See McCusker & Menard, pp 201-205


Let’s start out with some contemporary Pennsylvania statistics on sub-state governments, generously provided to us by the the 2017 Census of Governments.

Pennsylvania presently enjoys 67 counties, which, in and of itself, seems rather unremarkable in that the national state average is 62. But the number contrasts poorly with Virginia (our first chapter) with 133 (3rd ranking in the nation), and the curious irony that 67 is the sum total of all New England counties (six states: Massachusetts has 14, but only 6 are actually functioning). Neighboring New York, for the nosey, has 62. Size obviously can play a role in the number of counties (square miles and/or population), but taking into account population,  Pennsylvania is third in having the fewest residents per local government unit [99] Robert Clark, “Pennsylvania Local Government: a Peculiar System and its Implications” Robert Clark Pennsylvania Local Government Paper (3).pdf, pp.9-10] Virginia  in 2017 has almost twice as many counties as Pennsylvania while, I contend follows from the reality that counties, were, and still remain, the dominant unit of its state and local policy system. The smaller number of counties, relative to both size and population suggests that Pennsylvania, and certainly New England did not replicate Virginia’s pattern, but rather followed their own.

Counties are composed of General Purpose Local Government (counties, towns, boroughs, cities/villages). Pennsylvania today has 2625 (third most in the nation); Virginia a mere 323 and Massachusetts 356. Both in the bottom quintile. Pennsylvania has incorporated, as of 2010 Census 1017 cities and boroughs. Virginia exhibits very low levels of urbanization, and its reliance on counties has led to a minimal number of incorporated cities. The 2010 Census sidesteps Virginia’s curious and complex history of  city incorporation by equating towns with cities and combining both in their statistics. Virginia has a whopping 232 cities and towns. Massachusetts on the other hand, has a different issue regarding cities and towns, but it necessitated combining the two also; Massachusetts has 60 incorporated cities and towns [999].

[999] Again for the curious, bordering New York has 603 cities AND VILLAGES–about 60% of Pennsylvania’s total, ignoring the village thing which does compare reasonably with Pennsylvania’s boroughs thing. New York also does have a lot of “total general purpose governments” (1863) but Pennsylvania’s 2305 suggests is marches behind Pennsylvania in this parade. These is a historical answer to that, but let’s deal with that in a more systematic way later.

In addition to General Purpose governments, counties also include special purpose districts (of which the school district is the best known). Pennsylvania 2206 or sixth in the nation, and is multiples of Virginia and Massachusetts combined. Put it all together “Total of Local Government Units” as labeled by the Census Bureau, Pennsylvania has 4830, again third in the nation behind Illinois and Texas. Pennsylvania has a heck of a lot of sub-county entities. Speaking of counties, Virginia counties comprise over 41% of Virginia’s general purpose government, while Pennsylvania counties are about 2.5%. It is not likely the two play the same role in their state policy system. We sidestep Massachusetts and New England because it is probably obvious by now counties play little role in that set of policy subsystems. Finally, the policy system configuration in these three states differ significantly in 2010, 2017, the logical question to apply to this colonial history period is whether or not they differed in 1700–and to what extent if they did, why, and did the configuration of colonial policy systems affect the subsequent evolution of the state’s policy system. The reader probably–and rightly–suspects my answer will be yes to both questions. That gives the reader  a clue was to where I am going in this module.

Several observations follow from this simple numerology of sub-state governance units (i.e. policy systems). First, obviously they are different. Yes they all have cities, counties and the like–i.e. the names are mostly the same (ignore that burrough thing), but over nearly 400 years their number, and presumably function vary wildly. Second, Pennsylvania has a decided tilt toward sub-county entities, with townships (which are not strictly speaking equivalent to towns–more on that later) and special districts seemingly on steroids in Pennsylvania. We are going to suggest this tilt is very evident in 1700 Pennsylvania and it got even more tilted by the time of the American Revolution. Why the tilt? We believe it was “something in the water they drank”. It was Quaker water, not Puritan or Tidewater.

What does all this boil down to? Pennsylvania is certainly “fragmented” as most contemporary commentators would conclude, but we prefer decentralized. The overall state policy system tilts decidedly downward. Today the lowest general purpose local unit in Pennsylvania is the township, and in 2012 Pennsylvania had 1547 (Massachusetts has 297 of its famed towns, and Virgina, 190). How about an extra added tidbit not included in the Census special districts: By Pennsylvania’s own reckoning it has 1756 municipal level authorities (excluding school districts)[99] Clark, p. 12. Pennsylvania is a leading example of a decentralized contemporary state policy system–an assertion that mirrors the original intention of its author, William Penn.

That “decentralized” overlaps with “fragmented” is pretty obvious. Decentralized is less negative, maybe even positive, but fragmented is just awful–at least to those who stress “efficiencies” and the rationality of policy that is supposed to come from it. Policy-making is supposed to be supremely rational, the embodiment of it in fact. But that issue has always been the Holy Grail of our profession–it’s supposedly central but nearly all agree they can’t find it in practice. So everybody goes off on a research quest to find it–enter Monty Python. Anyway, this history ignores that line of thinking, instead we focus on policy outputs of policy systems whether or not they are rational. If he had wanted efficiency and rationality he would have set up a government with a very remote out of the way state capital and run his Proprietorship from there. Ironically, in real life that is what he did–he wrote legislation from his estate-manor and sent it to Philadelphia–where almost always it was rejected. We now have a clue as to why Penn left Pennsylvania in 1684 after less than two years in-state. Just Kidding of course.

Penn’s Two Goals/Value that shaped his Initial Installation of Pennsylvania’s Sub-Provincial Governance

What may be hidden plain sight is that rationality/efficiency may be only one of the criteria–or goals–one can build a policy system around. Penn, a Quaker, was not that high on active government. One of the usually ignored features of his Frame was that right alongside the township was the Quaker meeting house. The County seat location was determined primarily in terms of its access to the townships of the county–that after all was what he wanted the county to do: coordinate policy implementation and to serve as the political transmission belt between the townships and the provincial legislature. The capital was where the Quaker Annual Meeting would be held–to work with the Provincial Legislature and Proprietor.(That BTW, really did not work out well). Amazingly, he did not include any of this in his Frames, or on paper. In his mind he was replicating what he believed to be the English governance as applied to the realities of wilderness Pennsylvania. Needless to say, city or town-building was a lost and forgotten art in England, and the prime function of a township which was little more than a handful of households surrounded by trees. The reality was Penn was improvising, making it up as he went along. The King’s Proprietary grant gave him the legal authority to do that.

