The American attaches himself to his little community for the
same reason that the mountaineer clings to his hills, because the
characteristic features of his country are there more distinctly marked.
-- Alexis de Tocqueville
The history of our nation can be seen as a prolonged struggle to define the relative roles and powers of our governments: federal, state, and local. Americans, as well as their leaders, have nursed a preference for government close to the people since the very inception of the republic.
Even today, to examine a detailed map of the United States, or to fly across the country at a modest altitude, is to see in the very land itself how central counties are in our national life.
The air traveler can still detect, in the regular pattern of roads and planted fields, the remnants of the great grid laid out by the surveyors Thomas Jefferson sent into the Louisiana territory to prepare the land for inhabitation. The placement of towns and cities, occurring regularly even in the most vast and empty parts of the nation, recalls the 19th century rule that a county seat should be within a day’s buggy ride for every citizen.
And the names we’ve given our counties, our most locally based jurisdictions, reflecting the “characteristic features of our country!”
In New England, names like Essex and Suffolk evoke the old English countryside. Virginia counties named Hanover, Fauquier, Loudoun persist centuries after King George III and his royal governors held sway in the colony. A lost past is similarly evoked by the hundreds of counties bearing Native American names—from Appomattox in Virginia to Tishomingo in Mississippi.
Americans have named their counties wishfully (Treasure in Montana and Eureka in Nevada), or for prominent features (Sunflower, Granite, Wheatland, Lake, Prairie, Alfalfa and Musselshell, among others).
And everywhere, we’ve named counties for people: Local heroes, explorers, Indian chiefs, inventors, saints, and politicians. We have more than 30 Washington Counties, a dozen Texas counties named for defenders of the Alamo, even six for that ill-fated cavalryman, George Armstrong Custer.
But age, size and colorful names can’t be the only reason to explore counties’ role in American history, or the history of county government itself. In fact, the county government story resonates with the larger meanings of American history.
Moreover, the long evolution of county government reflects the great societal trends of our nation, especially in the last half century, as regions that had grown dramatically in population fought for equally expanded powers of governance.
Today’s counties are arguably the most flexible, locally responsive and creative governments in the United States. Certainly they are the most diverse, varying impressively in size, population, geography, and governmental structure. In their politics and policies, they vividly express the 1990’s political slogan “Think globally, act locally.”
That is, county government today is often the mechanism by which geographically or socially pervasive challenges are met with strategies that are locally initiated and accountable.
But counties have not always held this focal position. Indeed, the change accomplished in the last decades of the 20th century is all the more dramatic when contrasted with the long history preceding it.
Settlers in North America brought with them a strong memory of, and attachment to, their English roots. Yet almost immediately this English experience began to be altered to suit the quite different living conditions both between America and England and within the colonial region itself.
The colonists’ collective memory of English county organization had roots nearly a millennium deep. When years still had only three digits, English kings had divided the country into districts called shires, a nomenclature that survives today in such place names as Yorkshire and Hampshire.
The shire was simply a mechanism for maintaining royal power in places distant from the throne. At the head of the shire was an earl appointed by the king; usually he was a large landholder, and he also commanded the king’s military forces in the shire. At a minimum, the earl was responsible for organizing and leading an armed force in the king’s service when called on to do so.
In local matters the Crown delegated considerable discretion to the earl and other shire officials. Generally both legislative and judicial authority rested with a shire court composed of local landholders. A shire-reeve (today’s sheriff) served as president of the shire court, tax collector, and steward of the royal estates in the shire. When church-related matters were at issue, the local bishop replaced the shire-reeve as president of the shire court.
This essential dichotomy—an agency of central authority acting in practice as a unit of local government—created a tension that persists into the 21st century.
The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought both superficial and substantive changes to the shire system. The name itself disappeared, replaced by the French county. Bishops lost their role in county administration, and “earl” became a title of nobility rather than a position of power. With the earl’s authority severely curtailed, the sheriff arose as the chief county official.
