Local Government

The Key to American Liberty 


Since the early 20th century America has enteredinto a century long romance with the leviathan of public debt. Since the year2000 our debt has exploded from $5 trillion to over $17 trillion. ThomasJefferson had interesting insights into this subject. 

America’s third president warned against the centralization of power in thehands of an elite. He saw the people, not an elite, as the hope ofpreserving our republic,

“And topreserve their [the peoples’] independence, we must not let our rulers load us withperpetual debt.  We must make our election between economy and liberty, orprofusion and servitude.  If we run into such debts, as that we must betaxed in our meat and in our drink, in our necessaries and our comforts, in ourlabors and our amusements, for our callings and or creeds, as the people ofEngland are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in thetwenty-four, give the earnings of fifteen of these to the government fortheir debts and daily expenses; and the sixteenth being insufficient to affordus bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes, have no timeto think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtainsubsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellowsufferers.”

This description of England in his time sounds strangely familiar to us today.According to Jefferson, “private fortunes are destroyed by public as well as byprivate extravagance. And this is the tendency of all human governments… Tillthe bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, and to haveno sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering…And the fore horse of thisfrightful team is public debt…Taxation follows that, and in its trainwretchedness and oppression.”

To maintain our freedom Jefferson said that we must go back to the “ancientprinciples.” These principles are found in the self-governing model republicof the Hebrew nation and were known by most Americans until the 20th century. In this model God instructs Moses, through Jethro, to elect godlyrepresentatives and judges to represent the people and to decentralize power atthe local level. This model was in direct contrast to those of all the ancientnations which drove power to a dictator or tyrant.

The pattern Jefferson describes reflects the divine constitution given toMoses. This biblical model was instituted by Patrick in Ireland. Alfred theGreat, England’s greatest king, followed this same pattern in developing stronglocal government and limited national government. The American coloniesfollowed the divine constitution given to Moses with its pattern of localcontrol of government.  Our U.S. Constitution drives almost all power andcontrol of civil government down to the people and the states. The 10thAmendment of the Bill of Rights 
strongly presents decentralization of power: “The powers not delegated to theUnited States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, arereserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

In 1816, Jefferson looked back and wrote of the genius in the New Englandtownships.  These townships began with the example of Plymouth. Theywere the greatest model of self-government and biblical government everestablished.  Jefferson observed, “These wards, called townships in NewEngland, are the vital principle of their governments, and have provedthemselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfectexercise of self-government, and for its preservation.” 

He then described how much of the government power should be controlled by thepeople locally.  He said that the towns should have “A justice, chosen bythemselves, in each, a constable, a military company, a patrol, a school, thecare of their own poor, their own portion of the public roads, the choice ofone or more jurors to serve in some court…and by making every citizen an actingmember of the government, and in the offices nearest and most interesting tohim, will attach him by his strongest feelings to the independence of hiscountry, and its republican constitution.”

Later, in the 1830’s, the French jurist Alexis de Tocqueville toured Americaand wrote his famous book Democracy in America.  De Tocquevilleconsidered the local, decentralized township govern- ment of New England as thekey to American liberty.  He said, “In the laws of Connecticut, aswell as in all those of New England, we find the germ and gradual developmentof township independence which is the life and mainspring of American libertyat the present day.  The political existence of the majority of thenations of Europe commenced in the superior ranks of society [top down control]and was gradually and imperfectly communicated to the different members ofthe social body.  In America, on the contrary, it may be said that thetownship was organized before the county, the county before the state, and thestate before the union.” [bottom up control]

This local and accountable governance was the working model of liberty inAmerica even up to the 20th century.  Historian Douglas Campbell wrotein 1893 of the contrast between the governments of England and America. He said that in England, “Parliament legislates for the whole kingdom. That body takes upon itself the management of the domestic, the local, theparochial, and the municipal affairs of all the communities of England,Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It arranges for every local gas bill, water bill,sewerage bill and railway bill for the two islands. In America, the FederalCongress legislates only on matters of national concern, everything else isleft to the separate states.”  Campbell said that the townships of Americawere, “an infinity of little republics, each managing its own local affairs.”Sadly, Americans in recent decades have forgotten these truths and followed thesocialist model – reaping a whirlwind of despair.

Our answer to this dilemma lies not in Washington D.C. or even in theConstitution itself.  It lies in the people, dependent uponAlmighty God.  As Jefferson admitted, “I know no safe depository ofthe ultimate powers of the society, but the people themselves: and if we thinkthem not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesomediscretion, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform theirdiscretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses ofconstitutional power.” 

The victory of individual liberty over tyranny comes thorough regenerationnot revolution. Millions of God-dependent believers living out their faithin their communities can transform our nation from within.

-Marshall Foster