Elbridge Gerry

Associated Locations:

  • Marblehead, Massachusetts

Associated Dates:

  • July 17, 1744 – Born

Christ-like Character Sketch

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, the 1848 original.

Elbridge Gerry was born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, on the seventeenth of July, I744. His father was a merchant in extensive busi-
ness, and he resolved to give his son an excellent education. When his preparatory studies were concluded, he entered Harvard College, and graduated with the title of A. B., in 1762. He soon after entered into commercial pursuits, amassed a handsome fortune, and by his intelligence and good character, won for himself the esteem of his fellow-citizens. He watched with much solicitude the rapid strides which the oppressions of Great Britain were making in this country, and having expressed his sentiments fearlessly, his townsmen elected him a member of the General Court of the province, in 1773. There he soon became a bold and energetic leader, ingenious in devising plans of operation, and judicious and zealous in their execution. He was connected with John Adams and others in carrying through resolutions that had been offered in the General Court, having reference to the removal of Governor Hutchinson from office.

Mr. Gerry was active in all the leading political movements in Massachusetts until the War broke out. He was a member of the first Provincial Congress of that province, and was one of the most efficient opposers of Governor Gage. He was a member of the Provincial Congress at the time of the battle of Bunker Hill. The night preceding that event, he and General Warren slept together in the same bed. They bade each other an affectionate farewell in the morning, and separated, Mr. Gerry to go to the Congress, sitting at Watertown, and Dr. Warren to be slain upon the battle-field.

In January, 1776, Mr. Gerry was elected a delegate to the Continental Congress. There his commercial knowledge proved very useful, and he was put upon many committees where such knowledge was needed. He had been previously elected a Judge of the Court of Admiralty, but preferring a more active life, he declined the appointment. He was a warm supporter of the resolution of Mr. Lee, declaring the United States free and independent, and he signed his name to the Declaration on the second of August, following its adoption.

In 1777, Mr. Gerry was appointed one of a committee to visit Washington at his headquarters at Valley Forge. The report of that committee had a great effect upon Congress, and caused more efficient measures to be taken for the relief and support of the army. In 1780 he retired from Congress to look after his private affairs, but was re-elected in 1783. In all the financial operations of
that body, Mr. Gerry was indefatigably engaged. In 1785 he again retired from Congress, and fixed his residence in Cambridge.

Mr. Gerry was a member of the Convention of Massachusetts which adopted the present Constitution of the United States. He was so opposed to many of its leading features that he never subscribed his name to it, but when it became the fundamental law of the land, he did all in his power to carry out its provisions. He was twice elected a member of the House of Representatives of the
United States under it, and after faithful services he again retired to private life.

Mr. Adams, when President, knew and appreciated the abilities of Mr. Gerry, and he called him forth from his domestic quiet, by nominating him one of three envoys to the Court of France. The joint mission was not received by that govemment, but Mr. Gerry was accepted, and this made him very unpopular with a large portion of the people of the United States. Mr. Gerry considered it his duty to remain, and did so. After his return from France, the Republicans of Massachusetts nominated him for Governor. He failed the first time, but was elected the next. In l8ll, he was nominated for, and elected, Vice President of the United States.

While in the performance of his duties at the seat of government, he was suddenly seized with illness, and died on the twenty-third of November, 1814, at the age of seventy years. He was entombed in the Congressional Cemetery, and a handsome monument was erected to his memory by Congress. 1

Character Sketch from Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, the 1829 original.

Elbridge Gerry was born at Marblehead, in the state of Massachusetts, on the seventeenth day of July, 1744. His father was a native of Newton, of respectable parentage and connections. He emigrated to America in 1730, soon after which, he established himself as a merchant in Marblehead, where he continued to reside until his death, in 1774. He was much esteemed and respected, as a man of judgment and discretion.

Of the early habits or manners of young Elbridge, little is known. He became a member of Harvard College before he had completed his fourteenth year; and of course was too young at the university to acquire any decided character.

