Massachusetts invents gerrymandering

BOSTON GAZETTE……EXTRA. Boston: [Russell and Cutler], March 9, 1812.
Large broadside, printed area 18 3/8”h x 12 ½”w plus margins. Two woodcut maps below masthead, each with a bit of outline color.

A rare broadside documenting the 1812 redistricting controversy in Massachusetts, and a precursor to the “Gerrymander,” one of the most infamous images in American political history.

In early 1812 Massachusetts Republicans engineered a radical redistricting of their state, designed to disadvantage the Federalist majority in the upcoming state senatorial elections. It did so by spreading Federalist voters into minorities distributed across multiple districts, while concentrating Republicans into majorities where possible. The General Court duly passed the enabling act, which was signed on February 12 by Republican Governor Elbridge Gerry. The legislation was a great success for its backers: later in the year Republican voters managed to elect 29 of their own as Senators, while 51,766 Federalists managed a mere 11. However, it was also sufficiently unpopular that Gerry was voted out of office… though he landed on his feet, being elected as James Madison’s Vice President.

Offered here is a rare broadside Extra issued March 9, 1812 by the Boston Gazette, reprinting images and text from The Weekly Messenger of March 6. Just below the masthead, the composition is dominated by side-by-side maps of Worcester and Essex Counties, executed in woodcut with inset letterpress (together 8 ½”h x 12 ½”w at the border). The maps show the counties divided into their respective towns, with dotted lines indicating the tortured boundaries of the new-minted electoral districts. It is worth noting that these maps are among the earliest separate maps of any Massachusetts county, preceded only by a map in Peter Whitney’s History of the County of Worcester (1793).

The accompanying text rather ingeniously employs aspersions on the geographical asymmetry of the districts as an ad hominem argument against the redistricting:

“The above representation has been procured to show… in what mode the present ruling party have dissected the Commonwealth ; not ‘carved it as a dish fit for the Gods,’ but ‘hewn it as a carcase fit for hounds.’”

The writer then goes on to make a more reasoned case for the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the practice:

“If such should be the result, these counties, containing an immense federal [i.e., Federalist] majority of more than two thousand eight hundred electors, would exhibit the strange spectacle of being represented by four federalists and five democrats [i.e., Republicans, also known at the time as ‘Democrat-Republicans.’]”

On viewing a map of the redistricted Essex County, one wag—possibly the painter Gilbert Stuart—combined the governor’s name with that of the mythical beast, and so the concept of gerrymandering was born. The first depiction of the Gerrymander—one of the most enduring images and concepts in American political history—probably appeared in the Boston Gazette of March 26, 1812. It consists of a map of one of the two new districts in Essex County, with the constituent towns shown in outline, ornamented by fearsome jaws, and claws and a demonic-looking set of wings.

OCLC 85366781 and 954146701 (both for the same impression at the Boston Athenaeum, which like ours has outline coloring to the maps). OCLC 60983549 (NY Historical) describes an example allegedly dated “March 9, 1212.” Not in Persuasive Cartography: The PJ Mode Map Collection.  For a brief history of the Boston Gazette, see Clarence Sanders Brigham, “Bibliography of American Newspapers, Part III” in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, vol. 25 (Apr. 14-Oct. 20, 1915), pp. 233-234.


Old folds, 1” separation along left edge of horizontal centerfold, some foxing at right, and a faint tidemark at lower right.