John Fiske.

Civil Government in the United States Considered with Some Reference to Its Origins online

. (page 7 of 29)
Online LibraryJohn FiskeCivil Government in the United States Considered with Some Reference to Its Origins → online text (page 7 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

vestry; so the county taxes, for care of court-house and jail, roads
and bridges, coroner's fees, and allowances to the representatives
sent to the colonial legislature, were computed and assessed by the
county court. The general taxes for the colony were estimated by a
committee of the legislature, as well as the county's share of the
colony tax.

[Sidenote: The sheriff.]
The taxes for the county, and sometimes the taxes for the parish also,
were collected by the sheriff. They were usually paid, not in money,
but in tobacco; and the sheriff was the custodian of this tobacco,
responsible for its proper disposal. The sheriff was thus not only
the officer for executing the judgments of the court, but he was also
county treasurer and collector, and thus exercised powers almost as
great as those of the sheriff in England in the twelfth century. He
also presided over elections for representatives to the legislature.
It is interesting to observe how this very important officer was
chosen. "Each year the court presented the names of three of its
members to the governor, who appointed one, generally the senior
justice, to be the sheriff of the county for the ensuing year." [11]
Here again we see this close corporation, the county court, keeping
the control of things within its own hands.

[Footnote 11: Edward Channing, _op. cit_. p. 478.]

[Sidenote: The county lieutenant]
One other important county officer needs to be mentioned. We have seen
that in early New England each town had its train-band or company of
militia, and that the companies in each county united to form the
county regiment. In Virginia it was just the other way. Each county
raised a certain number of troops, and because it was not convenient
for the men to go many miles from home in assembling for purposes of
drill, the county was subdivided into military districts, each with
its company, according to rules laid down by the governor. The
military command in each county was vested in the county lieutenant,
an officer answering in many respects to the lord lieutenant of
the English shire at that period. Usually he was a member of the
governor's council, and as such exercised sundry judicial functions.
He bore the honorary title of "colonel," and was to some extent
regarded as the governor's deputy; but in later times his duties were
confined entirely to military matters.[12]

[Footnote 12: For an excellent account of local government in Virginia
before the Revolution, see Howard, _Local Const. Hist. of the U.S._,
vol. i. pp. 388-407; also Edward Ingle in _Johns Hopkins Univ.
Studies_, III., ii.-iii.]

If now we sum up the contrasts between local government in Virginia
and that in New England, we observe: -

1. That in New England the management of local affairs was mostly in the
hands of town officers, the county being superadded for certain
purposes, chiefly judicial; while in Virginia the management was chiefly
in the hands of county officers, though certain functions, chiefly
ecclesiastical, were reserved to the parish.

2. That in New England the local magistrates were almost always, with
the exception of justices, chosen by the people; while in Virginia,
though some of them were nominally appointed by the governor, yet in
practice they generally contrived to appoint themselves - in other
words the local boards practically filled their own vacancies and were

[Sidenote: Jefferson's opinion of township government.]
These differences are striking and profound. There can be no doubt
that, as Thomas Jefferson clearly saw, in the long run the interests
of political liberty are much safer under the New England system
than under the Virginia system. Jefferson said, "Those wards,
called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their
governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever
devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government,
and for its preservation[13]....As Cato, then, concluded every speech
with the words _Carthago delenda est_, so do I every opinion with
the injunction: Divide the counties into wards!" [14]

[Footnote 13: Jefferson's _Works_, vii. 13.]

