First Partisan Redistricting was in Virginia

All those interested in politics are familiar with the term “gerrymander”, or the reapprotionment of electoral districts to reach a partisan advantage. Most of us (which is another way of saying yours truly) thought the first instance of this was when Governor Elbridge Gerry drew a particular district in Massachusetts to favor his party. The papers initially said the district looked like a salamander, then reconsidered to say it looked like a gerrymander (rim shot, please!).

Well, it seems Elbridge Gerry learned from Patrick Henry.

I spent much of this weekend reading the new book by Richard Labunski titled James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights

It is a marvelous recounting of the struggles Madison endured-once he effectively wrote the Constitution-to shepherd it to passage, all the while fighting a running political battle with Patrick Henry.

For those who have forgotten their civics, after winning independence the USA was governed for six years by the Articles of Confederation. In 1788 a committee tasked with overhauling the Articles actually threw them out and recommended approval and implementation of a new governing document, the Constitution of the United States.

The process for ratification was thus-the Constitution had to be approved for ratification by the Confederation Congress and sent to the states, where the legislature would approved a ratifying convention. Counties would elect and send delegates to said convention, which would vote up or down on a majority vote. The ratified document would go back to the state legislature for approval, and then-if approved by 2/3 of the states-go to the new US Congress for implementation.

The absence of specific protections brought out a formidable list of foes in Virginia. Opponents in Virginia included Patrick Henry, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and William Grayson (the latter two the first US Senators from Virginia). Virginia, then comprised by what is now Va, WVa, and Ky, was a critical link in creating the new constitutional government. Virginia ratified only after a lengthy debate by the narrow margin of 89-79.

This is where it gets political.

Patrick Henry was in the state legislature, and in charge of drawing the new congressional districts. He did not like the constitution, thinkind it centralized too much power and would lead to a central government with monarchical powers. He led the Anit Federalist forces in trying to stop it, and believing that the amendments favored could best be put into effect if his chief constitutional opponent was not in the First Congress, he drew districts so as to not only put Madison in the middle of a district that was overwhelmingly Anti-Federalist, but drew the district so that Madison would have to run against James Monroe.

Madison accepted the challenge, ran a spirited campaign (something that was alien to his nature), and defeated Monroe spoiling Henry’s plan…and continuing a political career that led first to the House of Representatives, then the Senate, then Secretary of State for Thomas Jefferson, and then election as the Fourth President of the US…and it all started with the first partisan redistricting in our nations history.

However, in the end it all worked out OK. Henry is remembered more as an orator and man of conscience rather than a failed politico, and Monroe ultimately succeeded Madison as President.

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3 thoughts on “First Partisan Redistricting was in Virginia

  1. Isn’t it fascinating that Madison and Monroe ran against each other? I think it is. Someone should write a paper or a book on that.

    People forget Madison was basically a full-fledged Federalist before Jefferson returned from Paris. It wasn’t until Jefferson returned and trouble with finance and France that Madison switched. Monroe is the true Jeffersonian, and often acted as somewhat of a political hitman for the Jeffersonians (ask Alexander Hamilton).

  2. Do we know if this is the only time that two future Presidents ran against each other for an office other than President?

  3. Pingback: Non-Partisan Redistricting-Aye! « Renaissance Ruminations

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