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Local GovernmentAmerican Eras | 1997
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England. In order to better understand local government in the British American colonies, it is instructive to consider first the English precedents that informed them. Before the Norman Conquest (1066), English local government was under a manorial system. Lords, under the authority of the king, ruled over their respective manors. Also in existence prior to 1066 were townships within the manors. The word township derived form the word tunscipe, which referred to a section of community marked off by a hedge. In theory, every parcel of land, hedged or not, was considered part of a township or vili (village). Whenever an Englishman laid claim to a piece of property he was required to name the town it was in. The borough derived from the Anglo-Saxon word burh, which referred to an enclosure designed for the protection of a house. A borough came to mean a protected or fortified town. Eventually, by the time of the Norman Conquest, a borough was the name given more particularly to the large marketplace within a township that had its own judicial courts for maintaining peace and safety.
It could also refer to any large portion of land, even land outside an enclosed area. Some towns were completely within a borough. Thus, that which had been a part of the township could eventually encompass it.
Characteristics. A key distinguishing point between a township and a borough was that the latter became corporate and the former did not. The borough, therefore, developed a more urban setting and was the forerunner of a city. The county also had English origins. After 1066 the old Anglo-Saxon shire (literally a division or share), over which a shire-reeve (shire headman), or sheriff, presided, became more commonly known as a county (or domain of a count). The county was a type of tribal division of land and might encompass several townships or boroughs. It became the largest local government division in Britain.
The Church. Another important precedent was the English parish. By the fourteenth century the manorial system as a local government structure began to give way to private property ownership. Even so, the manorial courts sought to maintain authority over inhabitants’ affairs. The intervention of churches and their priests slowly evolved into an alternative structure for local authority. The parish priest, due to his social and academic position, often took it upon himself to protect the people’s rights. Over time “the custom of meeting in the vestry led to the assembly becoming known as the ‘vestry meeting,’ or simply the Vestry.’” By the eighteenth century, with the leadership of the parish priest in local secular affairs, the parish vestry had become integral within the local government structure. It, with all of the above structures, evolved in one form or other into the British colonial framework of local government.
New England Town. The New England town, though in many respects different from its English counterpart, did draw significant functional elements from English roots. The New England town served much the same function as the English manor and parish where jurisdiction extended to the surrounding countryside, not just to the local municipality. A typical size for a New England town was fifty square miles. One of the unique elements of the New England town was its function as an arm of Puritan interest. That is, the town institutionalized the Puritan ideal, and it was, for all practical purposes, a secular replica of a congregational church meeting.
The Town Meeting. All New England towns regularly (at least once a year) held town meetings. All white adult male property owners (in time the property stipulation lessened) of good character were eligible to vote in the town meeting. The meeting place was usually in a church or tavern. Majority rule was not the ideal for town business. The primary goal of a town meeting was to find consensus on as wide a scale as possible. The town meeting was not, therefore, as it is often described, a condensed form of democracy per se. Each year new town officials were elected. Offices included selectmen (chief executives), constables (similar to policemen), a clerk (town record keeper), tax officers, highway surveymen, fence viewers (assured fences were properly placed), tithingmen (monitored sabbath and other moral infractions), and cattle catchers.
THE MAYFLOWER COMPACTHaving realized that they were outside the jurisdiction of governmental authority as defined in their Virginia Company charter and fearing that some on board might use their freedom from governmental restraint as a license for unruly behavior, Separatist leaders decided to draw up a Compact (based on their familiar church covenants) allowing them to later establish a government with binding laws. On 11 November 1620, before ever disembarking their vessel, forty-one adult male passengers signed the Mayflower Compact. The following is the Compact in its entirety.
In the Name of God, Amen. We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, etc.
Having undertaken, for the Glory of God and Advancement of the Christian Faith and Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the First Colony in the Northern Parts of Virginia, do by these presents solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one of another, Covenant and Combine ourselves together into a Civil Body Politic, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute and frame such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the Colony, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witness whereof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cape Cod, the 11th of November, in the year of the reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth. Anno Domini 1620.
Source: William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–1647, ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Knopf, 1966), pp. 75–76.
