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Formation of the Union By Albert Bushnell Hart Characters: 4686

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

[Sidenote: English local government.]

In each colony in 1750 were to be found two sets of governing organizations,-the local and the general. The local unit appears at different times and in different colonies under many names; there were towns, townships, manors, hundreds, ridings, liberties, parishes, plantations, shires, and counties. Leaving out of account minor variations, there were three types of local government,-town government, county government, and a combination of the two. Each of these forms was founded on a system with which the colonists were familiar at the time of settlement, but each was modified to meet the changed conditions of America. The English county in 1600 was a military and judicial subdivision of the kingdom; but for some local purposes county taxes were levied by the quarter sessions, a board of local government. The officers were the lord lieutenant, who was the military commander, and the justices of the peace, who were at the same time petty judges and members of the administrative board. The English "town" had long since disappeared except as a name, but its functions were in 1600 still carried out by two political bodies which much resembled it: the first was the parish,-an organization of persons responsible as tax-payers for the maintenance of the church building. In some places an assembly of these tax-payers met periodically, chose officers, and voted money for the church edifice, the poor, roads, and like local purposes. In other places a "select vestry," or corporation of persons filling its own vacancies, exercised the powers of parish government. In such cases the members were usually of the more important persons in the parish. The other wide-spread local organization was the manor; in origin this was a great estate, the tenants of which formed an assembly and passed votes for their common purposes.

[Sidenote: Towns.]

From these different forms of familiar local government the colonists chose those best suited to their own conditions. New Englanders were settled in compact little communities; they liked to live near the church, and where they could unite for protection from enemies. They preferred the open parish assembly, to which they gave the name of "town meeting." Since some of the towns were organized before the colonial legislatures began to

pass comprehensive laws, the towns continued, by permission of the colonial governments, to exercise extended powers. The proceedings of a Boston town meeting in 1731 are thus reported:-

"After Prayer by the Revt. mr. John Webb,

"Habijah Savage Esqr. was chose to be Moderator for this meeting

"Proposed to Consider About Reparing mr. Nathaniell Williams His Kitchen &c.-

"In Answer to the Earnest Desire of the Honourable House of


"Voted an Entire Satisfaction in the Town in the late Conduct of their

Representatives in Endeavoring to preserve their Valuable Priviledges, And

Pray their further Endeavors therein-

"Voted. That the Afair of Repairing of the Wharff leading to the North

Battrey, be left with the Selectmen to do therein as they Judge best-"

[Sidenote: Counties.]

The county was also organized in New England, but took on chiefly judicial and military functions, and speedily abandoned local administration. In the South the people settled in separate plantations, usually strung out along the rivers. Popular assemblies were inconvenient, and for local purposes the people adopted the English select vestry system in what they called parishes. The county government was emphasized, and they adopted the English system of justices of the peace, who were appointed by the governor and endowed with large powers of county legislation. Hence in the South the local government fell into the hands of the principal men of each parish without election, while in New England it was in the hands of the voters.

[Sidenote: Mixed System.]

In some of the middle colonies the towns and counties were both active and had a relation with each other which was the forerunner of the present system of local government in the Western States. In New York each town chose a member of the county board of supervisors; in Pennsylvania the county officers as well as the town officers became elective. Whatever the variations, the effect of local government throughout the colonies was the same. The people carried on or neglected their town and county business under a system defined by colonial laws; but no colonial officer was charged with the supervision of local affairs. In all the changes of a century and a half since 1750 these principles of decentralization have been maintained.

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