Read CHAPTER XVI of The Farmer and His Community , free online book, by Dwight Sanderson, on


Local self-government is a well-established tradition in the United States, but as far as the rural community is concerned it is more tradition than fact, for outside of New England the rural community has no legal or political status. In New England the townships were originally created as community units, for they were modelled after the European village community. The meeting house determined the site of the village where the farmers and craftsmen resided, and the boundaries of the township were coincident with the limits of their lands. The origin of the New England township has been well described by John Fiske in a famous chapter on this subject:

“When people from England first came to dwell in the Wilderness of Massachusetts Bay, they settled in groups upon small irregular-shaped patches of land, which soon came to be known as townships. There were several reasons why they settled thus in small groups, instead of scattering about over the country and carving out broad estates for themselves. In the first place, their principal reason for coming to New England was their dissatisfaction with the way in which church affairs were managed in the old country. They wished to bring about a reform in the church, in such wise that members of a congregation should have more voice than formerly in the church-government, and that the minister of each congregation should be more independent than formerly of the bishop and of the civil government.... Such a group of people, arriving on the coast of Massachusetts, would naturally select some convenient locality, where they might build their houses near together and all go to the same church. This migration, therefore, was a movement, not of individuals or of separate families, but of church congregations, and it continued to be so as the settlers made their way inland and westward....

“In the second place, the soil of New England was not favorable to the cultivation of great quantities of staple articles, such as rice or tobacco, so that there was nothing to tempt people to undertake extensive plantations. Most of the people lived on small farms, each family raising but little more than enough food for its own support; and the small size of the farms made it possible to have a good many in a compact neighborhood. It appeared also that towns could be more easily defended against the Indians than scattered plantations;...

“Thus the early settlers of New England came to live in townships. A township would consist of about as many farms as could be disposed within convenient distance from the meeting-house, where all the inhabitants, young and old, gathered every Sunday, coming on horseback or afoot.... Around the meeting-house and common the dwellings gradually clustered into a village, and after a while the tavern, store and town-house made their appearance.”

When the Mormons settled Utah they established a very similar form of community government centering around the church. Elsewhere, with rare exceptions, throughout the North and West the township is the primary unit of local government, save for school administration, but it is by no means identical with a community. When the lands west of the Alleghanies were surveyed for settlement they were laid off in blocks six miles square, which were known as congressional townships, for Congress gave each township a square mile of land the proceeds of which should form a permanent school fund. In discussing the development of the township in Illinois, Dr. Albert Shaw writes:

“To give effect to this liberal provision, the state enacted a law making the township a body corporate and politic for school purposes and authorizing the inhabitants to elect school officers and maintain free schools. Here, then, was a rudiment of local government. As New England township life grew up around the church, so western localism finds its nucleus in the school system. What more natural than that the county election district should be made to coincide with the school township, with a school-house for the voting place? or that justices of the peace, constables and road supervisors and overseers of the poor, should have their jurisdiction determined by the same township lines?"

Thus in many of the North-central States the township came to be the local unit of government for certain minor purposes, though in other states it is little more than an election district, and in none of them is there preserved the old town meeting which gave the New England township its fundamental democracy.

Owing to the large plantations and the economic and social conditions prevailing throughout the South, it has had practically no units of government smaller than the county, other than incorporated villages.

Until very recently our conception of society has been mostly in terms of political units, largely on account of the lack of any local unit which had social significance to rural people. In recent years, however, students of rural government have become aware of the artificiality and the anti-social character of the township unit. There may be two rival villages within a township, each competing for trade and the support of its associations, and striving for the political domination of the township, while some of the farmers in a far corner of the township may trade in a village in the next township. Or a village may be on a township line, which must be observed in all matters of government although there is no real division of interests between its people.

Outside of New England villages were located at points of geographical advantage, or along through roads or railroads, primarily as business centers. There was no particular relation between the village and the farming area surrounding it. But as the village grew it often desired modern improvements such as water systems, pavements, street lights, etc., for which the farmers were unwilling to be taxed and which were thus prevented as long as the village was controlled by the township. This has led to most of the larger villages becoming incorporated, so that they may administer their own local government and tax themselves for such improvements as they desire. This separation of the village from the township has been inevitable where the farmers take no pride or interest in it, and has often been necessitated by their parsimony or conservatism. This is well illustrated by an incident related by Professor Herbert B. Adams:

“In my native town, Amherst, Mass., the villagers struggled for years in town-meeting to secure some system of sewerage for ‘the center,’ but the ‘ends of the town’ always voted ‘no’. On one occasion, in order to allay suspicion of extravagance, a leading villager moved that, whatever system of sewerage be adopted, the surface water and rainfall be allowed to take their natural course down-hill in the ordinary gutters. The farmers sniffed danger in this wily proposition and voted an overwhelming ‘No.’ Accordingly by the local law of Amherst, water had to run uphill until the next town-meeting! Such is the power of Democracy."

