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Origins of Township Government

The term “township” is derived in part from an ancient English word “tun,” meaning the wall around a permanent settlement that over time became associated with the space within the wall; and ship, from the Anglo-Saxon word “scip,” which means shape. “Township” means the shape of the town or the entire bounds of the town.[1]

Community development expert Kenneth VerBurg, writing in Managing the Modern Michigan Township,[2] cites the general consensus of historians that New England settlers were driven by local conditions and the English system of government most familiar to them to develop “small, compact communities and a government to go with them.”[3]

The dominant characteristic of New England town government is the annual meeting, where residents or “electors” gather to vote on the amount of taxation on the value of their properties, a budget, and other governmental matters. In New England, county government evolved as an administrative arm of state government rather instead of delivering the local government services that were provided by the towns.

Different local government circumstances greeted settlers in Virginia and other southern states. According to VerBurg, “weather was more temperate, travel was relatively easy on the wide flowing rivers, and land grants were made to individuals rather than to groups as was done in New England. These conditions led to a largely dispersed, plantation type of settlement and, as a result, strong counties developed and became dominant. Consequently, “township governments did not develop as part of the local governing system in the southern states.”[4]

Resulting from the opening of the Erie Canal, Michigan’s early settlers were primarily from New York, and that state’s governmental system heavily influenced the structure of local government that developed in Michigan. A struggle between town government advocates and county government supporters led to a compromise that county governments would be governed by a board of supervisors, with each township supervisor being a member. This relationship between townships and counties existed in Michigan until changed by the Michigan Constitution of 1963, and in 1968 in all counties the board of supervisors was replaced by a county board of commissioners elected from districts based on population.

The adoption by the Continental Congress of the Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 created the Northwest Territory--the region south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River--as the first organized territory of the United States. The Ordinances played a major role in the establishment of township governments in the states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Thomas Jefferson is generally recognized as the initiator of the Ordinances, which provided that the “congressional townships,” established for the purposes of land surveying, titles and descriptions, would consist of 36 sections of one-mile square. Townships bordering the Great Lakes would deviate from 36 square sections, as the shoreline dictated, but their boundaries were squared away from the bodies of water.

A common misunderstanding is that all township governments in existence today in the original Northwest Ordinance states were created by the Northwest Ordinances. As settlers arrived in the Northwest Territory, the congressional township boundaries that had been drawn by surveyors working for the Continental Congress were empowered by the territorial governments to exercise powers of local units of government. As a result, some, but not all townships that exist today predated statehood. Others were established as local governments by acts of the state Legislature when their populations grew to a density that necessitated government to create schools, highways, a system of justice and, later, law enforcement and fire departments.

In states where the geographical townships were surveyed before settlements were made, they were generally used also as governmental townships he settling of states west of the Mississippi River prompted disputes over whether a county- or township-dominant local government structure would prevail. According to Magruder, the tier of states extending from New York to Nebraska was settled largely by emigrants from New England who were accustomed to township government. However, those who settled the southern states were from states south of the Ohio River more familiar with county government.[5] As pointed out by VerBurg, plantation life in southern states impeded the development of population densities that required more numerous local governments, as in the North. Prairie states generally resolved the issue by empowering counties with most of the most significant governmental responsibilities, but providing township governments in those states with a reduced scope of services. Mountain and desert states opted for strong counties and special districts in anticipation that there would be relatively few densely-settled communities due to natural features impeding development. By the time the far west was ready for statehood, the strong county model was well entrenched in the neighboring states.

The division of responsibilities between townships and counties were generally fixed in each state at the time of statehood according to the forms of government most familiar to each state’s settlers.[6] However, simply because a system of government was created in a bygone era does not mean it has lost relevancy in the 21st century. It is not correct, as some have contended, that state legislatures have, over time, only removed powers from townships. Town and township governments have seen roles and responsibilities expand as circumstances required in the various states. Townships today are much different than the townships of the 1850s, the 1960s, or even the townships of a few decades ago. Virtually every government institution, including schools, counties, townships and even state government, has undergone profound structural changes over time to adapt to social, economic, political and demographic changes.

[1] American Government: A Consideration of the Problems of Democracy, Frank Abbot Magruder, Allyn and Bacon, 1936, page 506.

[2] Managing the Modern Michigan Township, by Kenneth VerBurg, Michigan State University Board of Trustees and the Michigan Townships Association, East Lansing and Lansing respectively, 2002, page 2.

[3] Ibid, page 2.

[4] Ibid, page 2.

[5] Macgruder, page 512

[6] Ibid, page 512

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