However on local government, county and township, he wrote almost nothing. There was no need for he intended merely to adopt the eighteenth century English pattern of local government, administered through the county courts… the township replaced the village and town as the unit for government at the community level … The Pennsylvania township government gradually evolved from this flexible English transplant” [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, p. 53, p. 54.

But before we go any further, Penn’s Holy Experiment goals/values were not the only goal/value nexus in his initial calculation. When he initially designed and installed his government framework, Penn also had at least one more goal/value nexus in mind: the absolute highest priority that would ensure success of the Holy Grail experiment, and his financial future was settlement, in-migration of settlers and the sale of land for homesteads, manors, and businesses. These are sub-strategies of a macro ED strategy called city/town building. Bluntly, Penn never seems to have contemplated anything other than settlement was to be handled at the township level. That’s where the land was, after all–and the activities required to sell and establish a homestead were township functions and decisions. He had no intention of running his land sales initiatives from the county level.

How then was he to integrate his little dictatorship with the democratic open access of his Holy Grail experiment? He compromised, sort of. Accordingly, the top leadership of the township were to be Proprietary controlled through appointments by Penn himself. This does not sound very much like the democracy stuff we have been talking about. So, as we shall discover, he set up the township elections to nominate candidates for mayor, council (most importantly dominate judicial decisions on land-relevant matters) and he would make final determination. In practice Penn almost always appointed the top vote-getter. In the nearly twenty years previous to the Charter of Privileges, Penn and his Proprietary muddled their way implementing both goal-nexus as they processed new immigrants, sold land, and set up settlements in the three upper counties.

This muddling did not go well at all, for as we discovered judicial decisions, his city/town-building processes and decision, and even land sales and quit rent/tax collection did little but alienate his Quaker residents. Even after, especially after, he left Pennsylvania this tension-filled sub-provincial governance was in constant turmoil and in the horrible decade of troubles (the 1690’s) his original sub-provincial governance was adjusted legislatively and by judicial decision, and even more so by the discretionary decisions of his Proprietary officials such as Logan. That governance system simply never took root, never was accepted to the degree it operated as intended, and the result was a “catch as catch can” settlement and administration. The Provincial Capital was in such flux, cross-purposes and wracked by polarization that what went on at the county and township level often escaped notice. When it didn’t it was fairly unlikely that anyone would be able to sustain enforcement of any action or decision from above.

In this vacuum, the tension between the two Penn goal nexus created two sets of often conflicting dynamics. Penn’s Hold Experiment democracy became the bastion of anti-Proprietary politics, and over time it was integrated into the General Assembly’s drive for autonomy from the Proprietorship. With democratic franchise sustaining his opposition, the Proprietor increasingly deemphasized his Holy Experiment, and focused itself almost entirely on the settlement and land sales nexus.–until it too got caught up with the Legislatures drive for autonomy. Judicial reform, carving out the judicial function from Penn’s Proprietary and making it a viable third branch of government came first. Then, in its drive to establish its own tax base, the Legislature intruded into county–and township–governance, empowering in the process each layer of sub-provincial government to the extent that the sub-state system evolved into its own semi-autonomous sphere of decision and action, pursuing its own goals, objectives and preferences that neither the Legislature nor the Proprietorship was able to quash or substantially integrate into their goals and objectives. County-township nexus in its own sphere was able to become a serious, semi-autonomous actor in Pennsylvania’s policy system. It is this nebulous evolution of the sub-provincial county and township that rendered that policy system decentralized, and the vacuum that this decentralization created, the private sector was drawn, willingly and unwillingly to fill the gap, to smooth over the conflict, and to do what could not be done in the public sub-provincial policy system. And so the Pennsylvania policy system depended upon a great deal of private action, private leadership, or privatism.



the County

The period of colonial counties greatest expansion started after 1749 through 1773–the period we call the “drift to revolution”.  What is most remarkable to me, and suitable for the time period of this module–about 1750–is the few counties created by Pennsylvania: three (plus the Delaware counties),  and Lancaster in 1729– a total of four, non-Delaware counties for nearly the first sixty years of the sole proprietorship. When the Revolution came, only eleven existed. Today’s sixty-seven counties bespeak county growth occurred outside the period under discussion. That growth will be dealt with in its own time.

Penn wanted limited government,  although he did not think to apply this t o his Proprietorship. Penn did not think of  “limited” in terms of his Proprietorship, choosing instead to apply it to the self-governing bodies of his colony.The colony had to appear to be a constrained government to appeal to his Quaker land buyers and candidates for his Holy Experiment. He consciously wanted his fellow Quakers to self-govern, in ways congruent to their Quaker Meeting (which in real life seems to have been led by men of status and even wealth, or by activists). As to his Proprietorship, it served as the colony’s executive branch and Penn attached as few restrictions as he thought possible given that the legislative function was the branch he clearly identified with self and limited government. Through the Proprietorship appointment powers he was able to dominate the judiciary and the sub-provincial levels–all of which is remarkable given Penn’s lack of interest in sub-provincial government in his first two Frames.

The Quaker experience with an English active government, controlled largely by “state” religions ( Anglicans or Puritans), was not delightful–persecutions and imprisonment for instance were what Quakers experienced. To be a Quaker in 1670 England was to have served time in jail. To the extent his Holy Experiment was going to be successful, and BTW Quakers would be willing to move in, required they see the government as little threat as possible, and that would be more likely if lower levels could make as much policy as possible, and higher levels entrusted more to coordinate and clean up the imbalances that likely would follow lower level decision-making.


First the terminology: Seventeenth and eighteenth century terminology are different from today’s. In particular “court”, “judges” whose formal title was”justices of the peace”, and sheriffs do not compare in duties, functions, and structure to our contemporary definitions. A major part of the reason why is the branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) as well as the bureaucratic organization have yet to be adopted at the local level. The branches are fused in local governments, and the terms used are today primarily judicial because local legislatures and the executive evolved from judicial entities. The matter becomes even more confused because we are dealing with a period in which branches are beginning to develop, and what we shall see is the late medieval structures begin to assume more modern forms, tasks and responsibilities. That in fact is an important takeaway from this module. We shall see as we pile on the chapters that this evolution, while sharing common features, did take unique or distinctive paths particular to each state/political culture.

