Liberty and Freedom
Restoring America One County at a Time
Local government in a free America
The basic premise of localism, of this project to Restore America One County at a Time—and therefore, the basic premise of what I casually call “County Rights”—is that civil government power should be a decentralized as possible. This article is part 1 of the issue of localism: the ideal of freedom and how we once had it in America.
We need to acknowledge that States’ Rights—though much better than all power being centralized in a large national government—is not a good enough answer to national tyranny. “States’ Rights are for sissies,” as a friend of mine says. Give me “County Rights.” That’s decentralized power. But lest my libertarian friends needle me by pointing out that Counties can cajole and extort too, I prefer to argue that civil government power should be as decentralized as possible. If it is possible to get to the level of family and individual sovereignty in terms of civil government, then we should welcome it in society.
As we shall see here, localism and decentralized power is the best expression of freedom in government, and it was the way America was originally founded. This is the way it used to be in America, and it worked. So I would like to discuss, briefly, localism or “County Rights” in both principle and practice.
In principle, limited and localized government is an outgrowth of specifically Christian thinking; particularly the demands that 1) rulers are not divine, but themselves subject to a higher law, 2) private property is to be protected and conferred with its own governmental powers under law, and 3) social relationships are based on legally binding contracts, 4) power tends to allow for corruption and should therefore be limited, checked, and safeguarded. In short, we have a society based on religious faith, property rights, honoring of contracts, and individual responsibility—all fundamental things derived directly from the Ten Commandments. And of course, with all of these things is assumed the right to life and the protection of life.
To understand these things properly, we need a little background. What is a “county”? Where did such a name come from? The answer to that question is found in the medieval feudal system of government (“feudalism” is not a bad word, despite many modern liberal scholars). A “county” was the area of land governed by that member of the hierarchy of nobility called a “Count.” A “count” owned and governed a “county,” just as a “duke” did a “duchy.” This was the French name for the rank. In England, the equivalent division of land was a “shire”—a name coming from the Latin word scire, meaning “to cut” or “to divide” (we get our words “scissors,” “shears,” “schism” and others from this same word, including our word “share,” as in “shareholder”). It was a division of land apportioned to a particular property owner (usually as granted by the King or other higher property owner). After the Norman invasion of 1066, the English usage of “shire” gradually fell out and was replaced by “county.” Later, in the American colonies, there were only six divisions ever called “shires” and this was in Virginia in 1634. A couple years later these were renamed as “counties” and that name stuck throughout America ever since. Regardless of the name, however, the point stands that our most basic units of government are derived from the original basic units of property ownership. The basic premise is of government is one of private property, and that each owner of property is the governor of what he owns. And of course, under the Christian society, this owner’s government was not according to his own law, but to God’s.
In such a society, ideally, there would be no need for higher governors. But of course, this is neither possible nor practical yet. We live in a world still marred by sin, and crime exists and needs to be deterred and punished. But, crime exists on all levels of life, including those in higher ranks. This means that sinful men fill positions of power as well (perhaps especially), and thus we should seek to have the powers of punishment and force radically distributed throughout society so that no individual or group ever has too much power or power over too great an area. If there’s going to be a tyrant or corruption in civil government, it’s better to have administrative units as small as possible and as separated and independent as possible, so that 1) the tyranny is limited to that area, 2) the tyrant has limited resources with which to work, and thus can’t easily spread, 3) people in that limited area can easily escape to better places, and 4) that tyrant will be facing a whole host of surrounding jurisdictions and forces ready to intervene for at the very least the sake of peace. When there’s another layer of government above the local (which is usually the case), the local units can appeal to the higher powers; disputes between locals can be settled by private arbitration between them, or by appeal to the higher courts if necessary. If the higher powers try to exert tyranny, the local governments must resist, and if necessary band together to resist as a group.
