The first gerrymander

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, dominated by Democrats, has redrawn the map for congressional districts in that state. It was assisted by a liberal law professor from Stanford.

According to Sean Trende, the new map follows reasonable principles — compactness, contiguity, and minimal jurisdictional splits — but within those confines repeatedly makes choices that increase the Democrats odds of winning districts. What a surprise!

The bottom line is that instead of gerrymandering by partisan legislators, Pennsylvania now has gerrymandering by partisan judges (Pennsylvania elects its Supreme Court judges), assisted by a partisan law professor.

We may have more to say about this matter. In this post, though, I want to discuss what almost certainly is America’s first gerrymander.

It’s well-known that gerrymandering dates back to the early days of the Republic. Indeed, the name comes from Elbridge Gerry, an important Massachusetts politician of the 1790s early 1800s, and vice president of the United States for a time under James Madison. He performed the handiwork known as gerrymandering in or around 1812, while serving as governor.

Years before, however, Patrick Henry had gerrymandered at least one congressional district in Virginia. He did this shortly after ratification of the Constitution and shortly before the first congressional elections under the new Constitution.

Henry’s gerrymander wasn’t directed at a rival party (parties hadn’t yet formed, though formation was in the works), but rather a rival politician: James Madison. The two had clashed bitterly during the proceedings that determined whether Virginia would ratify the Constitution. Madison of course supported ratification of the document he helped draft and then brilliantly defended in the Federalist Papers. Henry opposed ratification.

Madison prevailed narrowly, but Henry wasn’t finished fighting. He began pushing for a second national constitutional convention to amend the Constitution and add a bill of rights. Madison, according to Noah Feldman in his biography of the fourth president, believed that Henry had in mind eliminating the federal government’s power to tax, and thereby destroying the new federal system.

Madison desperately wanted to serve in the first Congress in order, among other things, to block a new convention. However, the state legislature, dominated by Henry, selected Richard Henry Lee and William Garrison as Virginia’s first Senators.

Madison figured handily to win a seat in the House, as he was the dominant political figure in his area of the state — Orange County. However, Henry managed to create a district in which Orange County was combined with heavily anti-Federalist counties.

To make matters worse, Henry recruited the formidable James Monroe, friend of Madison and disciple of Thomas Jefferson, to run for the seat. Monroe had opposed ratification of the Constitution.

Madison overcame the gerrymander and the Monroe candidacy only by vigorously campaigning — which he hated to do — and by supporting the addition of a bill of rights to the Constitution — which he had opposed. In the end, Madison lost two big counties heavily — Spotsylvania and Amherst — but won his home country almost unanimously. The total count was Madison 1,308, Monroe 972.

Madison went to Congress where he wrote the essence of what became the Bill of Rights. The rest is history.


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