This situation persisted for centuries, until King Edward III (1327-1377) began a process of dividing local authority among officers. Edward created a new officer, the justice of the peace; each county had at least one, and some had as many as 60. Justices of the peace assumed many of the executive powers of the sheriff. The later creation of such new officers as coroner and constable further divided local executive authority. Centuries later, both in England and in the New World, this plural executive structure would be identified as a major problem hampering the effectiveness and accountability of modern county governments.
Counties in America
If it was natural for settlers in America to bring with them the familiar English forms of government, it was equally natural that these forms would begin to change almost as soon as they were planted in American soil. The colonies, after all, had almost none of the uniformity of the English population and customs. They extended over a vastly broader landscape. Their people clung to the edge of a wilderness whose true size and content was almost entirely unknown. And these residents faced, not very far away, a variety of other peoples whose attitudes toward the newcomers ranged from indifference to outright hostility.
So the settlers both preserved and altered the forms to which they were accustomed.
To the south, soil, climate and plenty of space combined to foster an agricultural economy, and the English manorial system was quickly mimicked in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. On both large plantations and smaller farms, settlers were distributed over a huge geographic area. The English county, as the proper governmental unit to serve a large area, was quickly adopted as the principal form of governance throughout the south.
The first county government in America was formed in 1634 at James City, Virginia. Soon the Commonwealth of Virginia boasted eight counties, with many more added throughout Virginia’s colonial history. The colony’s western border was undefined; in theory, at least, Virginia extended to the Pacific Ocean. Likewise, when King Charles II established Carolina in 1663 he granted it a charter covering the region “from the Atlantic to the South Seas.”
But in the north, conditions were quite different. The settled area in New England was much less spacious, the climate harsher, and people lived nearer each other. In some localities, in fact, local laws required that no resident be more than a half mile, or a mile, from the center of the village.
As a consequence, villages, towns and later cities emerged as more important units of government than counties. The New England states did create counties, however; Massachusetts’ first counties were established in 1643. Structurally these counties mirrored the Virginia approach, with a plural executive and a similar roster of county officials. But many of the functions performed by counties in the southern region were assumed by city and town governments in the north.
In between, a variety of hybrids appeared. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, had a preference for counties, and established Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester Counties in 1682. County commissioners were elected at large rather than from defined districts, which also tended to concentrate political power at the county level rather than in towns and cities.
The opposite pattern took hold in New York and New Jersey, where county commissioners were elected on the basis of wards and town supervisors were often automatically members of the county governing body. (In New Jersey, board members are called Freeholders, and in New York, legislators.)
These regional variations in county government structure and importance were repeated as the nation expanded westward in the century after the Revolution. Virginia’s strong counties became the model system for the southern colonies, while Pennsylvania’s system of at-large election to strong county governments was replicated throughout most of the western United States. New England maintained (and maintains to this day) its greater vesting of authority in cities and towns.
A Growing Nation
Early in the 19th century it became apparent that America’s growth to the west was not only enlarging the nation but changing its character in a fundamental way. One aspect of this change was the approach to local government taken by citizens in the newly opened territories and newly admitted states.
While most county officials in colonial times had been appointed by the colonial or (later) state governor, settlers on the frontier had a strong desire to elect their own leaders. The first state constitution adopted in Indiana, for instance (1816) provided for election of a wide range of officers in each county. County commissioners, clerks, coroners, sheriffs, justices of the peace and other officers were made elective offices from Illinois to Mississippi during the first decades of the 1800s. (Since the names of candidates and the offices they sought often appeared in a single row across a printed ballot, these positions became known as “row officers.”)
The influence of this movement was felt in the original states as well, where many states moved to elect county officers. Separate election of so many officials, however, also made permanent the diffused authority and accountability that continued to characterize (and, some say, hamper) county governments throughout the 20th century.
Counties also continued to function both as local governments and as arms of their states, but their specific roles and powers had never been explicitly defined. The middle of the 19th century saw a series of court decisions that clarified counties’ status for the first time, and created precedents that would restrain county activism in service delivery for more than 100 years to come.
