The Planting of Civilization in Western Pennsylvania

By Solon J. Buck; Elizabeth Hawthorn Buck et al. | Go to book overview
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XVIII. Local Government and Community Control

ON any frontier the establishment of "law and order" is necessarily not one of the first steps in the planting of civilization. Individual pioneers must come in, clear land, and settle in sufficient numbers for local self-government before the law can be anything but a function administered from afar and with consequent ineffectiveness. Even the first settlers of western Pennsylvania, however, were not merely a horde of individuals: they were members of a body politic--either the province of Pennsylvania or the colony of Virginia--and had the rights, privileges, and obligations of such members and of subjects of the king of England. Most of them, moreover, expected and desired the establishment of local government, with its twofold purpose of acting for the general welfare in matters in which the individual could not effectively act alone and of limiting the liberties of individuals in so far as these might infringe upon rights of other individuals or of the community.

Jealous though the frontiersmen were for their individual liberties, they were capable of united action for community welfare even before the establishment of local governments. All neighbors were expected, on pain of general ill repute, to help at cabin raisings and harvest tasks. In time of war or when there was danger of Indian attack all able-bodied men were obligated to do their share in defending the community, and any who did not were branded as cowards. Obligations of debt were, of course, rare. When they did exist they were usually occasioned by loans of food or tools, and failure to meet them made worthless the credit of the delinquent.

Another group of pre-legal customs on the frontier--those concerned with land claims--grew up because settlement took place before legally valid titles could be obtained. Though "squatters" were denounced and threatened, the proprietors' desire for new colonists

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