This is exactly the nature of what happened in Anglo-American history, during the construction of that famed document the Magna Carta. In 1215, in the midst of feudal society, the Kings had for several generations gradually moved closer to absolute power; the land barons had enough. It was really the wane of the old feudal system, and because of the King’s grasping at more and more power, absolutism was gaining early strength. It was the representatives of the local land owners who gathered together to oppose King John’s extensive attempts at solidifying absolute power and raising taxes on them: it was these protectors of private property who drafted the Magna Carta. In doing so, they fell back on the old feudal ideas of fixed contractual obligations on the part of each side—the land owners paying a predictable and tolerable tax, and the King being subject to the powers of law upheld by a representative assembly of the barons (as well as protection and proper courts, etc.). The document is often perceived as some advance in political theory because it looks a little like modern representative government being advanced against monarchy, but in reality it was a conservative document, aiming at securing ancient rights of property owners, the rule of law, and the upholding of contracts—things that had been established in England for years.
As I said, this society is based deeply in Christian thinking and biblical law. In the right to life we see the commandment against murder. In the sanctity of private property, we see the commandments against theft. In the upholding contracts, we see the commandment and against false witness. We could also easily explore the centrality of the family and inheritance, expressed in the fifth and seventh commandments. We could also explore the guarding of property and inheritance against the jealousies of others found in the tenth commandment.
One modern political philosopher noted the derivation: “The limited state is a creation of Christian thinking, particularly of Augustine. It arose from the fundamental experience of the Incarnation, the appearance of God in human form at a definite place and time of human history. Christian thinking about politics was based on a new discovery about the destiny of man: man lived in order to attain fellowship with God.” (Gerhart Niemeyer, “Two Socialisms,” Modern Age: The First Twenty-Five Years, a Selection, ed. George A. Panichas (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Press, 1988), 587.) In other words, beyond the mere popular idea of Christianity, the idea of limited government is based in Christian theology: it is a political development based upon the previous theological development of the historic Church councils, particularly Nicaea (AD 325) and Chalcedon (AD 451). Because only Jesus Christ is the perfect man, and the only God-man, this means He alone has the final word of human jurisdiction. He is prophet, priest, and king. No human government, therefore, has the right to wield supreme or final power on earth, whether in family, church, or state. All people and all rulers must bow the knee to King Jesus, obey his commandments, and love one another as equals before God. (See my book Manifested in the Flesh, 2006, chapters 8–9.)
All of these biblical and theological ideas are visible in and fundamental to the old feudal system, despite the flaws that also existed in that system.
Why I cover this, and why it is relevant to the United States history we are about to see, is that the idea of federalism is related directly—both in principle and in name—to feudalism. “Federal” is related to “feudal” and refers to governmental relationships based on contractual agreements, or covenants, between various levels of government. The contract established a bond between the parties—for example, a King and a Colony, or a Colonial Government and its counties—which established obligations for each party, and protected each party in regard to those obligations being performed. If those obligations were not met, then sanctions could be enforced, or the bond could be declared null and void.
It was this very type of covenantal relationship which the American colonists in 1776 argued had been violated in regard to them by King George III. The colonies had each been established with charters which themselves established feudal land grants and recognized the ancient feudal rights of free Englishmen. But things had gradually changed—especially in England—over the decades. In 1688, Parliament overreached its bounds by usurping the absolutism to which the King once aspired. It began a series of attempts to extract taxes from the colonies. King George did nothing, and the colonies regarded this as a failure on his part—they in fact considered him complicit in the act of aggression and tyranny. The Declaration of Independence was federal document, announcing that the King had failed in his end of the contract, and thus it had become necessary “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
The Declaration—aside from the famous language of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is all we normally recall—goes on to list two long trains of abuses. The first list includes abuses on the part of the King himself, and the second, those in which he has “combined with others”—a.k.a. Parliament—“to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation.” The colonists considered Parliament a foreign party to their colonial charters and governments, and thus King George’s failure to protect the colonies against Parliament’s encroachments and taxes was a breach of the governmental contract on his part. For this failure, and in order to retain the freedoms they expected under the original agreement, the colonists united with the willingness to fight and die if necessary.
