In a period of tumultuous political developments, the institutions of American local government exhibit surprising continuities across time: first, in the unit of jurisdiction (town or county) dominant in each state; second, in the nature of relations between local governments and the central government of their respective states; and third, in the ongoing role of English law. During the eighteenth century, as a result of the Great Awakening, the French and Indian War, and national independence, local government also experienced considerable change.
towns and counties
In states that began existence as chartered corporations—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—the unit of jurisdiction was the town; in those that began as proprietary colonies—New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware—or were first organized as royal provinces—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Georgia—it was the county. New states followed a regional pattern: Vermont and Maine, the town; Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, the county; Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, a township-county arrangement that divided offices and services. Likewise early cities: Boston's representation
[Image not available for copyright reasons]
in the Massachusetts assembly, for instance, was based on its identity as a town, not on its being the county seat of Suffolk County. New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Charleston were counties and represented as such.
In many respects counties performed functions parallel to towns and were everywhere the location of state courts. Still, the distinction was significant. Towns usually chose their own administrative officers, whereas most county officers during this period were appointed by governors and, later, by state legislatures. The town meetings of New England were attended by free male inhabitants of legal age, charged with duties of establishing schools, levying taxes providing for ministers, allotting lands, laying out roads, legislating by-laws setting the height of fences and the price of beer, and electing or appointing an exhaustive list of local officers—selectmen, clerks, overseers, inspectors, keepers, and measurers of every description. Suffrage and officeholder requirements were generally lowest at the local level. In Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Indiana, counties offered opportunities for participation and employment similar to those of towns.
Although counties, being larger, may have engendered a less parochial citizenry, they were on the whole the more problematic form. Because counties typically characterized less populous regions, county seats were often miles away from already isolated residents. Land policy in the Northwest and Southwest Territories strengthened this difference. In the Northwest, Congress set aside lots for schools that were attached to townships, and schools became a focal point of local public activity. In the Southwest, Congress allotted lands in large tracts, with adjacent counties sharing in them proportionally, with the consequences of slowing both civic and school growth. County lines, laid down centrally and in advance, were slow to keep pace with population, causing disproportionate representation in state legislatures. Indeed, reapportionment was a major issue of contention in all areas of frontier settlement, before and after independence. Without adequate representation, settlers were poorly situated to redress the corruption that plagued the backcountry or to expand needed services.
relations between local and central governments
In South Carolina, where homesteads were far apart, the connection between local government and the central government of the state barely existed. Most court proceedings took place in Charleston; local justices of the peace were appointed by the governor and enjoyed little authority; tax assessors and collectors were appointed by the assembly. As the need arose, the assembly would appoint temporary commissioners to perform local tasks. After independence, the city of Charleston elected officers to measure wood, monitor fuel sales, and inspect goods for export, but these answered to the assembly, which paid their salary. In North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, governors appointed county courts of justices of the peace, nominated by the assembly, who in turn appointed most other county officers. In Virginia the balance leaned in favor of local government: although appointed by the governor, local justices enjoyed broad discretion, and court days, with their slave markets and horse races, were a high point of commerce and sociability. In Vermont the storied autonomy of towns was strengthened by short terms for governor and assembly and, until 1808, by moving assembly meetings from town to town. In New York and Pennsylvania, state legislatures themselves mirrored local factions, with members drawn from rival oligarchies and machines. In Massachusetts relations between the towns, jealous of their independence, and central institutions located in Boston were continually strained.
Central authorities, first royal governors and later usually assemblies, appointed most judicial officers—justices of the peace, judges, sheriffs, coroners, constables, as well as heads of the militia and special commissions—sometimes from lists drawn up locally. Because justices of the peace and sheriffs were frequently assigned administrative duties like supervising elections and collecting taxes, central control was also exerted by that route. As the period progressed, election of judicial officers other than judges became more common: sheriffs, for example, were elected in Maryland and New Jersey following independence and in Alabama, Indiana, and Illinois from statehood. Judicial appointment was more significant than it is today. At a time of little bureaucracy, when common law regulated the use of fields, keeping of animals, working hours, fences, fire prevention, family relations, and poor relief, judges were the primary instrument of public administration as well as ordinary law enforcement. Judicial officers staffed special commissions, conducting inquiries and arriving at policy in the style of petition- and-answer familiar today mainly in litigation.
the role of english law
The preeminent role of judicial officers invokes the third constant in local government during this period, which is the ongoing role of English law. The organization and responsibilities of towns and counties paralleled their English counterparts. The New England town meeting resembled the meeting of ratepayers in the English parish. The restrictions on sales and gifts of land, the registration of outsiders staying in colonial towns and their indemnification against damages, the regulation of lights-on and the night watch: all reproduced life in English localities. With minor adaptations, English laws or their redaction in colonial and state statutes governed the rights and duties of local officers. For instance, one can read court cases on the reimbursement of expenses to American sheriffs decided according to English precedents of a century earlier. Likewise, all local property transactions were scrutinized for their adherence to common law. The traditional regulations of English militia structured slave patrols in southern states. Another English import was holding more than one office at the same time; prompting charges of corruption, appointing officers often reserved coveted local positions for themselves.