In the beginning, 1682, Penn and the Provincial Council created three new counties (leaving the lower three settled counties outside his framework): Bucks, Chester and Philadelphia. There would not be “fourth” county until 1729 when Lancaster County was incorporated.  By 1753 Pennsylvania had eight counties. Usually new counties “broke off’ from the older counties and were approved by the Provincial Legislature. their original settlement was into townships. Once townships grew too much they were combined to form a new county. At the outset we can see why townships held fewer citizens than square miles–they were hinterland rural governments of Pennsylvania. To alert the reader, the “downstate” southern counties that will in their time become Delaware, will follow the larger Pennsylvania trends despite their previous history as New Netherlands-created counties.


Penn’s pre-1701 Frames configured the county into three separate courts: the court of common sessions (which was legislative/administrative in function) and which is commonly referred to as the “quarters” court), the court of common pleas (which in Penn’s Frames was informally subdivided into a third court, the court of Negroes and orphans). Penn, the Proprietor, formally appointed the justices of the peace, usually his supporters. There were no limits on term of office. The county justices would appoint several officials, including the recorder and the constable (its law enforcement official). Justices of the Peace could serve in other offices, and like Virginia most also served in the General Assembly and could also serve on township offices as well. The former court included both criminal cases, but also dealt with various and sundry issues that come up during the “quarter” (three months).

The quarter sessions court had additional functions of an administrative and appointive nature. Among the most important of these were caring for the poor, authorizing the building of county roads and the maintaining of both provincial and county roads, and recommending to the (Deputy) Governor those who should receive tavern licenses. The fulfillment of the first two of these responsibilities in yearly appointment [after 1706) of one or more overseers of the poor FOR EACH TOWNSHIP and Borough, and until 1762, of overseers of the highways for the county. Another appointive function of this court was selecting the constable FOR EACH TOWNSHIP from the two top candidates nominated by the [franchise] electorate. … The clerks who were responsible for keeping the records of the three county courts were also appointed by the governor. Following the procedure defined in the Charter of Privileges in 1701 for selecting the clerk … the clerk of quarter sessions was appointed by the governor from three candidates nominated by the quarter sessions court [99] Wayne L. Bockelman, Local Governments in Colonial Pennsylvania in Bruce C. Daniels, Town & County (Wesleyan University Press, 1978) pp. 221-2; see also

Often these issues emanated from the county grand jury (composed of twenty-four citizens appointed annually by, of all people, the sheriff. The sheriff who handled day-to-day law enforcement, jails, and also managed and was responsible for management of the franchise and the holding/reporting of elections. These offices were nominated by the franchise, and the Proprietor appointed from those favored in the election. Excepting the corporation membership, the county court structure–and the township– were similar to the Philadelphia municipal corporation in their essentially closed nature. The Pennsylvania electoral franchise in these early years was pretty much confined to elections of provincial level offices until changed by the Charters of Privilege in 1701.

The quarter issues were usually administrative, fiscal, electoral and a variety of matters that found its way to the agenda.The decisions of the quarter court, therefore, stretched this court into non-judicial areas, and its decisions were legislative in their impact on those affected. The county courts were both judicial and appellate jurisdictions, and hence the county court “supervised” and handled appeals from township courts. Each court usually had its own clerk who kept records, assessed fees and essentially comprised the court’s formal bureaucracy. The court during this period was able to select its own clerk independent of the Proprietor.

The Charter of Privileges did not include judicial structures in its reforms. Judicial reform, a separate law also passed alongside the Charter, was vetoed by the Board of Trade in London a few years later. So Penn retained the right to appoint county justices–without any election–but under pressure in 1707 Penn acknowledged the separate existence of the court of common pleas and quarter sessions, separating the more political/administrative from the more pure judicial. In one respect this is remarkable in that it is an attempt by the forces opposed to Penn to starkly separate the branches of government. That decision by Penn not only was driven by pressure from the legislature, but also by a increasingly crowded agenda of non-judicial issues/decisions that flowed into the court. The effect was to make the court of common pleas the home base of the county/town judicial function. In any case, not until 1722 did the Legislature successfully approve judicial legislation which peeled off the judicial function into its own separate structure or proto-branch. [99] ,Wayne L. Bockelman, “Local Government in Colonial Pennsylvania“, in Bruce C. Daniels (Ed), Town and County: Essays on the Structure of Local Government in the American Colonies (Wesleyan University Press, 1978), pp. 217-23.

In this initial reform we can see the manner by which the Legislature, function by function, chipped away Proprietor sub-provincial powers–and in so doing, inadvertently or not, empowering sub-provincial voters to directly elect and hold accountable officeholders responsible for that function. Here then we can also see our sol-called “decentralization tilt” in the Pennsylvania policy system. As a byproduct of its fight to strip powers from the Proprietor, the Legislature would up decentralizing policy-making, increasingly sharing policy-making with locally elected sub-provincial officials. Copy this process over the next half-century function by function and we can see by the time of the Revolution su-provincial governments had acquired noticeable power, capacity, and a tradition of accountability to local voters [99] Joseph E. Illick, Colonial Pennsylvania: a History, pp. 103.105

This extension of local powers was identical in form and structure to that imposed by the Legislature on the Philadelphia municipal corporation–and in that instance created an city freeholder bypass government, independent of the Corporation, and accountable, function by function, to the city electorate. Its cost was an integrated and comprehensive capacity local government, in favor of a series of voter-elected equivalents to today’s special districts. With each such reform, the Corporation was made more irrelevant, more lethargic and pushed even more inward into more a private social elite club with public and political powers and responsibilities–a variant, in its own way, of Philadelphia privatism [99] Joseph E. Illick, Colonial Pennsylvania: a History, pp. 104.106

The key to understanding that initial framework was that Penn, the Proprietor, appointed the justices of the peace (judges) that served on the three “courts”. The 1722 legislation did NOT strip the Proprietor of the power to appoint justices of the peace–so the Proprietorship maintained its formal control of the sub-provincial system. The justices of the peace served on every court, and each court met on specific dates. If one court was in session, the others weren’t.