Mr. Gerry was originally destined to the profession of medicine, to which his own inclination strongly attached him. But soon after leaving college, he engaged in commercial affairs under the direction of his father, and for some years followed the routine of mercantile business in his native town. Great success attended his commercial enterprise and within a few years, he found himself in the enjoyment of a competent fortune.

It is natural to suppose that the superior education of Mr. Gerry, added to the respectable character he sustained, as a man of probity and judgment, gave him influence over the people among whom he resided. In May, 1772, the people of Marblehead manifested their respect and confidence by sending him a representative to the general court of the province of Massachusetts. In May of the following year, Mr. Gerry was re-elected to the same office. During the session of the general court that year, Mr. Samuel Adams introduced his celebrated motion for the appointment of a standing committee of correspondence and inquiry.

In accordance with this motion, committees of correspondence were appointed throughout the province, by means of which intelligence was as freely circulated abroad, and a Spirit of patriotism was infused through all parts of the country. Though one of the youngest members, Mr. Gerry was appointed by the House of Representatives, a member of this committee; in all the proceedings of which, he took an active and prominent part.

In the month of June, the celebrated letters of Governor Hutchinson to persons in England, were laid before the house by Mr. Adams. The object of these letters, as noticed in a preceding page, was to encourage the British administration in maintaining their arbitrary measures. In the debates which ensued on the disclosure of these letters, Mr. Gerry distinguished himself, and was indefatigably engaged through the year, in forwarding the resolute measures, which combined to overthrow the royal government of the province. He was also particularly active in the scenes which marked the year 1774. He united in the opposition to the importation of tea, and to the Boston port bill; and heartily concurred in the establishment of a system of non-intercourse with the parent country.

In the month of August, Governor Gage issued his precepts to the several towns, to choose representatives to meet at Salem, the first week in October. Before the arrival of that day, the governor had countermanded their meeting. Notwithstanding this prohibition, delegates assembled at Salem on the seventh of October. There having formed themselves into a provincial congress, they adjourned to Concord, and proceeded to business. Of this congress Mr. Gerry was an active and efficient member.

On the organization of the assembly, a committee was appointed to consider the state of the province. Fourteen of the most distinguished members of the congress, among whom was Mr. Gerry, composed this committee. They published a bold and energetic appeal, which, in the form of an address to Governor Gage, was calculated to justify the authority they had assumed, to awaken their constituents to a sense of the dangers they feared, and the injuries they had sustained.

They next appointed a committee of safety, and adopted measures to obtain a supply of arms and ammunition; of which the province was lamentably deficient. they re-organized the militia, appointed general officers, and took such other measures as the approaching crisis seemed to render necessary.

In February, 1775, a new provincial congress, of which Mr. Gerry was a member, assembled in Cambridge. This congress, like the former one, published an appeal to the Peoples designed to excite and regulate that patriotic spirit, which a the emergency required. A general apprehension prevailed, that a pacific termination of the existing troubles was not to be expected. They avowed their abhorrence of actual hostilities, but still maintained their right to arm in defence of their country, and to prepare themselves to resist with the sword.

In the spring of 1775, the prospect of open war every day increased. A strong apprehension prevailed, that an attempt would be made by the royal governor to destroy such military stores as had been collected, particularly at Concord and Worcester. The committee of safety, in their solicitude on this subject, stationed a watch at each of these places, to give an alarm to the surrounding country should such an attempt be made.

A short period only elapsed, before the apprehensions of the people proved not to be without foundation. The expedition to Concord, and the bloody scenes which occurred both there and at Lexington, ushered in the long expected contest. “Among the objects of this expedition,” observes Mr. Austin, in his life of Mr. Gerry, “one was to seize the persons of some of the influential members of Congress, and to hold them as hostages for the moderation of their colleagues, or send them to England for trial as traitors, and thus strike dismay and terror into the minds of their associates and friends.

A committee of Congress, among whom were Mr. Gerry, Colonel Orne, and Colonel Hancock, had been in session on the day preceding the march of the troops, in the village of Menotomy, then part of the township of Cambridge, on the road to Lexington. The latter gentleman after the session was over, had gone to Lexington. Mr. Gerry and Mr. Orne remained at the village, the other members of the committee had dispersed.