Matters of religion constituted an important departure from English government. A primary reason for founding New England towns was the independent operation of individual churches within the framework of state establishment. In places where Anglicanism was established, county parishes governed by vestrymen and church wardens continued to perform many of the same secular functions as did English parishes, including caring for the sick and indigent, processioning land, and presenting moral offenders to court. The choosing of ministers and vestrymen, however, marked a major difference. In the absence of a North American bishop or other ecclesiastical authority, vestrymen elected by Anglican freeholders chose ministers in South Carolina, and vestrymen appointed by their own predecessors appointed ministers in Virginia. In Maryland, where the majority of offices were originally held by Calverts and other Catholics, vestrymen were chosen by all freeholders and confined to church functions. By 1820, all states but Massachusetts had disestablished churches, and counties took over parishes' public responsibilities—frequently to the detriment of schools, poor relief, and local finance.
eras of change
A critical era of change for local government occurred midway through the eighteenth century, at the time of the Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that spread through the colonies beginning in the 1730s, and the French and Indian War (1754–1763). These events exerted pressure on existing forms of government at all levels. The Great Awakening spawned religious factionalism wherever it took hold. The war increased insecurity as it heightened British anxieties about its cost. Together they spurred movements of resentment and revolt. Among the most sensational was the Paxton Boys' rebellion in Western Pennsylvania in 1763, starting with an attack on a nearby Indian encampment, proceeding to local resistance against colonial troops, and culminating in an armed march to Philadelphia to demand better representation of outlying settlements. Another was the Regulator movement in western North Carolina, where settlers, largely German Reformed and Presbyterian, organized against taxes and other predations administered by officeholders appointed from the eastern and Anglican parts of the colony. The Regulator movement continued in fits and starts until its defeat by an army of militiamen and the hanging of six of its leaders in 1771, but not before it had joined its grievances with those of other colonials seeking independence.
A second era of change was independence. As state after state wrote new constitutions replacing royal executive power with greatly weakened governors, the importance of localities increased alongside that of their representatives in the assembly. In Georgia, for example, in addition to naming most other state officers, including local sheriffs and constables, the assembly elected the governor. In Connecticut, the governor was given authority to appoint petty notaries and interim turnpike commissioners and little else. With even the upper house (Council) chosen by the assembly from a list of nominees drawn up by town meetings, a measure of central control was imposed by requiring that the meetings be conducted by justices of the peace or constables or persons designated by them. The new states of Ohio, Louisiana, Illinois, and Indiana all established weak governors. Only Mississippi deviated: its first constitution in 1817 limited assembly terms to one year and restricted local choice by requiring that members own three hundred acres of land or one thousand dollars in other real estate.
With independence, state governments were free to modify existing city charters and create new ones. States with counties as their basic political unit were more accommodating to the promotion of cities than were states with towns. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, and South Carolina had granted eleven new charters before New England granted any; of twenty-five charters granted by former colonies in the first dozen years after the Revolution, New England granted only six. Residents of towns, coming to decisions as a body, were well situated to defend the status quo. The Boston meeting defeated some five charter plans before the state constitution was amended to shift authority to the legislature. New York, a tightly regulated corporation since the seventeenth century, faced a different obstacle: a new constitution in 1777 provided a city council of popularly elected aldermen but left the appointment of thousands of city officers—including the mayor, who presided over the aldermen and the principal civil and criminal courts—to a Council of Appointment chosen by the assembly and controlled by the governor. Nevertheless, while Boston lagged, New York City saw a rapid loosening of old restrictions on commerce and other steps toward modernization.
See alsoCity Growth and Development; Constitutionalism: State Constitution Making; Expansion; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Frontier; Law: State Law and Common Law; Revivals and Revivalism; Town Plans and Promotion .
Beeman, Richard R. The Varieties of Political Experience in Eighteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.
Daniels, Bruce C., ed. Town and County: Essays on the Structure of Local Government in the American Colonies. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1978.
Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740–1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Purcell, Richard J. Connecticut in Transition, 1775–1815. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.