During her lifetime, Betsy Bonaparte knew many famous and fascinating people. One of her more unusual friendships was with Elbridge Gerry, James Madison’s second vice president. Poor President Madison had the unhappy distinction of having both his vice presidents die during their term of office. The first was George Clinton in 1812, and the second was Elbridge Gerry.
By the time he became vice president, Gerry had put in some fifty years of public service. Originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, he served in the Continental Congress as a representative of Massachusetts, and he signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He also attended the Constitutional Convention but refused to sign that document because he thought it didn’t create a strong enough central government. He once said,
“The evils we experience flow from the excess of democracy. The people do not want virtue, but are dupes of pretended patriots.”
In the decades that followed, Gerry served as U.S. Congressman and as the governor of Massachusetts. It was during his term as governor that he signed a law redistricting the state along highly partisan lines—an incident that became the basis for Gerry’s most enduring legacy. His name was incorporated into our modern term gerrymandering. The -mander part of the term was borrowed from salamander because some wit thought the boundaries of the new districts looked like the outline of a lizard. Even though Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard G—like Gary—gerrymandering is said with a soft G.
Betsy met Vice-President Gerry while she was living in Washington, D.C. during 1813, perhaps through the Madisons, who were friends. The vice president and the socialite got along well and enjoyed debating the merits of various political systems. Betsy liked having a platonic relationship with a man who appreciated her mind, rather than one who was mesmerized by her beauty. All her life, she longed to receive more recognition of her talents. Unfortunately, the rewarding friendship did not last long. Elbridge Gerry died on November 23, 1814.