the act of duty which removed your brother from office, was one of the most painful and unwilling which I have had to perform. very soon after our administration was formed, the situation of his accounts … the failure to render accounts periodically, the disagreement among those he did render, gave reason to believe he was imprudently indulging himself in the use of the public money. what were the circumstances which led him to this, was not an enquiry permitted to us.
To Elbridge Gerry, August 28, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Effective leading sometimes requires personally painful decisions.
Gerry (1744-1814) was a well-regarded Massachusetts politician, friend and ally of Jefferson. His brother, Samuel, had been appointed years before by President Washington to be a customs (tax) collector in Massachusetts. Samuel mismanaged the office and had not remitted all the taxes due of him. He’d been given opportunity to account for his affairs and pay what was owed and had not done so.
Elbridge Gerry wrote an incredibly long and impassioned letter to Jefferson on behalf of his brother. (3,500 words! By contrast, the Declaration of Independence is just over 1,300 words.) Nonetheless, Jefferson, who hated confrontation, removed Samuel Elbridge from his position. He responded to his friend’s plea, explaining how painful it was to fire his brother. Samuel could have made the situation right and did not. There was no alternative.
Elbridge Gerry was Governor of Massachusetts in 1812 when he reluctantly approved a new redistricting plan for the state legislature. Some new districts had very unusual shapes, created to favor republicans. One senatorial district was so convoluted as to resemble a salamander in shape. Combining the governor’s name with that amphibian gave rise to the term gerrymander, still used today to describe ill-shaped legislative districts created to benefit one party over another.