“Some officers of the royal army had been sent out in advance, who passed through the villages just before dusk, in the afternoon of the 18th of April, and although the appearance of similar detachments was not uncommon, these so far attracted the attention of Mr. Gerry, that he despatched an express to Colonel Hancock. who, with Samuel Adams, was at Lexington. The messenger passed the officers, by taking a by-path, and delivered his letter. The idea of personal danger does not seem to have made any strong impression on either of these gentlemen. Mr. Hancock’s answer to Mr. Gerry bears marks of the haste with which it was written, while it discovers that habitual politeness on the part of the writer, which neither haste or danger could impair.

Lexington, April 18th, 1775.

I am much obliged for your notice. It is said the officers are gone to Concord, and I will send word thither. I am full with you, that we ought to be serious, and I hope your decision will be effectual. I intend doing myself the pleasure of being with you to-morrow. My respects to the committee.

I am your real friend,


Mr. Gerry and Colonel Orne retired to rest, without taking the least precaution against personal exposure, and they remained quietly in their beds, until the British advance were within view of the dwelling house. It was a fine moon-light night, and they quietly marked the glittering of its beams, on the polished arms of the soldiers, as the troops moved with the silence and regularity of accomplished discipline. The front passed on. When the centre were opposite to the house, occupied by the committee, an officer and file of men were detached by signal, and marched towards it. It was not until this moment they entertained any apprehension of danger. While the officer was posting his files, the gentlemen found means, by their better knowledge of the premises, to escape, half dressed as they were, into- an adjoining cornfield, where they remained concealed for more than an hour, until the troops were withdrawn. Every apartment of the house was searched ‘for the members of the rebel congress;’ even the beds in which they had lain were examined. But their property, and among other things, a valuable watch of Mr. Gerry’s, which was under his pillows was not disturbed.

A few days after the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, the Provincial Congress re-assembled. It was now apparent that the controversy must be decided by force of arms. At this time, it was found that almost every article of a military kind was yet to be procured. The province possessed no magazines of arms, and had little ammunition. No contracts for provision or clothing had yet been made. To meet these exigencies, a committee, at the head of which was Mr. Gerry, was immediately appointed, and clothed with the proper power. The article most needed was that of gun-powder, to procure which, Mr. Gerry was specially commissioned by the committee. In the discharge of this duty, he wrote many letters to gentlemen in different party of the country, from whom he received others in reply. One of these will be found in the life of Robert Treat Paine, in a preceding page. Mr. Gerry did more: in many cases he hesitated not to advance his own funds, where immediate payment was required. In the progress of the war, the evidence of these payments was lost, or mislaid, and their final settlement was attended with heavy pecuniary loss.

On the 17th day of June, was fought the celebrated battle of Bunker Hill. The Provincial Congress was at that time in session, at Watertown. Before the battle, Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Congress, who was the companion and room mate of Mr. Gerry, communicated to the latter his intention of mingling in the expected contest . The night preceding the doctor’s departure for Bunker Hill, he lodged, it is said, in the same bed with Mr. Gerry. In the morning, in reply to the admonitions of his friend, as he was about to leave him, he uttered the well known words, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” [It is sweet and glorious to lay down life for one’s country]

Mr. Gerry, on that day, attended the Provincial Congress. His brave friend, as is well known, followed where his duty called him, to the memorable “heights of Bunker,” where he fell fighting for the cause of liberty and his country.

At an early period in 1775, Mr. Gerry submitted a proposal in the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, for a law to encourage the fitting out of armed vessels, and to provide for t adjudication of prizes. This was a step of no small importance. To grant letters of marque and of reprisal, is the prerogative of the sovereign. For a colony to authorize such an act, was rebellious, if not treasonable. The proposal was sustained, though not without opposition. Mr. Gerry was chairman of the committee appointed to prepare the act to authorize privateering, and to establish admiralty courts. Governor Sullivan was another member of it; and on these two gentlemen devolved the task of drawing the act, which they executed in a small room under the belfry of the Watertown meeting house, in which the Provincial Congress was holding its session. This law, John Adams pronounced one of the most important measures of the Revolution. Under the sanction of it, the Massachusetts cruisers captured many of the enemy’s vessels, the cargoes of which furnished various articles of necessity to the colonies.