The Chesapeake. Local government in the Chesapeake operated primarily under a county system. The governor appointed six to eight magistrates for each county. These justices of the peace had singular duties in their respective neighborhoods (where they often held hearings in their homes), and together they made up a county court. In this capacity the court could appeal decisions made by individual magistrates. This collective status also gave the county court a legislative and executive role whereby local regulations were created and carried out. The primary executor of local law was the sheriff
(one per county), who served under the magistrates. Court appointed constables also served with the sheriff. Other officers appointed by the governor were the coroner, clerk, and road supervisors.
Lower South. A dominant form of local government in the Lower South was the parish vestry. In South Carolina, where the parish system was most pronounced, magistrates appointed by the governor did serve, but the more powerful officers were parish vestrymen. In 1706 South Carolina was divided into ten parishes within the existent counties of Berkeley, Colleton, and Craven. Between 1706 and 1770 twenty-three were established. Each parish in the colony appointed seven men for the annual position whose social functions extended to education (oversight of parish schools), benevolence (care for the poor), and ethics (morality enforcement). Vestrymen also acted as parish law enforcement, both executive (police-type work) and judicial (as judges), and as tax collectors. The parish in South Carolina was in some ways like the New England town insofar as it too served as a secular arm of the established church. Unlike the Puritan counterpart, however, the Anglican Church in South Carolina and dissenters (non-Anglican Christians) often worked together in a considerably harmonious
manner. This spirit of cooperation insured mutual support in the secular realm. Dissenters supported the secular functions of the church and received the benefit of public services in return. The parish vestry, even with county structures developing around it, remained the most powerful arm of local government in South Carolina from the early eighteenth century until the Revolution.
Pennsylvania. The Middle Colonies had a much more diverse system of local government than the other regions. This is not to suggest that the above mentioned regions did not also have diverse systems. Yet, in comparison the Middle Colonies had a greater mixture of systems, making any given one less dominant than in other colonies. In Pennsylvania there were four distinct local entities: township, city, county, and borough. The city, though a separate entity, was nevertheless under county authority (Philadelphia was the only exception to this rule throughout the colonial period). Each county was sectioned off into townships. The township’s highest officer was the constable, and the county’s was the sheriff. Pennsylvania townships, unlike New England towns, did not hold town meetings. The constable was appointed by the Court of Quarter Sessions while other officers were elected at the polls. The borough, on the other hand, did hold meetings similar to the New England town system. The borough officers (burgesses and councilors) conducted the meetings. In practical terms a borough was more like a village. On a smaller scale it functioned much like a city. It was also less beholden to county authority than was a township. A marked uniqueness about early colonial Pennsylvania’s local government was the subordinate character of its judiciary.
Penn. William Penn, whose double exposure as an English court defendant and as a Quaker (who as a group had experienced much opposition within English courts), stressed a less technical, user-friendly court system. The influences of this attitude are reflected in the “Laws Agreed upon in England,” which the colony adopted. In one section it is asserted “That in all courts all persons of all persuasions may freely appear in their own way, and according to their own manner, and there personally plead their own cause themselves, or if unable, by their friends.... That all pleadings, processed, and records in courts, shall be short, and in English, and in an ordinary and plain character, that they may be understood, and justice speedily administered.”
New York. Somewhat different from Pennsylvania, New York demonstrated further local government diversity in the Middle Colonies. After Dutch rule ended in 1664, local government structure in New York tended to become less simplified. As New York’s local government structures began to anglicize they also grew in complexity. After the period of the Duke’s Laws, which served as a transition in the immediate post-Dutch years, and after the volatile years under the Dominion of New England (1685–1688) and then Leisler’s Rebellion (1688–1691), New York’s most enduring local government structures were established.