It should be evident to the reader that the Proprietor substantially dominated the officeholders of the Sub-provincial government, the county, municipal corporation and township.  As one would expect this dominance was a substantial source of friction between the Proprietor and the always restive General Assembly. That this dominance extended over the judicial function meant Pennsylvania rule of law was was strongly regarded as biased in favor of Proprietary interests, and accordingly judicial reform was the Legislatures sustained top priority in reforming . The failure to secure a permanent reform in 1701 over the judiciary rankled, and consumed Legislative attention until 1711-12 when it successfully “reformed” county governance.

We should remember County justices (judges) performed  administrative, legislative, criminal justice, and judicial functions–with the last regarded as a primary function. Earlier in 1691, the Legislature created six assessors for each county, elected by freeholders of the respective county–primarily to collect taxes. These assessors, despite their limited function, were set apart from the Proprietary-dominated county justice system. In 1696, the Legislature unsuccessfully stripped away certain responsibilities from the county grand jury and placed them in the jurisdiction of six independently elected county assessors. It was only in 1711-2, however, that the Legislature was able to successfully pass legislation and secure Proprietor concurrence to create there office of county commissioner who were appointed by the General Assembly. These commissioners were empowered to level and collect specified taxes/fees in arrears–striping that responsibility away from the County Courts of Quarters. In 1711, the Legislature built upon the assessor bypass of county government by creating three county “commissioners”–appointed by the Legislature–to levy taxes and collect on those in arrears. Formerly this function was performed by county justices in their quarter court sessions..  From 1711 to 1718 these commissioners were in effect county tax collectors. In 1718 commissioner powers were extended to the determination of tax rate and to demand payments from the Proprietor-controlled county treasurer. but in 1718 their powers were enlarged to annually preparing a budget and assessing the amount of taxes required, and setting the tax rate to raise sufficient proceeds. but in 1718 their powers were enlarged to annually preparing a budget and assessing the amount of taxes required, and setting the tax rate to raise sufficient proceeds. In 1722 (alongside their major provincial level reform legislation, the county commissioners were elected by county freeholders annually for a three year term.  Interestingly  every county commissioner in Pennsylvania counties in the period between 1725 and 1740 were formerly assessors. A political career path had been created, and stripped away from the Proprietor was its control over taxes, tax rates and tax collection–which in the end was elected by and accountable to county-voters.




Having outlined the path that Pennsylvania followed in distinguishing between judicial and non-judicial responsibilities and the temporal outline by which the judiciary was detached from Proprietor (executive branch) control, and formally set up as a proto-independent branch, our concerns move to developments more attuned to our economic development concerns. If the General Assembly in its struggle with the Proprietor had another chief priority other than the impair rule of law in an independent judicial branch, it was acquiring the right to levy its own taxes and to use the receipts for its own defined purposes. The reader should remember that William Penn set up a fiscal system whereby quit rents, fees and taxes  flowed into organs of government, or his Land Office, which he directly or indirectly controlled. It was these funds that “paid the bills” of the colony, financed the necessary infrastructure, and any excess was to be Penn’s personal profits. Penn retained the right to tax and that meant the Legislature could only react to the a Penn initiative-legislative submission, and could not initiate its own.

They were further empowered to direct the county (Proprietor-appointed) treasurer to transfer such funds to the commissioners and their budget.1722 was the decisive break. The General Assembly successfully secured legislation that required the staggered election by the county freeholders of these county commissioners, who would be elected for a three year term. After 1723 the Proprietor therefore lost control over this budding rival legislative branch. No commissioner from this point on was ever a justice of the peace. On the other hand, a political career path was inaugurated whereby an individual could first serve as a county assessor, get elected to be a county commissioner, and then move on to the provincial legislature. Off to the side was the Proprietor’s original county court framework. That career path no doubt developed a synergy of interests and concerns between the Assembly and the county. Interestingly, as it empowered the county level through the commissioner sub-system, the provincial legislature did not summarily exert its own powers instead of the Proprietor. “Apart from serving as a board of appeal from the actions of county government, the Assembly did not exercise nor did the county officials [Proprietor sub-system] challenge its [commissioner sub-system] prerogatives [99] Joseph E. Illich, Colonial Pennsylvania (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976), pp. 104.



the Township:

The county fell more clearly into a jointly shared responsibility: counties had to be incorporated by the Legislature and they possessed authority to manage its activities. Linked as it was to the judicial function, the county court system got caught up in the Legislature’s drive to separate out the judiciary from the Penn Proprietorship, and the Philadelphia Municipal Corporation also was swept into that swirling sea of opposition and sustained multi-decade legislative pushback. The township, however, a subdivision of the county was more off to the margins of Penn’s governmental interest, and more on his economic development and land sales agenda. Penn saw the township as essential to his land sales strategy, and simply assumed for his Proprietorship an unwritten control over its legal incorporation, the location and planning of townships, and the primacy of his Land Office in terms of land sales, quit rents and the enforcement of contracts. Penn lieft it to the county to “govern” through appointments the affairs of the townships.

Township-building was certainly an function-strategy that mattered, and so he ran his land sales, surveying, care of the poor, public order, and even highway construction. The record-keeping he left to the county seat, as well as setting the parameters and criteria which townships decision-making should adhere. From the start in 1682 sub-state policy making interwove both county and township in policy decision-making. In the actual implementation of the policy, the main tasks were left to the township. Essentially this necessitated a sharing of responsibilities in several town-building functions/strategies between the two levels. The township was entrusted with heavy responsibilities in taxes, elections, safety and order, care of the poor and transportation infrastructure.  While dominant in the initial phases of policy-making, the township really dominated implementation, and subsequent maintenance or daily administration. Since we usually assume a hierarchical authority relationship characterizes a county-township, we need to spend some time acquainting the reader to  the Pennsylvania “sharing of functions-strategies” between county and township–that special relationship proved over time to be distinctive to Pennsylvania-Midlands style sub-provincial governance.

