American Local Government

Anglo-Americans patterned their own local governments after institutions long established in their homeland. England’s basic unit of local jurisdiction was the county (or shire), and its chief officials the sheriff, justices of the peace, clerk of registration, coroner, and constables were all appointed directly or indirectly by the Crown and not elected. It was common for members of the town councils in larger cities to be appointed to office for life by the incumbents, independently of any elections. Even when self-governing boroughs chose their administrative councils by popular vote, rarely did the franchise include more than a quarter of adult men.

Many of England’s unincorporated, agrarian villages, nevertheless, had inherited customary practices of self-government from medieval times. Heads of households within an isolated parish or tenants on a large manor frequently would meet each year to address neighborhood problems, allocate access to shared resources like common lands, review maintenance of pathways or boundary fences, pass village bylaws, and elect officials to oversee local affairs. The first generation of New Englanders adapted this precedent to their own settlements through town meetings convened at least once every year, so all heads of families could vote for selectmen, who would supervise the next year’s communal business. Town government quickly spawned many lesser officers with specialized responsibilities, such as a moderator of meetings, clerk, treasurer, tithing-man, tax assessor and collector, surveyor of highways, fence viewer (person hired to make sure fences were in good order), livestock brander, keeper of the animal pound, and weight or measure sealer (official who verified the accuracy of weights and measures). By 1750, the average Connecticut town was appointing over sixty adults to oversee various responsibilities for the local government.

Outside of New England, eastern Long Island, and parts of northeastern New Jersey, few colonists lived in towns. The largest cities usually had municipal councils elected by property-owning citizens but not always. Philadelphia’s charter of 1691 vested its government in aldermen who were appointed with lifetime tenure; the aldermen nominated and approved their own successors and, for good measure, also chose the mayor. Charles Town, South Carolina, survived the entire colonial era without any municipal government; law and order in the city rested on justices of the peace and a sheriff, whom the governor appointed, while Anglican parish vestries dispensed poor relief and performed other social services.

Counties were the basic unit of local government in the Southern and mid-Atlantic colonies (except South Carolina, which was divided into parishes). Even in New England, with its strong tradition of direct democracy through town meetings, counties served as the chief jurisdiction for civil administration and the primary venue for legal proceedings. As in Great Britain, the key personnel of county government were the justices of the peace (or magistrates), who formed a collective tribunal empowered to try misdemeanors, settle disputes over debts and contracts, and enforce the slave codes with rigor. Magistrates could dispense decisions individually in petit sessions, without a jury, on minor matters or collectively at quarter sessions, with a jury, in major cases. The county court also functioned in an executive capacity as an omnicompetent institution that could initiate almost any action necessary for the public welfare and had authority to levy small taxes for essential community expenses. The magistrates, furthermore, appointed lesser officials responsible for various public services, such as overseers of the highways, overseers of the poor, the slave patrons officers, and constables, and they could rebuke or remove these subordinates for nonperformance of their duties. The sheriff publicized and enforced the county court’s orders; he also maintained the tax rolls and conducted elections. The clerk acted as secretary when the justices conducted business, and he kept the courthouse open on a daily basis in the course of serving as a general registrar.

Magistrates, sheriffs, and clerks all obtained their posts through the governor’s patronage and held office until either their commission was rescinded or, as under British law, the current monarch’s death obliged them to resign. Vacancies within county government were usually filled out of recommendations to the governor from the sitting justices, who invariably nominated relatives, friends, and other associates drawn from the ranks of the wealthiest tenth of landowners, usually termed the gentry. Wherever communities had been settled for two or three generations, county government assumed an oligarchic and quasi-hereditary character, until the interconnections between its justices, sheriffs, and clerks formed a tangled cousinry of the area’s leading families. The county court system ensured that local affairs would be administered by local residents, who could make knowledgeable decisions for their neighbors based on the familiarity that comes with long residence. It was also a fundamentally elitist arrangement for sharing power that excluded men of average means and middling families from any influence or participation.

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