Early life and education
Gerry was born on July 17, 1744, in the North Shore town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. His father, Thomas Gerry, was a merchant operating ships out of Marblehead, and his mother, Elizabeth (Greenleaf) Gerry, was the daughter of a successful Boston merchant. Gerry's first name came from John Elbridge, one of his mother's ancestors. Gerry's parents had 11 children in all, although only five survived to adulthood. Of these, Elbridge was the third. He was first educated by private tutors and entered Harvard College shortly before turning 14. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in 1762 and a Master of Arts in 1765, he entered his father's merchant business. By the 1770s, the Gerrys numbered among the wealthiest Massachusetts merchants, with trading connections in Spain, the West Indies, and along the North American coast. Gerry's father, who had emigrated from England in 1730, was active in local politics and had a leading role in the local militia.
Early political career
Gerry was from an early time a vocal opponent of Parliamentary efforts to tax the colonies after the French and Indian War ended in 1763. In 1770, he sat on a Marblehead committee that sought to enforce importation bans on taxed British goods. He frequently communicated with other Massachusetts opponents of British policy, including Samuel Adams, John Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and others.
In May 1772, he won election to the Great and General Court of the Province of Massachusetts Bay (its legislative assembly). There he worked closely with Samuel Adams to advance colonial opposition to Parliamentary colonial policies. He was responsible for establishing Marblehead's committee of correspondence, one of the first to be set up after that of Boston. However, an incident of mob action prompted him to resign from the committee the next year. Gerry and other prominent Marbleheaders had established a hospital for performing smallpox inoculations on Cat Island; because the means of transmission of the disease were not known at the time, fears amongst the local population led to protests which escalated into violence that wrecked the facilities[which?] and threatened the proprietors' other properties.
Gerry reentered politics after the Boston Port Act closed that city's port in 1774, and Marblehead became an alternative port to which relief supplies from other colonies could be delivered. As one of the town's leading merchants and Patriots, Gerry played a major role in ensuring the storage and delivery of supplies from Marblehead to Boston, interrupting those activities only to care for his dying father. He was elected as a representative to the First Continental Congress in September 1774, but declined, still grieving the loss of his father.
Congress and Revolution
Gerry was elected to the provincial assembly, which reconstituted itself as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress after British Governor Thomas Gage dissolved the body in October 1774. He was assigned to its committee of safety, responsible for ensuring that the province's limited supplies of weapons and gunpowder remained out of British Army hands. His actions were partly responsible for the storage of weapons and ammunition in Concord; these stores were the target of the British raiding expedition that sparked the start of the American Revolutionary War with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775. (Gerry was staying at an inn at Menotomy, now Arlington, when the British marched through on the night of April 18.) During the Siege of Boston that followed, Gerry continued to take a leading role in supplying the nascent Continental Army, something he would continue to do as the war progressed. He leveraged business contacts in France and Spain to acquire not just munitions, but supplies of all types, and was involved in the transfer of financial subsidies from Spain to Congress. He sent ships to ports all along the American coast and dabbled in financing privateering operations against British shipping.
Unlike some other merchants, there is no evidence that Gerry profiteered directly from the hostilities (he spoke out against price gouging and in favor of price controls), although his war-related merchant activities notably increased the family's wealth. His gains were tempered to some extent by the precipitous decline in the value of paper currencies, which he held in large quantities and speculated in.
Gerry served in the Second Continental Congress from February 1776 to 1780, when matters of the ongoing war occupied the body's attention. He was influential in convincing several delegates to support passage of the Declaration of Independence in the debates held during the summer of 1776; John Adams wrote of him, "If every Man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell." He was implicated as a member of the so-called "Conway Cabal", a group of Congressmen and military officers who were dissatisfied with the performance of General George Washington during the 1777 military campaign. However, Gerry took Pennsylvania leader Thomas Mifflin, one of Washington's critics, to task early in the episode and specifically denied knowledge of any sort of conspiracy against Washington in February 1778.
Gerry's political philosophy was one of limited central government, and he regularly advocated for the maintenance of civilian control of the military. He held these positions fairly consistently throughout his political career (wavering principally on the need for stronger central government in the wake of the 1786–87 Shays' Rebellion) and was well known for his personal integrity. In later years he opposed the idea of political parties, remaining somewhat distant from both the developing Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties until later in his career. It was not until 1800 that he formally associated with the Democratic-Republicans in opposition to what he saw as attempts by the Federalists to centralize too much power in the national government.