Thus it is instructive to look at the nature of colonial government during that time—especially the time before the Constitution—in order to see what a decentralized, truly free and federal society look like, especially as derived from the old system of genuine federalism. Thus, second, we shall examine the practice of limited government:
The fundamental unit of government was the county. The so-called anti-federalists during the Constitutional ratification period argued for local sovereignty on the part of their States, as opposed to the nationalists (improperly named “federalists”) who wanted a strong central national government with direct jurisdiction, taxation, and military power upon the people (bypassing the State and local governments as convenient). Men such as Patrick Henry rightly argued that a truly federal system would only allow a national government to interact with the States, not the counties, townships, towns, or people. In a truly federal system, only counties dealt with people, States only dealt with counties, and the Constitution should only deal with States. They were obviously fighting for States’ rights in a particular context; but the principle for which they stood goes much deeper—all the way to the county and smaller. And long prior to the Constitution, this is mainly the way American was founded: county sovereignty.
The Massachusetts General Court in 1635 made an Act that delegated most governmental authority to the local level. It read:
Whereas particular towns have many things which concern only themselves, it is therefore ordered that the freemen of every town, or the major part of them, shall have only power to dispose of their own lands and woods, with all privileges and appurtenances of the said towns to grant lots and make such orders as may concern the well-ordering of their own townes . . . to levy and distrain, . . . also to choose their own particular officers, as constables, surveyors of highways and the like.
Wertenbaker explains, “Under this act the town became to the State what the congregation was to the Church. Localism in religion, which had become so vital a feature of Puritanism, was to be matched in New England by localism in government.” (Wertenbaker, 45). Note two things: 1) that the government was a direct mirror of their form of church government, and therefore, 2) their civil government was radically decentralized. This system was derived directly from old England feudal arrangements. The New England Congregationalists delegated even greater powers to the local level than did other groups (New Jersey Presbyterians, for example), but the system was generally true throughout the colonies.
And this lasted for two centuries. Remnants of this decentralized system of government lasted into the 19th century. When the French observer Alexis De Tocqueville toured the country in the 1830s, he could still leave with the impression that “every village forms a sort of republic, accustomed to govern itself.” (Democracy in America (London: Everyman’s Library, 1994), 406.)
And at the local level, a deciding influence for all forms of local government and culture was—as a federal society would have it—a Christian covenant. Some of these were simple; for example, the early Pilgrims used this formula as the basis for their society: “We covenant with the Lord and with one another and do bind ourselves in the presence of God to walk together in all His ways, according as He is pleased to reveal Himself unto us in His blessed word of truth.” Others were much more detailed. The Northampton covenant read,
Disclaiming all confidence of, or any worthiness in, ourselves either to be in covenant with God or to partake of the least of His mercies, and also all strength of our own to help covenant with Him . . . by relying upon His tender mercy and gracious assistance of the Lord through Jesus Christ, we do promise and covenant in the presence of the Lord, the searcher of all hearts, and before the holy angels and this company, first and chiefly to cleave forever unto God with our whole hearts as our chief, best, yea and only good, and unto Jesus Christ as our only Savior, husband and Lord and only high priest, prophet and king. . . . We promise and engage to observe and maintain . . . all the holy institutions and ordinances which he has appointed for His Church. . . . And as for this particular company and society of saints, we promise . . . that we will cleave unto one another in brotherly love and seek the best spiritual good each of other, by frequent exhortation, seasonable admonition and constant watchfulness according to the rules of the Gospel.
And the benefits of such a decentralized society were many. For starters, taxation is specifically and only local. No state or federal agencies have any direct access to your property or income. Now I don’t support a property tax in general—I think it’s a violation of the biblical doctrine of private property: he who must pay a recurring tax on what he owns, or otherwise face forfeiture or distrainment, does not really own it. But historically the property tax allows us to see where the fundamental unit of government in America really was—and it is one aspect that persists today. This is the county—the only agency that has the authority to tax you on your property.
