time. But there might be better ways to ensure true representation in a legislature than the geographic system we've inherited.

Daud said...

He took locks off of the doors at the Milton House? What an odd thing to walk off with, though I guess I'm not taking into account the price of locks back then.

J. L. Bell said...

Yeah, it does seem odd. But I suppose big metal locks were (a) precision instruments, and (b) highly visible to visitors, so they might have been prestige items.