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United States
(Part 27)


Part 27. Interior Political Organization

The United States is, as has been seen, divided into thirty-eight States eight Territories and the Disrtict of Columbia. Each State and Territory is in turn divided into more or fewer counties, except only in the case of Louisiana, where primary divisions of the State are called parishes, the functions and relations of the parish being, however, substantially the same as those of the counties of the surrounding States. The number of organized counties in 1880 was 2444. The number of unorganized counties upon the frontier, laid out upon the map but not yet sufficiently filled by population to justify the completion of their political organization, was 161. The number of organized counties in the several States has a wide range, from 3 in Delaware, 5 in Rhode Island, 8 in Connecticut, 10 in New Hampshire, to 114 in Missouri, 117 in Kentucky, 137 in Georgia, 160 in Texas.

The political function of the county differs widely among the several States. In general, it may be said that in the north-east, where the counties are few, the county bears but a slight relation to the affairs of the people. It is the unit of real estate record. Courts are, indeed, held at the county seat, but judges who have equal jurisdiction in other counties there administer laws which run equally over the entire State. The commissioners of the county have authority over certain main roads. This said, all is said. The county means almost nothing to the citizen. It is the so-called "town" (i.e. township) which in this region has the power to deal directly with schools, which administers poor relief, which builds and keeps in repair most of the roads and bridges,, which has the charge of the public peace, which holds nearly all the authority which, by the laws of the State, is vested anywhere for promoting the general welfare. These "small elemental republics," as President Jefferson called them, absorb a large part of the political interest of the people; their names are the objects of much affection and pride to their inhabitants; their boundaries can only be changed by the legislature of the State, and this is only done from important considerations of public convenience, and that too, generally, with their own consent.

On the other hand, in the South and extreme West, where the number of counties is very large, the county exercises or controls the exercise of nearly all the powers, excepting in the case of cities and incorporated towns, which by the laws of the State are conceded to any political agency. The geographical subdivisions of the county become here of comparatively little, sometimes of very little, importance. In some States their boundaries may be changed by county judges or county commissioners, for trivial, perhaps for purely temporary reasons. In some States these subdivisions of the county are little more voting districts. In other States they are convenient units of political administration.

Midway, both geographically and politically, between the two groups which have been indicated, are many States, originally settled largely by emigrants from New England and New York, in which the political powers conceded by the constitution and laws of the several States are divided, not very unequally, between the county and the township. The county, as a whole, here takes charge of a very much larger range of public interest than in the north-east. On the other hand, the township has much of the political power and dignity which belongs to the New England town. The aggregate number of such subdivisions of counties in all the States and Territories, so far as ascertained, is 26,682.

Law and usage differ very widely among the American States regarding the incorporation of cities, towns, and villages. In Massachusetts no town is incorporated of less than 10,000 inhabitants. In the West and South, villages of two and three hundred inhabitants are sometimes incorporated. In some cases, when a township acquires sufficient population it is made a city, embracing the entire area, including perhaps a large rural region. In other cases, only the closely occupied district is embraced within the municipal limits, and the township continues to maintain its political existence. In the latter class of cases it sometimes happens that the inhabitants of the borough or village are members of the township for certain purposes, though not for others; at other times the township and the borough, or incorporated village, become as distinct as if they were two townships or two boroughs. The number of incorporated cities in the United States is 969, of incorporated towns and villages 4,613, of borough 582. In two cases, New York and Philadelphia, a city makes up an entire county. In two cases, St Louis and Baltimore, a large city forms no part of a county. The District of Columbia has no county organization, while the city of Washington, contained therein, has no municipal charter.

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