Anglo-Saxon Roots of the County
The county as a unit of government has its roots in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. About 1,000 years ago, units similar to counties were the main form of local government in France and England. Their usefulness arose from the fuedal nature of medieval Europe. Although there was little government as we know it today, the church in combination with the landed nobility was the governing power. The word county appears to be a vulgarization of the French term compte or comte denoting a territory or jurisdiction. The countryside was divided into these domains, within which the peasantry served the local county. The equivalent in England at the time was the earl (nobility) and the shire (an administrative area).
Beginning about 1000 A.D., English kings began to exert more authority over these local governments. The royal governor began to appoint a local administrative officer, called the reeve, to perform judicial, police, public works, and military functions in the shire (county). The legislative and judicial body of the shire was called the shire-moot. The earl, usually the most important landowner in the district, presided over the shire-moot and led the shire's military forces. The shire-reeve, later called the sheriff, was initially an assistant to the earl, but this official eventually gained police, financial, and judicial powers (Wager 1950, 5). English government underwent substantial reform after the Norman Conquest of 1066. However, William the Conqueror and later Norman rulers continued to use the shire, or county, as the main unit of local government. This basic form was the primary unit of local government established by American colonies in the seventeenth century (Wager 1950, 5-8).
The County in America
Four types of local government developed in the American colonies. In Virginia, the county was the dominant type. In the South, those who established colonies tended to be wealthy landowners growing cash crops (tobacco, cotton) on huge plantations. These landowners, dispersed throughout a rural setting, found the county organization best suited to their governmental needs. The counties formed in southern colonies had important functions and encompassed large sections of the county (Wager 1950, 7). Because of the rural nature of these colonies, political power was diffused throughout the countryside. From this rural base, the commission form of government developed. Administrative duties were vested in an executive structure of officers appointed by the colonial governor. This executive consisted of the sheriff, coroner, surveyor, lieutenant (because the county continued to serve as a military district, and the justices of the peace. The county in the South was considered the most local form of government (Duncombe 1977, 21).
In New England, government tended to be more localized for two reasons. First, many of the colonists settling this region were victims of intense religious persecution. The two most influential groups who settled New England were the Puritans and the Pilgrims. Life for these colonists centered around the parish, with the church ministers exercising the greatest degree of authority. Second, relations between these colonists and the native American Indian population were much more volatile than in the South. People banded together more closely to defend themselves against raids by American Indians (Wager 1950, 5-6). As a result, New England government centered around the town meeting, and the county organization of government was discarded in favor of the township.*
Colonists in the middle states (between Virginia and New England) tried to balance these two approaches. In New York, although county officials were elected for large areas, smaller townships were also formed. The county board later developed as a board made up of township supervisors. The powers of this board were tempered by the creation of executive positions, which included the offices of the sheriff, justice of the peace, and othr executives such as the coroner and surveyor. The functional jurisdiction of middle-state counties was not as great as that of their counterparts in the South. Township and county were interlocked through the board of supervisors, with both forms of government an essential part of each locality's day-to-day activities (Wager 1950, 6-7).
A fourth type of county government developed in Pennsylvania. This sytem, like that in the middle states, also saw the development of both the county and township forms of government, but the county clearly exercised greater power. Indeed, townships were not even represented on Pennsylvania county boards. This difference was probably because of the better relations between the indigenous Indian population and the Pennsylvania settlers, in particular the Quakers (Wager 1950, 7). The Pennsylvania form of county government need not concern us further because it did not develop in Illinois.
*The use of "township" is not be be confused with the six-mile square congressional or survey township found in the upper mid-western states, including Illinois.
County Government in Illinois
In the early nineteenth century, Illinois was populated by two streams of migration. Those settlers who came from the middle states wanted small-scale government at the local level. Since they did not have the strong ties to a parish, as did New Englanders, they tended to create New York-style counties. Migrants from Virginia settled in the southern part of Illinois, which was originally part of colonial Virginia. The model they adopted was similar to government in the large southern counties, with strong executives and no administrative units at more local levels.
Settlers in Illinois resolved this conflict of political cultue by allowing the creation of both forms of county government (Duncombe 1977, 22). From the New England experience came the township county, where the board members were popularly elected from districts based on towns. In this form of government, each township elected a supervisor for a four-year term. The supervisors then constituted the county board, much as their counterparts did in colonial New York three hundred years ago. The township form of county government was the most prevalent form in Illinois, having operated in eighty-four counties until 1972 (55 ILCS 5/2-3001 et seq.).
In the seventeen commission counties there are three or five elected commissioners. One result of changes in statute law effective in 1994 is that commissioners now serve rotating six-year terms with one elected every two years (55 ILCS 5/2-4006) from the county at large. Each December the commissioners elect one of their number to serve as chairman for th ensuing year (55 ILCS 5/2-4003). As noted earlier, the seventeen commission counties can trace their lineage to the several southern colonies of pre-Revolution America.
Cook County has long had a special form of government that does not derive from either of the traditions noted previously. In recent years the seventeen Cook County commissioners have been elected in the following manner: ten are elected by the electors of the City of Chicago, and seven are elected by electors from towns outside the city (55 ILCS 5/2-6001). The president of the Cook County Board is elected as one of the commissioners. At the same election, electors throughout the county indicate their choice of a commissioner to be president of the Cook County Board (55 ILCS 5/2-6002). This unique arrangement results in Cook County having home rule powers under the provisions of article VII, section 6(a) of the Illinois Constitution.
County government as we know it in Illinois today is the product of a long period of evolution. This regional unit of local government maintains a historical continuity with its early counterparts in feudal England and France. Although the selection of county officials has been taken out of the hands of the king and the high nobility and placed int he hands of the people, the legacy of this form of government is evident in centuries-old titles of office, such as sheriff and assessor. We have good reason to believe that because citizens want to have their demands for government services met by locally elected and locally responsible officials, the county will endure and prosper as a unit for the foreseeable future.
Duncombe, Herbert Sydney. 1977. Modern County Government. Washington, D.C.: National Association of Counties
Wager, Paul W. 1950. County Government Across the Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Copyright 2000 by Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Wenum, John D. 2000. The Essential Guide to County Government: A Manual for Board Members and Commissioners. Urbana-Champaign. University of Illinois Extension College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.