… the township was a method of settlement designed to create an environment conducive to the development of a market economy… the well-established rule that all men must share in the responsibilities of local government, coupled with the continued increase in the share of government borne by the township under Pennsylvania law, fostered individual initiative and developed managerial skills. The combination of these factors suggests that the early townships … may have also helped to shape that world by creating conditions for economic growth and by developing individual capacities. … [For Penn] the colonial township was both a unit for self-governance, and a method [unit responsible for] settlement [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, pp 41-2, p. 46


Penn in 1682 set up (surveyed and platted) three counties and fifty townships. The unit he choose to conduct the actual settlement of his colony was the township–despite the obvious fact it was subordinate and s subdivision of the county. As we shall see he gave a good deal of power and capacity (relative to the policy system) to the township level–and that is the level he ensured would be most under his direct control as the Governor. Whatever the organization chart implied hierarchically, he ran his colony on a daily basis through the townships–which at the time included Philadelphia.

What we have in Pennsylvania is  its initial design by William Penn set up a system that did not stress policy rationality, but rather what he thought was his Quaker version of democracy–the centerpiece of his Holy Experiment. Democracy. Penn aggressively believed the Quaker citizen have direct as possible access to the policies that affected them. Policy-making should be as close to those affected by that policy–and the unit he devised to do that was the township. Ok. So the township and county were designed to facilitate citizen access to policy-making–voter input was always another matter, restricted as it was to those with a specified level of property.

Conversely, the role of the county, aside from its political and judicial functions, was coordination of the policy implementation largely handled by the townships providing some order and accountability to better ensure programmatic effectiveness. To make this work one cannot make either of these local units of government autonomous of the other, but to divide up a function and slice off those sub-tasks and activities to the appropriate level. Accordingly, in Penn’s mind these units would share a given function, such as highway development or care of the poor. he units were originally constructed to share powers and functions, and operate as a inefficient whole, but a policy system intended and actually providing the greatest access and potential to control to its voter, citizen, and resident. The county was always intended to be the “leading” level, but the reader should assume leading means coordinating. not dominating.

That gave Penn the leeway to implement his grand planning designs to town/build in his image.

Penn believed … settlers to his colony should live in neatly laid-out villages in the midst of rural agricultural settings. He proposed that farmers [hinterland] and craftsmen [urban] inhabit villages in the manner of the classic , peasant village of Europe … [providing] the settlers with an orderly and satisfying life … [with their] individual holdings to extend outward from the village center, but, unlike the open-field scattered strips that predominated in Europe [and the New England Town] farms would be of one piece with contiguous fields” [99] David J. Russo, American Towns, an Interpretive History (Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2001), p. 16.

This is the Pennsylvania version of yeoman homestead. Penn’s vision of townships certainly involved them in the development of an economic base; in particular he wanted to move yeoman farmers away from subsistence agriculture and more into the export of their produce both domestically and globally. Yeoman household homesteading will vary with each colony, and that contributed to the settlement pattern that evolved in the years after a colony’s initial settlement. Without disparaging Penn’s wonderful textbook cited image and plan of settlement, it fell apart within a month of his initial arrival. He wound up selling land in such quantities, location and uses the buyer wanted. It was a “buyers market” and Penn wasted no time in adjusting. Accordingly, don’t try to look for Penn’s plan in the Pennsylvania settlement pattern around Philadelphia and the initial three counties. When Penn’s sons took over in the late 1720’s, they were resuscitate Penn’s original image as they “settled” the counties west, southwest, northeast and northwest of Penn’s core Philadelphia-centered colony.

So in Penn’s Pennsylvania hinterland, settlements clustered around the “coastal urban center of Philadelphia, through … county seats, market towns … transportation points, and processing centers (either craft or mill villages)“.As Pennsylvania expanded during the colonial period “… county seats ”’ [generated] political activity [which] generated economic activity as such towns became both the political and economic centers of entire counties. But there were many small villages as well, separated only by short distances. Some developed at crossroads or at points where traders, wagoners, and drovers met. Others emerged as a result of an ambitious merchant or craftsman who sought a location for trade or industry. When a mill was established, it sometimes attracted craftsmen and storekeepers” David J. Russo, American Towns (Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 2001), p.124.


In Penn’s late seventeenth century period, city/state/town-building was infused with establishing an economic base that could include plantation-manor agriculture, yeoman agriculture, artisan/tradesmen/indentured servant proto-manufacturing, and finance/logistic export trade. All required their own distinctive individual entrepreneurism and opportunities for innovation and wealth creation. Pennsylvania was settled literally at the time English royal colonial mercantilist policy/administration shifted to British royal-Parliament Empire-neo-mercantilist colonial policy and administration. This period was one of unusual disruption in most of the other colonies, but Penn’s Proprietorship weathered the transition. The latter included settlement and an economic base that could sustain the population of the American colonies, if only for self-defense and sheer survival, while the former stressed export at the expense of the domestic economy.

Penn’s thinking blended the two. He preferred the export of domestic production as being more profitable to himself, and an economic base that would benefit his large commercial city, from which he also hoped to lure in more land buyers and in which he held potentially profitable personal assets. On the other hand, he recognized his buyer’s market exhibited a clear preference for yeoman agriculture and domestic artisan production, with export a decidedly second priority. His ambivalence, and his insulation of Pennsylvania from the harshest application of British colonial trade policy offered sufficient wiggle room for both in the Pennsylvania economy. Townships (and Philadelphia) is where this played out in that the county had a minimal road in economic base-building. As we shall see, the buyer’s market combined with a weak, unstable, and closed public governance probably provided opportunity for the closest example of an Ayn Rand free enterprise economic base-building found in the American colonies, equal to anything found in New York, its closest competitor. I will argue that in Philadelphia “special district-like public governance” alongside an inert, demoralized closed private corporation led to its own version of American Privatism, so did the rural hinterland township. The distinction between the two was economic base, and a level of government that Penn’s successors were able to use in their western expansion, and which they could ignore and let evolve in its own way in eastern core Pennsylvania.