The most prominent of these decisions came in Iowa, where in 1868 Justice John F. Dillon of the Iowa Supreme Court was already a well known and esteemed authority on local government. Dillon did not subscribe to the view held by many local leaders that local governments possessed inherent powers, whether they were spelled out in the state constitution or not.
Instead, the justice insisted that local governments are entirely subject to the will of the state legislature. As a result, Dillon said in Merriam v. Moody’s Executors, county governments have only three types of powers:
Those expressly granted to them by the state legislature;
Powers necessary and incident to the execution of the express powers; and
Powers absolutely necessary to the discharge of the express powers—as Dillon put it, “not simply convenient, but indispensable.”
“Any fair, reasonable, substantial doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved by the courts against the corporation, and the power is denied,” he added.
“Dillon’s Rule” meant that counties had to have specific enabling state legislation to authorize whatever functions they might fulfill at the local level, and to respond to the changing needs of their citizens, they had to petition the legislature for additional authority, which might or might not be granted.
By the turn of the 20th century Dillon’s Rule was firmly established as the basic law of county government, and counties throughout the nation were limited by it. Many critics and reformers also portrayed county governments as weak, poorly organized, and sometimes corrupt.
This critique of county government was summed up in a book by H.S. Gilbertson, published in 1917, with the memorable title, The County: The “Dark Continent” of American Politics.
The reformers’ agenda for counties in the period 1900 to 1920 included:
A move to appoint more county officials rather than elect them—exactly the reverse of the principle trend of the previous century;
An effort to put more county officials on salary and eliminate their dependence on collecting various fees for their income;
Increased professionalism in county government; and
Advocates of these reforms did not see local control and accountability when they looked at a multitude of directly elected county officers: they saw confusion, vague lines of authority, and a system in which nobody was actually in charge. Instead, they believes the combination of an elected county board and appointed functional officers would promote both more effective administration and clearer accountability to the voters.
The reformers won a number of victories in many states during the first half of the 20th century. For example, they argued that a separate level of competent administration should be created between the council and the bureaucracy—a county manager or county administrator. In 1927 this new form was adopted by Iredell County, North Carolina, the first of its kind in the country.
Critics also sought to abolish the fee system that tied compensation of county officers to the number of small fees they collected on behalf of the county. By mid-century, nearly all county officials were salaried. While counties still collected fees, county officials’ incomes did not depend on them.
The longest-lasting, and potentially most profound, change in county governments was home rule. In general, this new concept simply meant that state legislatures would give their counties grants of broad, general powers, under which the counties could actually function as units of local government. California, in 1911, was the first state to follow this route, and in 1913 Los Angeles County became the first in America with a home rule charter.
But as simple as it sounded in principle, home rule would remain a point of contention throughout the 1900s. During this period, the home rule movement took increased energy from the prospect that forms of county government weren’t likely to be equal to the new tasks of public service that increasingly confronted counties..
The movement to cities was in full swing, for example. In 1880 about 14 million people lived in cities; by 1920 this number had reached 54.2 million. Another revolution, in transportation, was also sweeping the land. The automobile, introduced around the turn of the century, was contributing to a more mobile population and creating a great demand for better roads. In 1910 only 458,000 autos were registered in the country, but by 1930 there were nearly 23 million.
One consequence was the creation of a whole new lifestyle, commuting. It became possible for people to live outside the city in which they worked. In addition to requiring farsighted planning and major investments in roads, commuting meant that many problems associated with cities—such as water supply and sewage disposal—were now afflicting the unincorporated areas adjoining the cities.
Counties were the natural governments to meet these challenges and deliver these new services. Many counties implemented sweeping procedural changes, including professional accounting systems, bidding and procurement systems, and a civil service employment system in place of ages-old political patronage.
Like every other segment of American society, counties and their services were severely stressed by the Great Depression. Then on the heels of the Depression came America’s entry into World War II.
But with the end of the war, the important groundwork that had been laid earlier made it possible for county government to move even more quickly into the forefront of American civic life.