Of the court of admiralty, established in pursuance of the law proposed by Mr. Gerry, that gentleman himself was appointed a judge, for the counties of Suffolk, Middlesex, and Essex. This honour, however, he declined, from a determination to devote himself to more active duties.

To such duties, he was not long after called, by the suffrages of his fellow citizens, who elected him a delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress, in which body he took his seat, on the 9th of February, 1776. For this distinguished station he was eminently fitted; and of this body he continued a member with few intervals, until September, 1785. Our limits preclude a minute notice of the various duties which he there discharged on various occasions he was appointed to serve on committees, whose business required great labour, and whose results involved the highest interests of the country. He assisted in arranging the plan of a general hospital, and of introducing a better discipline into the army; and regulating the commissary’s departments. In several instances, he was appointed, with others, to visit the army, to examine the state of the money and finances of the country, and to expedite the settlement of public accounts. In the exercise of his various official functions, no man exhibited more fidelity, or a more unwearied zeal. He sustained the character of an active and resolute statesman, and retired from the councils of the confederacy, with all the honours which patriotism, integrity, and talents, could acquire in the service of the state. Before leaving New-York, he married a respectable lady, who had been educated in Europe, with whom he now returned to Massachusetts, and fixed his residence at Cambridge, a few miles from Boston.

From the quiet of retirement, Mr. Gerry was again summoned in 1787, by his native state, as one of its representatives to a convention, called for the “sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, and reporting to congress, and to the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions as shall render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government, and the preservation of the union.”

On the meeting of this convention, little difference of opinion prevailed, as to the great principles which should form the basis of the constitution; but on reducing these principles to a system, perfect harmony did exist. To Mr. Gerry, as well as others, there appeared strong objections to the constitution, and he declined affixing his signature to the instrument. These objections he immediately set forth, in a letter addressed to his constituents, in which he observes:

My principal objections to the plan are, that there is no adequate provision for a representation of the people; that they have no security for the right of election; that some of the powers of the legislature are ambiguous, and others indefinite and dangerous; that the executive is blended with, and will have an undue influence over, the legislature; that the judicial department will be oppressive; that treaties of the highest importance may be formed by the president, with the advice of two thirds of a quorum of the senate; and that the system is without the security of a bill of rights. These are objections which are not local, but apply equally to all the states.

“As the convention was called for ‘the sole and express purpose of revising the articles of confederation, and reporting to congress and to the several legislatures, such alterations and provisions as shall render the federal constitution adequate to the exigencies of government, and the preservation of the union,’ I did not conceive that these powers extended to the formation of the plan proposed; but the convention being of a different opinion, I acquiesced in it; being fully convinced, that to preserve the union, an efficient government was indispensably necessary; and that it would be difficult to make proper amendments to the articles of confederation.”

“The constitution proposed has few, if any, federal features, but is rather a system of national government; nevertheless, in many respects I think it has great merit, and, by proper amendments, may be adapted to ‘the exigencies of government,’ and the preservation of liberty.”

When the constitution was submitted to the state convention of Massachusetts, of three hundred and sixty members of which that body consisted, a majority of nineteen only were in favour of its ratification. Although so many coincided with Mr. Gerry in his views of the constitution, he was highly censured by its advocates, who, under the excitement of party feelings, imputed to him motives by which he, probably, was not actuated.

Under the new constitution, Mr. Gerry was chosen by the inhabitants of the district in which he resided them representative to congress. In this station he served his constituents for four years; and, although he had formerly opposed the adoption of the constitution, he now cheerfully united in carrying it into effect, since it had received the sanction of his country. Indeed, he took occasion on the floor of congress, not long after taking his seat in that body, to declare, “that the federal constitution having become the supreme law of the land, he conceived the salvation of the country depended on its being carried into effect.”

