Elbridge Gerry was an important figure in the Constitutional Convention, best known for his undying skepticism of centralized government power. It was this skepticism that ultimately led him to not sign the Constitution on September 17, 1787. Gerry’s biographer even said that “suspicion was the weakest trait of his mind” and that he could “sniff the tyranny in every tainted breeze.” (Morison 10)
After attending Harvard and obtaining both a bachelors and a masters degree, Gerry returned home to Massachussets to be a part of the family fishery business but still managed to retain a hefty interest in politics. As a result, Gerry was elected to the Massachussets Provincial Congress in 1774 where he used his merchant skills to supply the military with whatever they needed. In doing this, he rose to fame and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1776 where “he continued to collect military supplies, but now on a national level, acting in both a private and public capacity” (American National Biography).
Following Shay’s Rebellion, Gerry decided to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 believing that a strong federal government was necessary to prevent future civilian uprisings. However, Gerry still feared a government that resembled the British monarchical system in any way. Ultimately, Gerry did not sign the Constitution in 1787 believing that a Bill of Rights was a necessary addition that would secure the personal liberties of the American people. However, he also “believed ordinary citizens of America were too gullible, and that their votes could be too easily manipulated.” (Beeman 129) In this way, this made Gerry a very “middle of the road” politician favoring neither centralized power nor state sovereignty. “Gerry joined Madison in riducling the idea that state sovereignty was somehow sacred” (Beeman 182) as a result of his experience during Shay’s Rebellion in which he witnessed and ultimately feared mass uprising and general anarchy. He also believed that should the Constitution be put into effect, the central government would have too much military power. However, regardless of his skeptic attitude, he was a generally well-respected figure of the Constitutional Convention. While his physical presence could best be described as “nervous and birdlike” he was still known as “a gentelman in principles and manners.” (Beeman 112) Whatever Gerry lacked in physical demeanor, he made up for with his perseverance in creating a newer, better government. Colleague John Adams notes that “if every man here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell” (Morison 14).