Front Page Titles (by Subject) Local Government in the Colonies - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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Local Government in the Colonies - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Local Government in the Colonies
If the representative assemblies in every colony were the most powerful feature of the colonial constitutions, the American institutions of local government still had nearly as much influence on the development of the American political system that culminated in 1787. English local government was far more vigorous and popular than local government in France or in most of the rest of Europe during the eighteenth century; but American local government was still more active than the British forms, and attracted heartier public support.
By 1763, the forms of American local government varied considerably from province to province, and even within provinces—or colonies. Along the wild western frontier, local government was democratic and informal, but highly effective—as it had need to be because of the frontier’s perils and the need for prompt cooperation among neighbors. At the other extreme, some towns along the Atlantic seaboard held charters of incorporation that conferred great powers upon municipal governments, much like the privileges held by venerable European cities.
There were forms of county government throughout British North America, but the county system of local government was strongest in the South, and the “middle colonies” of New York and Pennsylvania. In Virginia, the political powers of the county were greater than they are today in any American county. Each Virginia county was controlled by a county court composed of the county’s several Justices of the Peace. Even the colony’s Assembly did not venture to interfere with the Justices’ authority. New Justices of the Peace were selected by the Governor from a list submitted by the county court itself, so that the court became self-perpetuating. These Justices of the Peace were appointed from the class of landowners that was still specified in law as gentlemen. They were paid neither salaries nor fees, but served at their own expense. Virtually independent of both Williamsburg (then Virginia’s capital) and London, these county courts amounted to a kind of federal system within Virginia, and also within other southern States that allocated large powers to counties. Thus county government became a preparation for the concept of federalism that triumphed in the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
In New England—and later, in those States to the west that were settled primarily by New Englanders—the “township” system of local government was more important than the county organization, even though counties had their functions in New England, too. New England’s town meetings could be attended by almost anyone, although in 1763 not all local residents were entitled to vote at these meetings. Township officers were elected annually in those times, and that was another practice that tended to make township government democratic. New England’s town meetings had begun as formal gatherings of men in good standing with the Puritan or Congregational churches. By 1763, they had become civic institutions and there was no religious test for participation.
Both county and township were political structures inherited from centuries of English experience. Yet in America these institutions took on a renewed vigor or were adapted to American circumstances. By the 1830s, for example, the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville found the system of American local government—especially the township—a major reason for the successes of the American democracy.
Earlier it was noted that representative government was Britain’s most important contribution to America’s Constitution. The British succeeded in conferring upon the colonies a truly representative system of provincial and local government. This made possible the establishment of liberty, order, and justice in the new nation. As Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and a good many other leading men at the Constitutional Convention would recognize sadly even in 1787, it was a melancholy irony that the political patrimony bequeathed to America by Britain should itself be a major cause of Britain’s loss of her North American empire.