This separate incorporation of the village has been a large factor in making a distinction between villagers and farmers and preventing their recognition of their community interests. Not infrequently, however, it will be found that some of the more progressive villages are not incorporated and that they have the loyalty of the farmers. Numerous examples of unincorporated villages might be cited to show that where a spirit of pride in local village institutions has been developed among the farmers of the territory tributary to it, that village improvements not only are not impeded, but the community is much strengthened. This is more likely to be true, however, where the township boundary and the natural community area are practically the same.

On the other hand, the progress of a rural community, i.e., a village and the territory tributary to it, often is prevented if it cannot command a majority of the votes in a township. In a nearby village is a town hall which might be used as a community house and be a social center for the whole community. But the borders of the township belong to other communities and do not come to the township center, and these people on the edge of the township very naturally take the position that if the village and neighboring people wish to use the town hall, let them rent it of the town, but why should the whole township be taxed for advantages which only half of it can enjoy. The same line of argument arises with regard to the location of schools, roads, libraries, and the districts for public health nurses. Unless the whole township can be equally well served, a community which forms but part of the township is unable to secure these advantages unless it can command a majority of the votes, or except as the village incorporates, and then it loses the support of the taxes from the farms of the community which share the benefits.

As long as farm life was on the neighborhood basis, its interests largely centering in the district school and the country church, its roads maintained by the labor of its citizens under a local road supervisor, and trips to the village were made only once or twice a week for mail and supplies, farmers did not feel the need for a unit of local government other than the township. But when the church, the grange and the lodge are in the village, when they desire consolidated schools, libraries, and community houses, which are most convenient to all at the village center, and when they desire the improvement of local roads so that they will best connect with state and county roads, then the interests of the farmers and the villagers unite them in these common enterprises, and the community comes into conflict with the rest of the township if the township is composed of more than one community.

On the other hand, it must be recognized that for many purposes the community, or even the township, is too small a unit to secure the greatest efficiency in administration of public agencies, and so there has been a distinct tendency toward the centralization of many functions of local government in county officials. Thus the county superintendent of schools is assuming more and more control over the local school system, the county supervision of roads is increasing, and we have shown the desirability of a county health administration, the need for county juvenile courts , county boards for the administration of welfare work , and a county library system. The county tends to become a rural municipality very similar in function and organization to the city, and the logical outcome seems to be the employment of a county manager under a commission or county council, which has already become possible in Maryland and California. That this centralization makes possible a greater efficiency in administration can hardly be doubted, but that it tends to destroy the initiative and responsibility of the local community is equally apparent. With an over-centralization of administration, whether in the county or the state, the local community loses the very ties which have bound it together. The adjustment of the desires for efficiency and for local democracy is one of the unsolved problems of government. Experience shows clearly that the local community or township is too small a unit to secure efficient administration; but it is also evident that without some degree of local responsibility and control, centralized administration tends to become bureaucratic and the people are deprived of that participation in government which is essential for the life of a democracy.

Thus the need for the local self-government of rural communities has become apparent to rural leaders. It is interesting to note that this is becoming appreciated in the South, where on account of social and economic conditions local government has been almost entirely lacking in the past, but where new conditions give rise to new desires which cannot be realized except through some means whereby a locality can be free to work out its own salvation. This point of view has been vigorously expressed by Dr. Clarence Poe, editor of the Progressive Farmer and a recognized leader of rural life in the South:

“The chief task of the man who would help develop a rich and puissant rural civilization here in the South the chief task perhaps of the man who would make an agricultural State like North Carolina the great commonwealth it ought to be is to develop the rural community."...

“Consider the fact that the country community is the only social unit known to our civilization that is without definite boundaries and without machinery for self-expression and development without form, and void, as was chaos before creation."...

“But for the country community there is no organic means of expression whatever. There is, of course, that shadowy and futile geographical division known as the Township but it is laid off utterly without regard to human consideration, and serves no purpose save as a means of defining voting boundaries and limiting the spheres of constables and sheriff’s deputies a mere ghostly phantom of a social entity that we need not consider at all."

And he then goes on to show the advantages of the New England township.

Community School Districts. The most significant beginning toward the creation of self-government for the rural community is in the laws which have been passed by several states permitting redistricting for the establishment of community high schools or consolidated schools, irrespective of township or county boundaries and according to the desire of the prospective patrons of the schools. Thus in 1919 Nebraska passed a state rural school redistricting law under which every county has a redistricting committee which determines what seem to be the natural boundaries of the district, which are then subject to petitions from the people for their alteration, and the whole plan is then submitted to a vote of the county. “The law does not explicitly state that the proposed districts must correspond to a natural community in the social sense; it only says that they must be very much larger than the old ones, approximately twenty-five square miles. The inevitable result, however, of opening the question and of freeing community choice from old political boundaries is to settle on new areas approaching social units with self-conscious community ties." Kansas and Illinois have somewhat similar legislation and a community unit is proposed by the Committee of 21 which has recently conducted a survey of the rural school situation in the State of New York.