At the expiration of the above period, although again proposed as a delegate to Congress, he declined a re-election, and again retired to his family at Cambridge.

On the fourth of March, 1797, Mr. Adams, who had previously been elected to succeed General Washington in the presidency, entered upon that office. France had already commenced her aggressions on the rights and commerce of the United States, and General Pinckney had been dispatched to that country, to adjust existing differences.

Immediately upon succeeding to the presidency, Mr. Adams received intelligence that the French republic had announced to General Pinckney its determination “not to receive another minister from the United States, until after the redress of grievances.”

In this state of things, the president convened congress by proclamation, on the fifteenth of June. Although keenly sensible of the indignity offered to the country by the French government, Mr. Adams, in his speech to Congress, informed that body, “that as he believed neither the honour, nor the interests of the United States, absolutely forbade the repetition of advances for securing peace and friendship with France, he should institute a fresh attempt at negociation[sic].”

Upon his recommendation, therefore, three envoys extraordinary, Mr. Gerry, General Pinckney, and Mr. Marshall, were dispatched to carry into effect the pacific dispositions of the United States. On their arrival at Paris, the French directory, under various pretexts, delayed to acknowledge them in their official capacity. In the mean time, the tools of that government addressed them, demanding, in explicit terms, a large sum of money, as the condition of any negotiation. This being refused, an attempt was next made to excite their fears for themselves, and their country. In the spring of 1798, two of the envoys, Messrs. Pinckney and Marshall, were ordered to quit the territories of France, while Mr. Gerry was invited to remain, and resume the negotiation which had been suspended.

Although Mr. Gerry accepted the invitation to remain, yet he uniformly and resolutely refused to resume the negotiation. His object in remaining in France was to prevent an immediate rupture with that country, which, it was apprehended, would result from his departure. Although he was censured, at the time, for the course he took, his continuance seems to have resulted in the good of his country. “He finally saved the peace of the nation,” said the late President Adams, “for he alone discovered and furnished the evidence that X. Y. and Z. were employed by Ta11eyrand; and he alone brought home the direct, formal, and official assurances upon which the subsequent commission proceeded, and peace was made”

On his return to America, in October, 1798, Mr. Gerry was solicited, by the republican party in Massachusetts, to become their candidate for the office of governor. At that period much excitement prevailed on the subject of politics throughout the country. Although at first unsuccessful, his party, in 1805, for the first time, obtained the governor of their choice. In the following year, Mr. Gerry retired. But in 1810, he was again chosen chief magistrate of that commonwealth, in which office he was continued for the two following years. In 1812, he was recommended to the people of the United States, by the republican members of Congress, to fill the office of vice president. To a letter addressed to him, by a committee announcing his nominations he replied, “The question respecting the acceptance, or non-acceptance of this proposition, involved many considerations of great weight, in my mind; as they related to the nation, to this state, and to my domestic concerns. But it is neither expedient or necessary to state the points, since one was paramount to the rest, that ‘in a republic, the service of each citizen is due to the state, even in profound peace, and much more so when the nation stands on the threshold of war.’ I have the honour frankly to acknowledge this distinguished testimony of confidence, on the part of my congressional friends and fellow citizens, gratefully to accept their proffer, and freely to assure them of every exertion in my power, for meriting in office, the approbation of themselves and of the public.”

The nomination of Mr. Gerry, thus made, was followed by his election, and on the fourth of March, 1813, he was inaugurated vice president of the United States. Providence, however, had not destined him to the long enjoyment of the dignified station which he now held. While attending to his duties, at Washington, he was suddenly summoned from the scene of his earthly labours. A beautiful monument, erected at the national expense, covers his remains and records the date and circumstances of his death.

Vice President of the United States,
died suddenly, in this city, on his way to the
Capitol as President of the Senate;
November 23rd, 1814
Aged 70.2



Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, Elbridge Gerry

Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing

  1. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, B.J. Lossing, 1848 original
  2. Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Rev. Charles A. Goodrich, 1829 original
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