Penn also saw transportation as critical to the latter. Penn’s promotional literature to the First Purchasers underscores the criteria by which townships would be surveyed, and approved as townships. In 1685 he wrote a promotional tract “A Further Account of the Province of Pennsylvania and its Improvements” in which he stated as justification for his policy of settlement through township formation: “I had in my view Society, Assistance, Busy Commerce, Instruction of Youth, Government of Peoples manners, Conveniency of Religious Assembling, Encouragement of Mechanicks, distinct and beaten roads”.  As such Penn saw this form of government instrumental, if not primary, in the development of the province’s economic base. Moreover, it is likely he also saw such economic success as central to his ability to make more profit in land sales, and in quit rents as the province economically developed [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 47-8

While he overlapped economic development as both a township and county level responsibility, he clearly identified townships as the leading unit for settlement or what we call town/city-building. The first two decades clearly support the reliance on townships as the preferred location of city/town building or settlement. In Chester County alone his surveyor laid out fifty townships in 1684. At the end that year eighteen were on the tax rolls. In the very critical period before the Charter of Privileges commenced, Penn essential settled the first three counties of his Pennsylvania colony. He also commenced the initial implementation of  his transportation access/connectivity function by installing rudimentary roads, facilitating ferry business formation, and the occasional bridge (as we later develop this transformation function we will call his transportation infrastructure). That economic plan also prioritized transportation infrastructure and was vital to linking his country seats with each other and the river/ports, and was a condition included in First Purchaser land sales. Penn tasked his policy system with a priority to build a transportation infrastructure from the start.

The county initiated the project, set the parameters which of course included the beginning and end points of the road. The township would receive notification to determine the specific route through the town, and the county would ensure it met up with the effort going on in the adjoining township. The individual township built the road using draft labor of its residents, and paying the expenses associated with it. Talk about unfunded mandates! The reader might notice there is no particular role or influence of the provincial legislature, except in a road that transversed multiple counties–a highway in today’s terminology. In effect, major highways became a top-down effort and inter-township and county roads a sub-state project.

What became apparent early on, before the 1701 Charter of Privileges, is that this division of authority and responsibility over “the land” between Penn’s proprietorship (Penn or his family), the Proprietary Executive Branch in Philadelphia , the Legislature, and the sub-Provincial levels of government made for rather complex administration and implementation of projects. So while Pnn never wrote on paper how his Frame system of government was to work, using as an example roads and highways, bridges and ferries Penn fabricated a jointly shared function between each of the actors, branches and levels.  In Penn’s Frame, transportation was a shared responsibility between Penn’s Proprietorship and the Legislature as each were empowered to “appoint all necessary roads and highways in his province”.

Roads did not, however become a consuming priority for seventy years until the 1750’s and even then the “golden age” of turnpike was not until the 1790’s. There are several reasons for this, the chief being that settlement hovered around the rivers, and river transportation proved easier, safer, more timely/inexpensive, even more comfortable than overland trudging through the woods and hills. Accordingly, in the early years of concern to this module, bridges and ferries, also unencumbered river access (blocking the river to create dams or stringing fishing nets across a navigable creek fell into the category of transportation. A second reason is that the early highway usually took advantage of a grass trail paved by Native American feet, without stone or asphalt.

The Great Wagon Road-Warrior’s Trail, which the reader shall shortly hear about, commenced a few miles outside of Philadelphia and headed out to today’s Lancaster, to York, and then south across the Potomac. From there one could access the Shenandoah Valley and points south (Georgia). This trail, was not more than what we just described–and the “wagon” could not operate on it during Penn’s time ( it was also a “toll road” in the sense that go too far down it, and one encountered Native Americans who took your scalp). Once one got to the mountains, it was difficult for even horses. When the time came, the Wagon Road was used first by Palatine and Moravian Germans, and then flooded with Scots-Irish.

Between 1683 and 1699 there were three laws authorizing bridges and road construction, laws forbidding private enterprise from blocking river access and passage by dams for mills, one regulating streets and watercourses within the various towns and county seats. In 1700, two roads were approved, several ferries were authorized, a law regulating ferries–all of which were subsumed with a fundamental legislation, General Road Law of 1700, which stood until radically revised in 1762, to prescribe the rights and responsibilities of the various policy actors and institutions concerning roads, bridges and rivers [99] Jeffrey D. Kaja, Shewing the Course: Defining the Role of Public Highways in Early Pennsylvania, 1680-1800 (University of Michigan and 2007-2008 PEAES Resident Dissertation Fellow paper presented to Joint Seminar of the Program in Early America Economy and Society and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, Philadelphia, PA) April 4, 2008, pp. 6-8. The 1700 law placed the responsibility for this economic development strategy on the provincial government (executive, proprietary, and legislature). The centrality of the proprietary Land Office’s Surveyor General in determining the route (and indirectly costs and workforce obligations) diverted that Office away from Penn’s primary focus on land sales, land grants, settlement/town building and clear titles. It also raised tensions with county and townships which shared powers and were greatly affected by the outcomes.

It was the local governments that determined the workforce in that road construction draft was mandatory for all citizens/residents who were, under specified limits, eligible for a  specified time drafted to provide construction of the improvement. That power was resident within the local council appointed by the Proprietary through appointments to the the court of quarter sessions. Accordingly  the ability of local citizens to affect the process was limited. As described by Kaja:

On a local level three important institutions appeared to the effective regulation and maintenance of highways … [Between 1681 and 1800] twenty-five counties [with] established courts of quarter sessions in each as the principal apparatus for the building and maintaining of roads and bridges … Once a public highway had been viewed, laid out and confirmed by the county council, he responsibility for cutting, clearing and regulating the road fell to the counties through which it passed. Second municipal authorities [townships and boroughs] powers included everything from petitioning for new roads to regulating streets. Finally each township had its own overseer of highways [General Assembly legislative subsidiary] to enforce road laws and assume the maintenance of county roads and public highways [99] Jeffrey D. Kaja, Shewing the Course, p. 7.

Tensions and a prolonged negotiation, and further involvement of the county with its fiscal powers (the legislature had established in 1696 the election of six assessors to prepare a county budget and assessment rates for payment of expenditures, did little to facilitate road construction or reduce its costs.  Between 1683 and 1776, only twenty three public highways were approved by the Legislature, leaving the burden of roads, bridges, and ferries to the tender mercies of the laborious, time-consuming and costly sub-provincial road system [99] Jeffrey D. Kaja, Shewing the Course, pp. 6-8.