[Footnote 14: _Id_., vi. 544]

[Sidenote: "Court Day."]
We must, however, avoid the mistake of making too much of this contrast.
As already hinted, in those rural societies where people generally knew
one another, its effects were not so far-reaching as they would be in
the more complicated society of to-day. Even though Virginia had not the
town-meeting, it had its familiar court-day, which was a holiday for
all the country-side, especially in the fall and spring. From all
directions came in the people on horseback, in wagons, and afoot. On the
court-house green assembled, in indiscriminate confusion, people of all
classes, - the hunter from the backwoods, the owner of a few acres, the
grand proprietor, and the grinning, heedless negro. Old debts were
settled, and new ones made; there were auctions, transfers of property,
and, if election times were near, stump-speaking.[15]

[Sidenote: Virginia prolific in great leaders.]
For seventy years or more before the Declaration of Independence the
matters of general public concern, about which stump speeches were made
on Virginia court-days, were very similar to those that were discussed
in Massachusetts town-meetings when representatives were to be chosen
for the legislature. Such questions generally related to some real or
alleged encroachment upon popular liberties by the royal governor, who,
being appointed and sent from beyond sea, was apt to have ideas and
purposes of his own that conflicted with those of the people. This
perpetual antagonism to the governor, who represented British imperial
interference with American local self-government, was an excellent
schooling in political liberty, alike for Virginia and for
Massachusetts. When the stress of the Revolution came, these two leading
colonies cordially supported each other, and their political
characteristics were reflected in the kind of achievements for which
each was especially distinguished. The Virginia system, concentrating
the administration of local affairs in the hands of a few county
families, was eminently favourable for developing skilful and vigorous
leadership. And while in the history of Massachusetts during the
Revolution we are chiefly impressed with the wonderful degree in which
the mass of the people exhibited the kind of political training that
nothing in the world except the habit of parliamentary discussion can
impart; on the other hand, Virginia at that time gave us - in Washington,
Jefferson, Henry, Madison, and Marshall, to mention no others - such a
group of consummate leaders as the world has seldom seen equalled.

[Footnote 15: Ingle, _loc. cit._]


1. Why was Virginia more sparsely settled than Massachusetts?

2. Why was it that towns were built up more slowly in Virginia than in

3. How was the great demand for labour in Virginia met?

4. What distinction of classes naturally arose?

5. Contrast the type of society thus developed in Virginia with that
developed in New England.

6. Compare the Virginia parish in its earlier government with the
English parish from which it was naturally copied.

7. Show how the vestry became a close corporation.

8. Who were usually chosen as vestrymen, and what were their powers?

9. Compare Virginia's unit of representation in the colonial
legislature with that of Massachusetts, and give the reason for the

10. Describe the county court, showing in particular how it became a
close corporation.

11. Bring out some of the history wrapped up in the names of county

12. What were the chief powers of the county court?

13. Describe the assessment of the various taxes.

14. What were the sheriff's duties?

15. Describe the organization and command of the militia in each

16. Sum up the differences between local government in Virginia and
that in New England (1) as to the management of local affairs and (2)
as to the choice of local officers.

17. What did Jefferson think of the principle of township government?

18. What was the equivalent in Virginia of the New England

19. What was the value of this frequent assembling?

20. What schooling in political liberty before the Revolution did
Virginia and Massachusetts alike have?

21. What was an impressive feature of the New England system?

22. What was an impressive feature of the Virginia system?


1. How many counties are there in your state?

2. Name and place them if the number is small.

3. In what county do you live?

4. Give its dimensions. Are they satisfactory? Why?

5. Give its boundaries.

6. Is there anything interesting in the meaning or origin of its name?

7. How many towns and cities does it contain?

8. What is the county seat? Is it conveniently situated? Reasons for
thinking so?

9. If convenient, visit any county building, note the uses to which it
is put, and report such facts as may be thus found out.

10. Obtain a deed, no matter how old, and answer these questions about
it: -

a. Is it recorded? If so, where?
b. Would it be easy for you to find
the record?
c. Why should such a record be kept?
d. What officer
has charge of such records?
e. What sort of work must he and his
assistants do?
f. The place of such records is called what?
g. What sort of facilities for the public should such a place have? What
safety precautions should be observed there?
h. Why should the county
keep such records rather than the city or the town?
i. Is there a record of the deed by which the preceding owner came into
possession of the property?
j. What sort of title did the first owner have? Is
there any record of it? Was the first owner Indian or European?

