Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814)
Small, thin, with a hawklike nose and a squint in his eye, this Marblehead native was the third of twelve children of a wealthy merchant-shipper. When Gerry graduated from Harvard College, he joined his father and his brothers in the family export business. Despite a slight stutter, Gerry entered politics in 1772 and, as a protégé of Samuel Adams, became an outspoken advocate of independence. In 1776 Gerry became a member of the Continental Congress, where he focused his attention on military and financial matters. His steady call for better pay and equipment for the Continental troops earned him the name “Soldiers’ Friend.” Although he sat in the Confederation Congress from 1783 to 1785, Gerry found himself less suited to governing than to agitating for revolution. Dour, suspicious, and aggressive, Gerry made many enemies during his political career, but even his foes conceded that he was politically shrewd and clever. At the convention Gerry managed to antagonize almost everyone with his unpredictable stances on key issues. Although he began the convention as an advocate of a strong central government, he ultimately refused to sign the Constitution that it produced and worked against ratification in his home state. In 1789, however, he declared himself a supporter of the new government and was elected to the first Congress. Here he became a strong advocate of Federalist policies. By 1789 Gerry had shifted political loyalties once again. After several failures to win the governorship of his home state, Gerry at last took that office in 1810. When the Democratic-Republicans attempted to hold on to political power in Massachusetts by redistricting measures, Gerry’s Federalist opponents coined the phrase “gerrymandering” to describe this political ploy. Nearly seventy years old, Gerry nevertheless agreed to serve as James Madison’s vice president in 1813, the last political office of his long and stormy career.
Nathaniel Gorham (1738–1796)
As affable as Gerry was cantankerous, Gorham was the son of an old Charlestown family of modest means. With little formal education, Gorham managed to establish a successful mercantile career. Although he was never fashionably dressed and was a poor speaker, Gorham’s patriotism earned him political office. He served in the Massachusetts provincial congress in the years immediately before independence and was a member of the state’s Board of War throughout much of the Revolution. He was a man of good sense though no particular genius, but he spoke often at the Constitutional Convention and served as chairman of the committee of the whole and on the influential Committee of Detail. A disastrous venture into land speculation kept Gorham out of political life for several years after the Constitution was adopted. He died in debt, a pariah to the Boston elite society in which he had once claimed membership.
Rufus King (1755–1827)
Tall, handsome, with a disarmingly sweet speaking voice, King was born in a small frontier town in what later became the state of Maine. He was the eldest son of a prosperous farmer-merchant and thus received a good education, graduating from Harvard in 1777. He took up a career in law, but his impressive oratorical skills soon led him into politics. He served in the Massachusetts legislature from 1783 to 1785 and then in the Confederation Congress, where he gained a reputation as a brilliant speaker and an early opponent of slavery. King was only thirty-two when he joined the Massachusetts delegation to the Philadelphia convention, but his youthfulness did not deter him from taking an active role in the debates. He was a leading figure in the nationalist caucus and served on the Committee on Postponed Matters and the Committee on Style. Soon after the convention, King abandoned his legal practice and moved to New York. He was appointed one of that state’s first U.S. senators and in Congress proved a strong supporter of Alexander Hamilton’s fiscal policies. In 1796 King was appointed minister to Great Britain, a post he held until 1803. Despite the ascendancy of the Jeffersonian party, the Democratic-Republicans, Rufus King remained a staunch Federalist and was chosen as that party’s presidential candidate in 1816. Throughout his long career in Congress, King remained a vocal critic of slavery, and in 1820 he denounced the Missouri Compromise. When he retired from the Senate in 1825, President John Quincy Adams persuaded him to serve once again as minister to Great Britain. However, illness forced him to return to New York and he died soon afterward.
Caleb Strong (1745–1819)
A self-made man of solid abilities, the tall, angular Strong was a Harvard-educated lawyer. He had established a thriving country law practice when he was called upon to serve as a delegate to the Philadelphia convention. He had been an active patriot during the war years, serving on the Northampton Committee of Safety and in the Massachusetts assembly. He was a strong nationalist who was responsible for the decision to give the House of Representatives the sole power to originate money bills. An illness in his family forced him to return home before the convention adjourned, and he thus was unable to sign the Constitution. He helped lead the fight for its ratification in Massachusetts, however. Strong was one of his state’s first U.S. senators and a loyal Federalist throughout his term in office. In 1800 he defeated the unpopular Elbridge Gerry for governor and remained in that office for seven years, despite the growing strength of the Jeffersonians in his state. He was elected to that office once again in 1812 and remained governor until 1816 despite his open opposition to the War of 1812.
The delegate biographies are excerpted with the generous permission of Carol Berkin, author of A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution (Harcourt). Copyright © 2002 by Carol Berkin.