The 1762 act also empowered the township to determine if mandatory citizen draft for work on roads would be employed, or at their discretion prescribe a road tax to pay for the construction. The province retained responsibility for military roads and turnpikes/highway constructed by private corporations authorized by the provincial legislature, whose finances involved provincial bond issuance, or grants appropriated by the legislature, In essence that key infrastructure construction and maintenance (an cornerstone colonial economic development strategy) was decentralized to sub-provincial levels over the course of the first policy system–while retaining provincial authority over those infrastructure projects financed at the provincial level..


What Simler observes is the county and the township, overlapping in many policy functions, including economic development, developed a complementary style of policy implementation (no doubt with its inevitable frictions).  She calls it “balanced” with each exercising their entrusted powers and functions effectively–but probably not efficiently to tensionless. But it did accomplish its intended purpose to involve and increase access of the local citizen in the policy-making. In her description of this functional overlap Simler sees he county playing the authorization/legitimation role and the coordinating role between and among townships, but the implementation is done by township officials and actions.

For example road-building infrastructure, arguably the prime economic development strategy of Pennsylvania city/town building,  as a public works effort was performed by the township to its boundaries where it linked with that of the adjoining township–as authorized, paid for by, and coordinated by county officials. The road infrastructure function/strategy required local involvement in that a “draft” of citizens was expected to do the actual work (this is common in the early colonial period); the positions were initially filled by appointment from the Provincial Council/General Assembly from a list of two people chosen by nomination by township freeholders. As early as 1699, township officials determined the route of the road within their township.


The Evolution of the Colonial Pennsylvania Township

The structural evolution of townships both overlapped that of their county, but from the beginning they were treated differently by the Proprietor. Counties were, according to his Frame, approved by the Provincial Legislature. Townships on the other hand were approved and set by action of the Proprietor. “The Penns were responsible for all county seats [townships] founded before the Revolution: York, Reading, Carlisle, Easton, Bedford and Sunbury’. Their location principals of county seats were described previously but centrality within the county, distance from Philadelphia [the proposed commercial center of the colony], and the “platting” was always grid, central square. The establishment of non-county seat towns followed the below described criteria, and that too was controlled by the Proprietorship–the reader ought take notice that the role of counties in creating their subordinate units was NIL. They would have a role and functions to perform once a township was created by Penn, but not before. The Proprietor reserved specific lots for himself his private use, and sold lots that prescribed a three year build or lose it covenant, and a quit rent annual payment to Penn’s Land Office. Penn desire to concentrate land sales to discourage scattered land purchases which would “make government difficult, and inhibit commerce” and since prime land would sell first, over time he would be selling scrub, inaccessible, and irregular parcels for less.

Aside from the land sale itself, Penn’s Proprietary was more concerned with the development of an economic base. His promotional literature assured the purchaser/land owner that costs of ownership would be limited. This was not a function of his Quaker equality but a two-fold belief that (1) farmers and businessmen had to perceive their venture as profitable or purchase and rent payments would not occur; and (2) Penn strongly believed that the economic base created by the purchasers had to be geared toward export. This was in line with English mercantilist policy, but also reflected Penn’s own belief that export to the budding British Empire was the “way to go” and by far the most profitable to him (knowing they would have to use his young commercial center Philadelphia, where he also had his share of the business ventures and land. Penn’s prices and terms were “buyer friendly”, did offer a package for indentured servants, and he took surveying seriously so that the buyer and seller knew what they were buying.

Penn allocated  5,000 acres for each township, and envisioned “on average” one family for each 500 acres. Subdivision was possible, and Penn negotiated larger purchasers as necessary- several larger purchases in effect set up an entire community (Germantown, for example). Penn’s Office of Surveyor-General and his Commissioners of Property (elements of his Lande Office) were tasked with enforcement, and after his departure the complete administration of the process. The reaction of the first generation of land buyers to these terms was muted, but there is some evidence that indicated the sale did not live up to their expectations [99] John Illich, Colonial Pennsylvania (Charles Scribners & Sons, 1976), pp. 174-5. The casualty in this was Penn’s hope to develop “greene villages” in line with his perception of a traditional English village; in fact only one one Chester County village, Newton, was designed following the criteria outlined in our textbooks [99] Simler, p. 51. but it was always a “buyers market” and purchasers wanted specific locations, which led to the sale of clusters of land and after Penn’s departure and the troubled decades that followed, the settling of land was controlled by the Land Office, and when that broke down by settlers settling down and taking their chances. By 1700 Penn gave up, after unsuccessfully, trying to collect on quit rents and clamp down on squatters, and after that point, until the late 1720’s the Land Office, Logan its superior, ran the shop–with all that entailed.

From this it is evident that townships were fairly dispersed collection of settlements, households, cross-roads, mill-tavern clusters, likely with no natural or planned center. Likely in these years there was no township building; records were stored at the county seat, and the township meetings were held at private homes, or larger buildings. The chief elective officials pertinent to the township were the county justices of the peace, and such other county offices as we described earlier. Township officials included the constable, the overseer of the poor, overseer of the highways and tax assessors or collectors. These officials were selected at a township meeting, and their names sent to the county court whose justices would formally select them. In the absence of a willing candidate, the county justices could draft and individual and appoint him. Since county officials had no other staff to handle these functions, one could say that townships were not just the service-delivery units of the Pennsylvania policy system, but its legs and muscle as well. It might also be noted the lack of a militia and its organization structure, greatly distinguished Pennsylvania townships from lower local government units in other colonies. Also, the local Quaker meeting house did not necessarily correspond to township boundaries, and unstudied, its effect on townships cannot be assessed.

What proved important over the long haul was townships were empowered early on to tax themselves. In 1705 townships could tax its residents for expenses associated with care of the poor. Until 1771 the county justices could veto this tax and tax rate, but after that veto was lodged in three township freeholders elected to also audit the books annually. In 1762, the township acquired the same powers to tax for highways, roads, et al. The Highway Law of 1762 acknowledged formally that townships had the right to elect their own officials and to tax for their own local needs, as permitted, of course, by Pennsylvania law.

The [county] justices as administrators, coordinated and supervised the laws and the government programs, delegated authority on a yearly basis to township officials, and mediated any dispute that arose between townships in the course of exercising this authority. Action occurred primarily at the township level … Over the colonial period, township residents became increasingly involved in local government. Not only did the number of township officials multiply in proportion to the growth of the population, but their responsibilities and commensurate authority increased [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, p 56.