Community House Districts. Wisconsin has passed an act whereby the people of any local area may vote to erect and maintain a community house and may establish the boundaries of the area in which the citizens shall have the right to tax themselves for this purpose, and to elect trustees of the house, in much the same manner as community school districts are established. It seems probable that when a natural social area has thus been determined it will probably be the same for both school and community house, and that it might be the best unit for the support of such community agencies as a public library, or a public-health nurse, and thus a real community government might gradually arise and might ultimately displace the arbitrary township government, although the township might be retained for its original purpose of land registration.

Rural Community Incorporation. The most advanced step in giving the rural community self-government is An Act to Provide for the Incorporation of Rural Communities, passed by the legislature of North Carolina in 1919. This act gives authority for the incorporation of rural communities including definite school districts, which may or may not include hamlets or village centers, but which must be at least two miles from any town or city of five thousand or more inhabitants. It gives such incorporated rural communities the general powers and privileges of an incorporated village, except that they cannot lose their identity as a part of the school and road systems of the county. Taxes may be levied for various public purposes, but they must be voted at an annual meeting at which a majority of the registered voters must be present, or be submitted to an election, and the amount of taxes and bonds are limited. Although about a dozen communities have incorporated under this act, but few of them seem to be actively functioning, due to various local causes. The act itself, however, is well conceived and is worthy of study by those interested in better rural government.

Another method of accomplishing the same end is by a special act of incorporation for a particular community, as was passed by the Legislature of New Jersey for Plainsboro Township in 1919.

Concerning the organization of this community, Hon. Alva Agee, State Secretary of Agriculture, writes:

“Every voter within its boundaries signed a petition to the legislature for the creation of a new township embracing the territory belonging to the community, and this was granted. The community then met, made a declaration of its purposes and adopted a constitution providing for control of all township and community affairs. It is a return to direct government by the people, and places responsibility upon every individual. It is the old New England town-meeting made effective. Patient study of every detail was given by members of the community."

The declaration of purposes and constitution are so unique that they should be studied by all interested in community government.


“We, the residents of Plainsboro Township, New Jersey,
declare our purpose to accept all the duties of American

We are forming an association to secure all the benefits of
community life, and affirm the right of our community to
each one’s best effort.

We support all individual rights just as far as their use
does not harm our fellows.

We agree that the public good is superior to any private
gain obtained at the expense of community welfare.

We recognize and acknowledge the gracious influences of
practical Christianity in community life.

We ask that our homes be guarded by right social conditions
throughout our community.

We declare the duty of the community to provide good schools, means for community recreation, safe sanitary conditions, improved highways, and encouragement to thrift and home-ownership.

We purpose to make the neatness and attractiveness of our
homes and farms assets of distinct value to the township.

We agree to do our share in the creation of public sentiment
in support of all measures in the public interest.

We agree to put aside all partisan and sectarian relations
when dealing with community matters.

We state our conviction that the best rewards from this organized effort lie before each one in a deepened interest in others and in an increased ability to cooperate the one with the other for the good of all.

We, the citizens of Plainsboro Township, incorporated by act of the Legislature of the State of New Jersey, approved April 1, 1919, and accepted by us on May 6, 1919, subscribe to this declaration.”

If such a Declaration of Purposes were adopted by every rural community, and were taught the children as a civic oath of allegiance, would it not have more immediate effect on practical patriotism than even the Declaration of Independence, and what new meaning would be given to local government? Here is an example of rural civic spirit which, if it could become general throughout the rural communities of the United States, would remold the political and social organization of the whole country; for it provides both the mechanism and the spirit which are essential for making democracy a reality rather than an ideal.

Community Government and Democracy. The local community is indispensable as the primary political unit for the maintenance of true democracy, both because it is small enough that there can be personal relations between its members, in which a real consensus of opinion can be formed, and also because only in it can the masses of mankind have any personal experience or participation in government. Unless the individual has a social consciousness of the community in which he lives, he can have but a feeble and hazy realization of larger social groups. Unless the community through its individuals is self-conscious, it cannot take its rightful place in the larger community of which it forms a part. If democracy does not obtain in the local community, the voice of such a community in the affairs of the county or state will be that of its self-chosen leaders. It is difficult to conceive how any real democracy can be secured in State or Nation where it does not obtain in their constituent communities. It is entirely possible to have a government democratic in form and theory, but actually a political or economic feudalism, supported by local chieftains who represent not the people, but themselves or some business or other special interests. The very life of true democracy is in the participation of individuals in the government of the local group and in the organization of the locality groups, so that there may be a fair discussion and expression by those who are bound together by common interests through some form of self-government for the rural community.