(The teacher might obtain a deed and base a class exercise upon it. It
is easy with a deed for a text to lead pupils to see the common-sense
basis of an important county institution, and thereafter to give very
sensible views as to what it should be, even if it is not fully known
what it is.)

11. Is there a local court for your town or city? 12. How do its cases
compare in magnitude with those tried at the county seat?

13. If a man steals and is prosecuted, who becomes the plaintiff?

14. If a man owes and is sued for debt, who becomes the plaintiff?

15. What is a criminal action?

16. What is a civil action?

17. What is the result to the defendant in the former case, if he is

18. What is the result to the defendant in the latter case, if the
decision is against him?

19. Is lying a crime or a sin? May it ever become a crime?

20. Are courts of any service to the vast numbers who are never
brought before them? Why?

21. May good citizens always keep out of the courts if they choose? Is
it their duty always to keep out of them?

22. Is there any aversion among people that you know to being brought
before the courts? Why?

23. What is the purpose of a jail? Is this purpose realized in fact?

24. Should a disturbance of a serious nature break out in your town,
whose immediate duty would it be to quell it? Suppose this duty should
prove too difficult to perform, then what?

25. What is the attitude of good citizenship towards officers who are
trying to enforce the laws? What is the attitude of good citizenship
if the laws are not satisfactory or if the officers are indiscreet in
enforcing them?

26. Suppose a man of property dies and leaves a will, what troubles
are possible about the disposal of his property? Suppose he leaves no
will, what troubles are possible? Whose duty is it to exercise control
over such matters and hold people up to legal and honourable conduct
in them?

27. What is an executor? What is an administrator?

28. If parents die, whose duty is it to care for their children? If
property is left to such children, are they free to use it as they
please? What has the county to do with such cases?

29. How much does your town or city contribute towards county
expenses? How does this amount compare with that raised by other towns
in the county?

30. Give the organization of your county government.

31. Would it be better for the towns to do themselves the work now
done for them by the county?

* * * * *


Section 1. THE COUNTY IN ITS BEGINNINGS. This subject is treated in
connection with the township in several of the books above mentioned.
See especially Howard, _Local Const. Hist._

Section 2. THE MODERN COUNTY IN MASSACHUSETTS. There is a good account
in Martin's _Text Book_ above mentioned.

Section 3. THE OLD VIRGINIA COUNTY. The best account is in _J.H.U.
Studies_, III., ii.-iii. Edward Ingle, _Virginia Local Institutions._

In dealing with the questions on page 69, both teachers and pupils
will find Dole's _Talks about Law_ (Boston, 1887) extremely
valuable and helpful.



Section 1. _Various Local Systems_.

We have now completed our outline sketch of town and county government
as illustrated in New England on the one hand and in Virginia on the
other. There are some important points in the early history of local
government in other portions of the original thirteen states, to
which we must next call attention; and then we shall be prepared to
understand the manner in which our great western country has been
organized under civil government. We must first say something about
South Carolina and Maryland.

[Sidenote: Parishes in South Carolina.]
South Carolina was settled from half a century to a century later
than Massachusetts and Virginia, and by two distinct streams of
immigration. The lowlands near the coast were settled by Englishmen
and by French Huguenots, but the form of government was purely
English. There were parishes, as in Virginia, but popular election
played a greater part in them. The vestrymen were elected yearly by
all the taxpayers of the parish. The minister was also elected by his
people, and after 1719 each parish sent its representatives to the
colonial legislature, though in a few instances two parishes were
joined together for the purpose of choosing representatives. The
system was thus more democratic than in Virginia; and in this
connection it is worth while to observe that parochial libraries and
free schools were established as early as 1712, much earlier than in