In 1780, he resigned from the Continental Congress over the issue and refused offers from the state legislature to return to the Congress. He also refused appointment to the state senate, claiming he would be more effective in the state's lower chamber, and also refused appointment as a county judge, comparing the offer by Governor John Hancock to those made by royally-appointed governors to benefit their political allies. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1781.
Gerry was convinced to rejoin the Confederation Congress in 1783, when the state legislature agreed to support his call for needed reforms. He served in that body until September 1785, during which time it met in New York City. The following year he married Ann Thompson, the daughter of a wealthy New York merchant who was twenty years his junior; his best man was his good friend James Monroe. The couple had ten children between 1787 and 1801, straining Ann's health.
The war made Gerry sufficiently wealthy that when it ended he sold off his merchant interests and began investing in land. In 1787, he purchased the Cambridge, Massachusetts, estate of the last royal lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Oliver, which had been confiscated by the state. This 100-acre (40 ha) property, known as Elmwood, became the family home for the rest of Gerry's life. He continued to own property in Marblehead and bought several properties in other Massachusetts communities. He also owned shares in the Ohio Company, prompting some political opponents to characterize him as an owner of vast tracts of western lands.
Gerry played a major role in the Constitutional Convention, held in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787. In its deliberations, he consistently advocated for a strong delineation between state and federal government powers, with state legislatures shaping the membership of federal government positions. Gerry's opposition to popular election of representatives was rooted in part by the events of Shays's Rebellion, a populist uprising in western Massachusetts in the year preceding the convention. Despite that position, he also sought to maintain individual liberties by providing checks on government power that might abuse or limit those freedoms.
He supported the idea that the Senate composition should not be determined by population; the view that it should instead be composed of equal numbers of members for each state prevailed in the Connecticut Compromise. The compromise was adopted on a narrow vote in which the Massachusetts delegation was divided, Gerry and Caleb Strong voting in favor. Gerry further proposed that senators of a state, rather than casting a single vote on behalf of the state, vote instead as individuals. Gerry was also vocal in opposing the Three-fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a free person for the purposes of apportionment in the House of Representatives, whereas counting each slave individually would have given southern slave states a decided advantage. Gerry opposed slavery and said the constitution should have "nothing to do" with slavery so as "not to sanction it." Gerry would ultimately not sign the final draft of the constitution because it allowed for slavery.
Because of his fear of demagoguery and belief the people of the United States could be easily misled, Gerry also advocated indirect elections. Although he was unsuccessful in obtaining them for the lower house of Congress, Gerry did obtain such indirect elections for the Senate, whose members were to be selected by the state legislatures. Gerry also advanced numerous proposals for indirect elections of the President of the United States, most of them involving limiting the right to vote to the state governors and electors.
Gerry was unhappy about the lack of enumeration of any specific individual liberties in the proposed constitution and generally opposed proposals that strengthened the central government. He was one of only three delegates who voted against the proposed constitution in the convention (the others were George Mason and Edmund Randolph), citing a concern about the convention's lack of authority to enact such major changes to the nation's system of government and to the constitution's lack of "federal features."
State ratification and Bill of Rights
During the ratification debates that took place in the states following the convention, Gerry continued his opposition, publishing a widely circulated letter documenting his objections to the proposed constitution. In the document, he cites the lack of a Bill of Rights as his primary objection but also expresses qualified approval of the Constitution, indicating that he would accept it with some amendment. Strong pro-Constitution forces attacked him in the press, comparing him unfavorably to the Shaysites. Henry Jackson was particularly vicious: "[Gerry has] done more injury to this country by that infamous Letter than he will be able to make atonement in his whole life", and Oliver Ellsworth, a convention delegate from Connecticut, charged him with deliberately courting the Shays faction.
One consequence of the furor over his letter was that he was not selected as a delegate to the Massachusetts ratifying convention although he was later invited to attend by the convention's leadership. The convention leadership was dominated by Federalists, and Gerry was not given any formal opportunity to speak. He left the convention after a shouting match with convention chair Francis Dana. Massachusetts ratified the constitution by a vote of 187 to 168. The debate had the result of estranging Gerry from several previously-friendly politicians, including chairman Dana and Rufus King.
United States House of Representatives
Anti-Federalist forces nominated Gerry for governor in 1788, but he was predictably defeated by the popular incumbent John Hancock. Following its ratification, Gerry recanted his opposition to the Constitution, noting that other state ratifying conventions had called for amendments that he supported. He was nominated by friends (over his own opposition to the idea) for a seat in the inaugural House of Representatives,