Authority. The county emerged as the highest entity of local authority, but within the county structure was a subdivision of authorities consisting of municipalities, manors, and towns. The sheriff was the most powerful official in a New York county. He was to execute court decisions, oversee elections, perform police duties, and collect taxes. Also important were the county Boards of Supervisors, who served an administrative role. County judges had little or no administrative or executive functions. Their duties were generally limited to trial court cases. The sheriff and judges (judges were usually members of the assembly) were appointed by the governor, whereas the Boards of Supervisors were elected yearly by freemen. Town government administration proved remarkably stable during New York’s larger transitional periods (Dutch to English rule, the Glorious Revolution, and Leisler’s Rebellion). During the change from Dutch to English rule “daily life continued unchanged,” and some towns, “recognizing that not much was new, neglected to even note the conquest in the town minutes.” Whereas smaller towns such as Newtown, Long Island, anglicized more slowly, the larger municipalities experienced swifter and more pronounced change as they developed strictly along English metropolitan lines (wards, aldermen, freemen status, etc.). What is true about all levels of local government (in every region) was that whether suddenly or gradually, they overall became more, not less, English over time.
local government Home Social Sciences and the Law Political Science and Government Political Science: Terms and Concepts
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LOCAL GOVERNMENTLOCAL GOVERNMENT is the designation given to all units of government in the United States below the state level. During the colonial period, the pattern of local government was not uniform throughout the thirteen colonies. In New England the town was the principal unit of local rule, responsible for poor relief, schooling, and roads. The primary governing body was the town meeting, an assembly of all the enfranchised residents, though the popularly elected selectmen seem to have assumed increasing authority over town affairs. In the southern colonies, the parish vestry and county court were the chief elements of local government. Appointed by the royal governor, the members of the county court exercised both administrative and judicial powers, supervising road construction as well as presiding over trials. The parish vestry of the established Church of England administered poor relief. In the middle colonies, local government was a mix of the New England and southern elements. Both county governments and towns were significant, sharing responsibility for local rule. In the middle colonies and in Maryland and Virginia as well, the colonial governors granted municipal charters to the most prominent communities, endowing them with the powers and privileges of a municipal corporation. Although in some of these municipalities the governing council was elected, in Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Williamsburg the city council was a self-perpetuating body, with the incumbent councilors filling vacancies. In marked contrast to the direct democracy of the town meeting tradition of New England, these were closed corporations governed by a self-chosen few.
Change After the American RevolutionThe closed corporations, however, did not survive the wave of government change unleashed by the American Revolution. By the 1790s the electorate chose the governing council in every American municipality. Moreover, the state legislatures succeeded to the sovereign prerogative of the royal governors and thenceforth granted municipal charters. During the nineteenth century, thousands of communities became municipal corporations. Irritated by the many petitions for incorporation burdening each legislative session, nineteenth-century state legislatures enacted general municipal incorporation laws that permitted communities to incorporate simply by petitioning the county authorities.
Meanwhile, the newly admitted states west of the Appalachians were replicating the local government structure of the Atlantic seaboard states. Most of the trans-Appalachian South followed the example of Virginia and North Carolina and vested local authority in county courts that exercised both judicial and administrative powers. With the disestablishment of the Church of England during the Revolutionary era, however, the parish vestries lost all secular governing authority. The new midwestern states imitated New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, dividing local responsibilities between counties and town-ships. Nowhere west of the Appalachians was the town-ship as significant as in New England, but it survived as a major element of rural government in the states north of the Ohio River.
To administer public education, the nineteenth-century states added a new unit of local government, the school district. These districts exemplified grassroots rule run amuck. By the early 1930s there were 127,531 such districts in the United States. There was a district for virtually every one-room school, and in some districts the number of school board members exceeded the number of pupils. With an average of 118 districts per county, Illinois had the largest number of school governments. One Illinois district comprised only eighty acres.
Reducing Grassroots PowerIn the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the nation's cities, however, were the most criticized units of local government. Although they were responsible for the creation of grand parks, well-stocked public libraries, up-to-date fire departments, and the world's most advanced water and sewerage systems, the major American municipalities fell short of the expectations of prosperous city dwellers who rallied behind a growing body of good-government reformers. Members of the urban elite resented the clout of plebeian councilmen representing immigrant constituencies and cited well-publicized examples of political corruption in their crusades for reform. To weaken the grip of the supposedly venal political party organizations, reformers called for the introduction of a civil service system and a nonpartisan municipal bureaucracy. Moreover, they urged the adoption of nonpartisan elections. They also sought to curb the power of ward-based politicians from working-class neighborhoods by introducing at-large election of council members and by strengthening the role of the mayor, who was usually a figure of citywide distinction chosen by a citywide electorate.
