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County Government in the United States

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COUNTY GOVERNMENT IN THE UNITED STATES. Local administration in the United States is not regulated by any legis lation of the national government, but is de termined by each of the 48 States acting inde pendently. Under these conditions there are inevitably countless variations in the organiza tion and powers of the local authorities in the different States; and an account of the system of local administration requires an elaborate study of the constitutions and laws of all the States. At the same time such an examination discloses certain important insti tutions resembling each other throughout the Union; and other features which are similar in closely related groups of States. These con ditions are due to the historical origin of American institutions in those of England, to the constant intercourse between the various States, and to the conscious and unconscious imitation and adaption by each State of the institutions and practices of other States.

Among the districts of local administration in the United States, the most common is the county. Every State is divided into districts called counties, except in the State of Louisi ana, where the corresponding district is known as the parish; and with a great deal of variation in the powers and organization of the county authorities, there are yet important features in common which mark county administration as fundamentally similar throughout the United States.

The American county occupies a distinctly different position in the general plan of public administration from the chief local districts in European countries. The name county indi cates its historical connection with the county in England, from which the American county has developed. But in its functions and general importance the American county now differs widely from the English county; while it is even less like the provinces, departments, circles or other local districts in the countries of con tinental Europe.

To understand the develop ment of the county in the United States, it is necessary to note the system of county adminis tration in England in the 17th century, when the English colonies in America were estab lished. At that time the important county offi cials in England were the lord lieutenant, the sheriff, the coroner and justices of the peace. All but the coroner were appointed by the Crown; but after the decline of the active con trol by the Privy Council, the local administra tion in practice was highly decentralized. The

lord lieutenant was head of the militia system. The sheriff was the chief conservator of the peace and executive agent of judicial courts. But local administration was mainly looked after by the justices of the peace, the justices in each county forming collectively a quarterly court of criminal jurisdiction, which also acted as the fiscal and administrative authority for county affairs.

In the American colonies counties were organized with similar officials, appointed by the colonial governors. But during the colonial period, and especially about the end of the 17th century, important changes were made in some of the colonies. In New York and Penn sylvania locally elected county boards were es tablished, which gradually acquired the fiscal aad administrative powers of the justifies of the peace. In Pennsylvania the sheriffs were made locally elective in 1705. Some new county officers and additional county functions also de veloped; the county treasurer appearing first in Massachusetts; local prosecuting attorneys in Connecticut; and in most of the colonies county recorders were provided to keep public records of documents relating to land titles.

At the same time the importance of the county was affected by the development of town government in New England and to sonic ex tent in the middle colonies from New York to Pennsylvania. But in the southern colonies the county was the main unit of local adminis tration.

From the establishment of State govern ments in 1776 until the middle of the 19th cen tury important changes in county administra tion, as well as in other features of State and local administration, were gradually introduced, both in the seaboard States and in the new States organized in the interior. The main re sults of these changes were to establish a radi cally democratic and decentralized system. The electoral franchise was extended to include all male citizens. County officials were made locally elective; and the number of such offi cials was largely increased. In most of the States an elective county board took over the administrative functions of the justices of the peace; while the sheriffs, prosecuting attorneys, county treasurers, county clerks, county re corders and the justices of the peace all became elective officials.

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