[Sidenote: The back country]
During the first half of the eighteenth century a very different stream
of immigration, coming mostly along the slope of the Alleghanies from
Virginia and Pennsylvania, and consisting in great part of Germans,
Scotch Highlanders, and Scotch-Irish, peopled the upland western regions
of South Carolina. For some time this territory had scarcely any civil
organization. It was a kind of "wild West." There were as yet no
counties in the colony. There was just one sheriff for the whole colony,
who "held his office by patent from the crown." [1] A court sat in
Charleston, but the arm of justice was hardly long enough to reach
offenders in the mountains. "To punish a horse-thief or prosecute a
debtor one was sometimes compelled to travel a distance of several
hundred miles, and be subjected to all the dangers and delays incident
to a wild country." When people cannot get justice in what in civilized
countries is the regular way, they will get it in some irregular way. So
these mountaineers began to form themselves into bands known as
"regulators," quite like the "vigilance committees" formed for the same
purposes in California a hundred years later. For thieves and murderers
the "regulators" provided a speedy trial, and the nearest tree served as
a gallows.

[Footnote 1: B. J. Ramage, in _Johns Hopkins Univ. Studies_, I., xii.]

[Sidenote: The district system.]
In order to put a stop to this lynch law, the legislature in 1768
divided the back country into districts, each with its sheriff and
court-house, and the judges were sent on circuit through these
districts. The upland region with its districts was thus very
differently organized from the lowland region with its parishes, and the
effect was for a while almost like dividing South Carolina into two
states. At first the districts were not allowed to choose their own
sheriffs, but in course of time they acquired this privilege. It was
difficult to apportion the representation in the state legislature so as
to balance evenly the districts in the west against the parishes in the
east, and accordingly there was much dissatisfaction, especially in the
west which did not get its fair share. In 1786 the capital was moved
from Charleston to Columbia as a concession to the back country, and in
1808 a kind of compromise was effected, in such wise that the uplands
secured a permanent majority in the house of representatives, while the
lowlands retained control of the senate. The two sections had each its
separate state treasurer, and this kind of double government lasted
until the Civil War.

[Sidenote: The modern South Carolina county.]
At the close of the war "the parishes were abolished and the district
system was extended to the low country." But soon afterward, by the
new constitution of 1868, the districts were abolished and the state
was divided into 34 counties, each of which sends one senator to the
state senate, while they send representatives in proportion to
their population. In each county the people elect three county
commissioners, a school commissioner, a sheriff, a judge of probate,
a clerk, and a coroner. In one respect the South Carolina county is
quite peculiar: it has no organization for judicial purposes. "The
counties, like their institutional predecessor the district, are
grouped into judicial circuits, and a judge is elected by the
legislature for each circuit. Trial justices are appointed by the
governor for a term of two years."

[Sidenote: The counties are too large.]
This system, like the simple county system everywhere, is a
representative system; the people take no direct part in the
management of affairs. In one respect it seems obviously to need
amendment. In states where county government has grown up naturally,
after the Virginia fashion, the county is apt to be much smaller than
in states where it is simply a district embracing several township
governments. Thus the average size of a county in Massachusetts is 557
square miles, and in Connecticut 594 square miles; but in Virginia
it is only 383 and in Kentucky 307 square miles. In South Carolina,
however, where the county did not grow up of itself, but has been
enacted, so to speak, by a kind of afterthought, it has been made too
large altogether. The average area of the county in South Carolina is
about 1,000 square miles. Charleston County, more than 40 miles in
length and not less than 35 in average width, is larger than the
state of Rhode Island. Such an area is much too extensive for
local self-government. Its different portions are too far apart to
understand each other's local wants, or to act efficiently toward
supplying them; and roads, bridges, and free schools suffer
accordingly. An unsuccessful attempt has been made to reduce the size
of the counties. But what seems perhaps more likely to happen is the
practical division of the counties into school districts, and the
gradual development of these school districts into something like
self-governing townships. To this very interesting point we shall
again have occasion to refer.

