The United States of America: A Study of the American Commonwealth, Its Natural Resources, People, Industries, Manufactures, Commerce, and Its Work in Literature, Science, Education, and Self-Government - Vol. 2

By Nathaniel Southgate Shaler | Go to book overview

CHAPTER X.
POLITICAL ORGANIZATION OF THE UNITED STATES.

WHEN the early colonists from England landed on the Atlantic seaboard and took up local government, they transplanted to our shores such political institutions as they were familiar with at home, and then changed and modified them to suit the conditions of a new country. The simplest and lowest form of local government--the unit, as it is commonly called--passed under a variety of names at different times in the different colonies. Here it was the town, there it was the manor, elsewhere it was the hundred or the riding, the liberties, the parish, the plantation, the county, the shire. Yet the difference was largely in name, for there were, after all, but three distinct forms of local government, and these three were the town, the county, and a combination of the two.

The prototype of each was a local organization in England using powers both temporal and spiritual, and called indiscriminately the town and the parish. The word town did not call up in the minds of the Englishmen of 1600 a mere collection of houses, nor the word parish so many hundred people worshiping at one church, but both; for each was applied to the same parcel of land the dwellers on which had certain prescribed duties to perform and certain rights to maintain, and in general praised God under the roof of the same church. Some of these duties were done by men called parish officers, acting in obedience to by-laws made by a majority of the vestry or parishioners assembled in town meeting. This town meeting, this vestry meeting, this gathering of parishioners was generally held in the nave of the church, and to it the people were summoned by a notice read in the church on Sunday, and then posted in the market place and on the church door, and, not unlikely, were even "warned" to come by the beadle going from door to door.

The spiritual head of the parish was the minister, who presided over the vestry meetings, and was the registrar of births,

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