The county court, of course, did oversee local decisions, but had no veto, and had recourse usually as they do today through judicial action, or specific legislation. This provided the township to meet the mandates of county for supervising elections, constructing and maintaining roads, and administering care of the poor, which eventually meant actual buildings. The constable and law enforcement function also incrementally expanded. In short, the townships over time developed larger bureaucracies, and assumed a share of the cost of its governance.

[By] 1765 the right of taxation was exercised on three levels: at the provincial level by the Assembly for the King’s use and for the welfare of the colony; at the county level by the County Commissioners and Assessors for the use of county government and the welfare of the county; at the township level by annually elected officers to provide for the welfare of the community, and to defray the costs of township responsibilities  [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, p 62.

This is the system the first policy system of the Revolutionary War Articles of Confederation inherited. By comparison we saw Virginia was also decentralized, but in the hand of a county plantation owner elite, with local officials appointed by the House of Burgesses, filled with the same county plantation elites–with no right of tax, and few roads of any consequence were built during the colonial period. Pennsylvania was already building roads before Penn left in 1684.

[99] See Robert Clark, Pennsylvania Local Government: a Peculiar System and its Implications (Directed Research.  Pennsylvania Department of General Services, May 3, 2017). pp. 3-5, 9-10. In this decentralized, overlapping, fragmentation between/among public and private sectors of the capacity and presumably implementation of in our case economic development. Clark further observes

Historically, the citizens of Pennsylvania have possessed a relatively great desire for localism and local control. The highly-localized government in Pennsylvania provides the historical benefit of giving residents the power to have an effect on the services available to them. Because of the many local governments and many public officers running those governments, Pennsylvania’s citizens may relatively easily access their local public officials to effect change and influence their local community. Pennsylvania’s early charters [of incorporation] and constitutions specifically provided for a close and accessible local government to develop for this very purpose.

Here, I think, we can see the roots of what Sam Bass Warner will later define as “Privatism”, a policy-making system clearly at odds and distinct from his preferred “Yankee-Puritan” approach to economic development policy-making.

As Simler describes “the overseer had responsibility for protecting his township from vagrants [homeless] for providing work for able unemployed, and for apprenticing the children of the poor to useful trades. Today as the reader shall later discover, workforce training is regarded more as Mainstream ED, but homeless and job search and other left silent potential activities in supervision of the poor could easily involve activities and strategies associated with contemporary community development–housing the poor, for example. Several following Pennsylvania modules will more fully build on this community development approach, but at this point we can suggest that as far as Penn’s form of Privatism, it did include some basics of community development, as we would expect from a Quaker-derived policy system. It entrusted these basics to sub-state government, township-county, and set them into what we could describe as a sub-state picket-fence policy-making-implementation bureaucracy. Pretty fancy policy-making jargon for 1682 Pennsylvania don’t cha think? Maybe nothing is new under the sun?


As the latter grew, they were incorporated as “boroughs”, and if they insisted on growing still more, many were incorporated into municipal corporations called cities. One can see the heritage of that pattern today, as there are 1546 townships, 956 Boroughs, and 56 Cities in contemporary Pennsylvania–along with sixty-seven counties. Each of these forms enjoy, if that is the word, their own distinctive policy system form of government–which reflects existing state constitutional classes of sub-state governmental forms. The township–coordinated by the county–was to be one of the principal levels of Pennsylvania decentralized sub-state policy system.

To the colonists of southeastern Pennsylvania the township as a method of settlement brought orderly compact settlement and a government capable of maintaining the peace, supervising the highways, overseeing the poor and of assuming an even greater role as the colonial world expanded and moved west. The townships fostered an environment conducive to economic growth and community solidarity. Such was William Penn’s stated intention. By placing responsibility for implementing governmental polices and for guarding the welfare of the community … Penn also encouraged organizational skill, initiative, and self-confidence throughout a broad spectrum of society. From life in the township came the preparation both for the eighteenth century world of economic liberalism and for political independence. The township as a unit of self-government and as the community of the rural Pennsylvanian was an important part of Penn’s legacy to his colony [99] Lucy Simler, the Township: the Community of Rural Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, p. 66.


The Pennsylvania County–Shared Functions Foster Citizen Access, Participation and Community Identification

By 1762 townships were a self-governing level of the Pennsylvania policy system. In the hinterland, it was the township were citizens and residents came together to make and implement, even tax for those activities of special importance to them as individuals and to their economic base. Equally important was that township governance was without any doubt the government closest to the people–the real base of the “best workingman’s government in North America”. Most without even a public building to host their activities, they met in private spaces, and became as privatized a local government, with tasks and responsibilities that differed notably from their chief rival, the New England town. Their political culture, first nurtured by the Quaker, than by the German, with Scots-Irish settling down, if a Scots-Irish could truly settle down in the border townships and townships along the path of western movement. Contrasting political cultures could, and would, find ample opportunity to express themselves in township governance

Penn’s decentralized system evolved through time and increased complexity, but it did so from its original foundations laid in place by Penn’s Frame of Government and Charter of Privileges. How it evolved and why is a task for future modules, but in his original formulation, Penn’s intention to decentralize policy-making, to share policy making among overlapping government which in so doing invites, if not requires organizational and jurisdictional fragmentation, has become a characteristic of Pennsylvania “style” of policy-making and implementation. In a larger sense, here is the image, the romanticism, associated with “small town government”. As we now know, it has its dysfunctions, is certainly not a model of efficiency, but it does permit individual participation in political life and policy-making that exceeds today’s compelled “community public hearing”. It may have taken ninety years to achieve self-governance, but it came together in the nick of time–three years previous to the 1765 Stamp Act.

From the township will originate Pennsylvania’s Sons of Liberty, the forum of populist anti-British opposition, but as we leave a word of warning. Whether the democratic and organizational benefits of this township government is as romantic as portrayed in this section is an arguable proposition or not, it may be based on some level of homogeneity–religion, socio-economic class, ethnicity–but it also imposes of the individual township resident the burden of governance, a burden that may become unwanted. What happens to this government when citizen participation fails in some measure may be that it opens the possibility for other, less romantic, style of township governance. Alas, but again we get ahead of ourselves.