But since this system is entirely local, all the aspects of it are tied to a local vote: the level of taxation, the type of taxation, and the agents of taxation. The tax assessor in most counties is an elected official. These can be voted out, impeached, removed, overridden, defunded, or moved away from if necessary.
Secondly, in a decentralized society, law is generally local law. There is no issue of having nationalized healthcare, welfare, taxation, military draft, or anything else forced upon you by distant, disaffected, self-interested legislators. There is no issue if your local county or town votes almost unanimously to display the ten commandments in its court, or even to require a Christian test oath to hold a public office. The neighboring counties may not approve of it, but that’s the beauty of decentralization—you can move two miles and be in a jurisdiction you like better. Or, if you like your chances, you can stay and work for political change at home. It will sure be easier to achieve change locally than as it is today nationally. Life is so much better when you have three dozen choices available than when a one-size-fits-all government “solution” is crammed down your throat.
Localism means both civil law and criminal law are local law. When criminal law is local, the main law enforcement in society is the county sheriff. The old John Birch society had a similar vision with its “support your local police” campaign, but it appears to me to take this to the point of a fault. More on that later. When criminal law is local, the legislation itself, as well as the agents of enforcement and of justice, is elected. This is seen in our county legacy: sheriffs are elected, and judges and magistrates are elected, as well as county commissioners and other local legislators and directors.
Remember the old Robin Hood scenario? Remember Robin Hood’s great enemy? He was the Sheriff of Nottingham. Our word “sheriff” comes from the Old English “shire”—which we’ve already discussed—and “reeve,” who was a representative of the king. The “Shire-reeve” was the King’s agent who came to the local shire to collect taxes. He was an agent of the central government. But not in America! He was a local elected official, accountable to his local shire (county), and susceptible to being removed at the next election. And in times of moral lassitude, when the local population began to accept corruption and not vote it out, again, it would not be far to move, if you saw it necessary, and if it came to that. In short, when the sheriff is the agent of the central government, you have tyranny; but when the sheriff is a local elected representative, you are closer to freedom.
Likewise, civil law was county law mostly. I can assure you, gay marriage would not be acceptable in my county. There would be no deliberation about it, and the first judge who peeped in favor of it would be voted out in a heartbeat if not impeached on the spot. Let that liberal joker move to one of those really blue counties on the west coast, not in my back yard. Instead of having to win a washed-out general election stacked against all forces of politics and media and big money across the whole country, our grass roots would be the ultimate voice in law and leadership. Your society would reflect your values, instead of being weaseled by special interests and spineless politicians and activist judges.
This is a taste of localism: a world in which government is as small as possible, people are generally free, their societies mirror their own values, government is accountable and generally unable to spread tyranny. It is based on the Christian concepts of protecting life, protecting family, property, and contracts, and holding public officials accountable to the law before God. This is the only way to have a free society. And having such an emphatic local focus is the only way we will ever be able to restore freedom in America. The focus on Washington and the Supreme Court will do nothing but rearrange the forces of top-down, centralized tyrannical “solutions.” States’ rights will not even do it, though it is important. We need localism. We need county rights.
We have seen also that this vision of local government was the original American way. It existed, and it worked. The next question, of course, is, if society was so decentralized and free, how was it lost? And how was it so far lost that we’ve never really even heard about it until now? While it would be fun to skip to the “how to get freedom back” part, understanding how the freedom was lost is vital to knowing what exactly to undo, and preventing it from happening again. So in my next discussion, we will talk about how America has grown from the radically decentralized, voluntarily settled, free society of 1776 to the massive government bureaucracy, empire, and centralized near-police state that it is today.
1. Quoted in Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, The Puritan Oligarchy: The Founding of American Civilization (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1947), 44–5. It is important to note that the phrase “the freemen . . . shall have only power” in the language of that era really means to indicate that “the freemen only” shall have the powers described, as the context makes clear.
2. Quoted in Wertenbarker, 58.
3. Quoted in Wertenbaker, 58.