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Stark: Gerrymandering got it start in a political cartoon

Steve Stark, Forum editorial cartoonist1 / 2
2 / 2

We can thank a 19th century editorial cartoonist for creating one of the strangest, yet commonly used, political words in America. It's so conventional that in the last year it's been used in 13 Forum stories, over 20 references in the New York Times and many dozens of broadcasts. In 1812, the Massachusetts Legislature painstakingly reconfigured a new voting district in the state governed by patriot Elbridge Gerry. His majority party followed an established American political practice of drafting new voting districts to be beneficial to their party by re-mapping neighborhoods and areas favorable to their party.

Like their promises and baby kissing, it continues today.

You Democrats will assume it was the Republicans and you Republicans are fairly certain it was the Democrats. Actually, the party was known as the Democrat-Republicans battling the Federalists. Holy identity crisis, Batman!

The new district was an oddly-shaped arc of connected counties on a winding path north only to branch to a hard right at its peak.

The honorable Gov. Gerry was a former vice president under James Madison and had been a rare hold-out of signing the U.S. Constitution because it failed to include a Bill of Rights. Later, as member of the first Congress, he helped draft and pass those treasured amendments. But he's not remembered for that great legislation.

Gov. Gerry was destined to be forever aligned with the new voting district when it was announced in the pesky Boston Centinel newspaper with a drawing of its new boundaries. But there was more. The Centinel's artist/cartoonist Elkanha Tisdale looked at the queer voting district map he had drawn and was enlightened by its unusual shape and purpose. Tisdale's cartoonist muse stirred him to draw claw feet, wings and reptilian head to the voting district outline to create an odd-looking creature. He called it a Gerrymander, making an odd reference to the governor's name and the salamander-like creature he had drawn.

Ever since that cartoonist published that word (if not the beast), it's been part of our political lexicon. But there's also an unusual catch to the word. The late Gerry's name was pronounced with a hard G, as in Gary Lewis, not a soft G as in the sound of the name of the late Jerry Lewis. Why did pronunciation change? It's a mystery in history.

Tisdale's ink impact supports what cartoonists think: The pen is mightier than the sword ...but the sword won't leak in your pocket.

You might read about gerrymandering this month. But I'll bet this will be the only time you will have read about guys named Elbridge, Elkanha and Jerry Lewis in the same story.

Stark is a Forum editorial cartoonist and columnist. He presents illustrated history programs in schools, for professional groups and in other venues. Email Stark at sstark@cableone.net

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