[Sidenote: The _hundred_ in Maryland.]
[Sidenote: Clans, brotherhoods, and tribes]
We come now to Maryland. The early history of local institutions in
this state is a fascinating subject of study. None of the American
colonies had a more distinctive character of its own, or reproduced
old English usages in a more curious fashion. There was much in
colonial Maryland, with its lords of the manor, its bailiffs and
seneschals, its courts baron and courts leet, to remind one of the
England of the thirteenth century. But of these ancient institutions,
long since extinct, there is but one that needs to be mentioned in the
present connection. In Maryland the earliest form of civil community
was called, not a parish or township, but a _hundred_. This
curious designation is often met with in English history, and the
institution which it describes, though now almost everywhere extinct,
was once almost universal among men. It will be remembered that the
oldest form of civil society, which is still to be found among some
barbarous races, was that in which families were organized into clans
and clans into tribes; and we saw that among our forefathers in
England the dwelling-place of the clan became the township, and the
home of the tribe became the shire or county. Now, in nearly all
primitive societies that have been studied, we find a group that is
larger than the clan but smaller than the tribe, - or, in other words,
intermediate between clan and tribe. Scholars usually call this group
by its Greek name, _phratry_ or "brotherhood", for it was known
long ago that in ancient Greece clans were grouped into brotherhoods
and brotherhoods into tribes. Among uncivilized people all over the
world we find this kind of grouping. For example, a tribe of North
American Indians is regularly made up of phratries, and the phratries
are made up of clans; and, strange as it might at first seem, a good
many half-understood features of early Greek and Roman society have
had much light thrown upon them from the study of the usages of
Cherokees and Mohawks.

Wherever men have been placed, the problem of forming civil society
has been in its main outlines the same; and in its earlier stages it
has been approached in pretty much the same way by all.

[Sidenote: The hundred court.]
The ancient Romans had the brotherhood, and called it a _curia_.
The Roman people were organized in clans, curies, and tribes. But for
military purposes the curia was called a _century_, because
it furnished a quota of one hundred men to the army. The word
_century_ originally meant a company of a hundred men, and it was
only by a figure of speech that it afterward came to mean a period
of a hundred years. Now among all Germanic peoples, including the
English, the brotherhood seems to have been called the hundred.
Our English forefathers seem to have been organized, like other
barbarians, in clans, brotherhoods, and tribes; and the brotherhood
was in some way connected with the furnishing a hundred warriors to
the host. In the tenth century we find England covered with small
districts known as hundreds. Several townships together made a
hundred, and several hundreds together made a shire. The hundred
was chiefly notable as the smallest area for the administration of
justice. The hundred court was a representative body, composed of the
lords of lands or their stewards, with the reeve and four selected men
and the parish priest from each township. There was a chief magistrate
for the hundred, known originally as the hundredman, but after the
Norman conquest as the high constable.

[Sidenote: Decay of the hundred.]
[Sidenote: Hundred meetings in Maryland]
By the thirteenth century the importance of the hundred had much
diminished. The need for any such body, intermediate between township
and county, ceased to be felt, and the functions of the hundred were
gradually absorbed by the county. Almost everywhere in England, by the
reign of Elizabeth, the hundred had fallen into decay. It is curious
that its name and some of its peculiarities should have been brought
to America, and should in one state have remained to the present day.
Some of the early settlements in Virginia were called hundreds, but
they were practically nothing more than parishes, and the name soon
became obsolete, except upon the map, where we still see, for example,
Bermuda Hundred. But in Maryland the hundred flourished and became the
political unit, like the township in New England. The hundred was the
militia district, and the district for the assessment of taxes. In the
earliest times it was also the representative district; delegates
to the colonial legislature sat for hundreds. But in 1654 this was
changed, and representatives were elected by counties. The officers
of the Maryland hundred were the high constable, the commander of
militia, the tobacco-viewer, the overseer of roads, and the assessor

Online LibraryJohn FiskeCivil Government in the United States Considered with Some Reference to Its Origins → online text (page 7 of 29)