Some cities discarded the mayor-council scheme and experimented with new forms of government. In 1901 reformers in Galveston, Texas, introduced the commission form of municipal rule. Under this plan, a small commission elected at large exercised all legislative and executive authority. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of cities adopted the commission option, but after 1915 it fell from favor and reformers rallied instead in support of the city manager plan. This scheme of government originated in Staunton, Virginia, in 1908 and spread rapidly until by the end of the twentieth century more than half of all American cities had adopted it. Its major feature was a strong, centralized, professional executive branch under a city manager who was hired by the city council. Council-manager government made little headway among the largest cities of the Northeast and Midwest, where voters preferred strong mayors with the political skills necessary to mediate clashing ethnic and economic interests. But many communities embraced the notion of a nonpartisan, expert administrator at the helm of government.
During the twentieth century there was also reform in those bastions of grassroots rule, the school district and the New England town. In an attempt to upgrade rural education, the states restructured school government, eliminating eighty thousand redundant school districts between 1940 and 1960. Consolidated school districts replaced existing minuscule units of government, and one-room schools yielded to graded institutions with students bused in from a five-or ten-mile radius. In twentieth-century New England a number of the largest towns deviated from the town meeting tradition and adopted an institution known as the representative town meeting. In these communities an assembly of usually over two hundred elected representatives determined town policy. No longer could every enfranchised townsperson vote in the town meeting; that became a prerogative belonging to the elected representatives.
Special DistrictsMeanwhile, thousands of new special districts were adding to the complexity of American local government. Between the early 1950s and late 1980s the number of such districts rose from twelve thousand to thirty thousand. Most of these local governments were established to provide a single service or perform a single function. The functions included fire protection, water, sewerage, mosquito abatement, parks and recreation, airports, and a variety of other activities. In a few instances, special districts were created for multiple purposes such as water and sewerage, but all were limited in scope. The governing boards of special districts were often appointed rather than elected, and this gave rise to some concern over the degree of popular control possible in these governments. Two major reasons existed for the rapid growth of special districts. First, many potential service areas did not coincide with the boundaries of existing local governments, and special districts could be created to fit these service areas. Second, many local governments had exhausted the taxing and bonding authority granted to them by the state legislatures, and each special district could begin with a new grant of authority to tax and borrow.
Merged Government and Its AlternativesThe growing number of special districts in metropolitan areas as well as the proliferation of suburban municipalities gave rise to new concerns about duplication of effort and inefficient delivery of services. From the 1920s on, metropolitan reformers decried the multitude of conflicting governments and offered schemes for unifying the fragmented American metropolis. The most far-reaching of these proposals would have merged counties and city into a single unit of metropolitan government. During the 1960s this option, with some modification, was adopted in Nashville, Tennessee; Jacksonville, Florida; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Elsewhere, reformers proposed federative structures that would preserve existing municipalities but assign certain regional responsibilities to an overarching metropolitan government. Voters repeatedly rejected such schemes, though in 1957 something resembling a federative plan was adopted for Miami-Dade County in Florida.
Local governments and their citizens generally resisted sweeping reforms that would alter the basic structure of government in metropolitan areas. Instead, many local governments sought other means to avoid duplication and inefficiency in the provision of services. One increasingly popular device was the intergovernmental agreement. By utilizing contractual agreements, existing governments could band together to provide services that single units were unable to afford. In other cases, as in California's Lakewood Plan, cities could contract for services with an urban county that already provided such services to unincorporated areas. During the second half of the twentieth century, such agreements were popular because they permitted existing governments to continue operation and allowed local citizens to maintain mechanisms for local control of policy.
Americans have, then, opted to adjust to fragmentation rather than embrace consolidation or a radical restructuring of government. Thousands of school districts disappeared during the mid-twentieth century, but town-ships survived in the Northeast and Midwest, as did a myriad of little municipalities in metropolitan and rural areas.
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