Genesis of County Government

Quitman County Courthouse

Lucy Somerville Howorth
Member Veterans Board of Appeals
Washington, D.C.

County government preceded state government in Mississippi, the county of Adams being created in 1799 shortly after the establishment of Mississippi Territory.  Though the territory comprising Mississippi had been for many years under French and Spanish rule, those counties left no permanent imprint upon the governmental unit, the county, was Anglo-Saxon in origin.  By 1817, when Mississippi was admitted into the union as a state, there were fourteen counties, Adams, Claiborne, Jefferson (originally name Pickering), Wilkerson, Amite, Franklin, Warren, Wayne, Marion, Greene, Hancock, Jackson, Lawrence, and Pike.

The first counties were those in the southwestern part of the state along the Mississippi and the Pearl and along the Gulf Coast.  The state was settled rapidly in the early nineteenth century, and by 1836 fifty-five counties had been created.  The state now has eighty-two counties, the most recent county being Humphreys which was created in 1918.

Our county government is a natural development of the British shire; the history of the shire reaches far back into antiquity; it was an established unit at the Norman Conquest.  The Normans accepted the shire as a governmental unit but changed the name to “county.”  The colonist, particularly in the South, transplanted the county plan of government.  As originally set up, the colonies had highly centralized forms of government, and county officers were appointed by the governor.  After the Revolution with the rising surge of democratic ideas, control of the county government was localized, and officials were elected by the citizens of the county.  Mississippi’s first constitution, 1817, provided for the election of the sheriffs and the appointment of other officers; the constitution of 1832 made elective the office of the justice of the peace in addition to sheriff.  By 1869 all constitutional officers were made elective.

While county government in Mississippi has been described as “largely traditional, copied from institutions evolved more than a century ago–not in Mississippi, but in other states–and adopted in this state with little essential modification and with little, if any, critical study,” other observers have noted that county government in Mississippi has undergone few changes in structure; but in recent years, there has come a marked change in the basis of its support.

A new character, “State Aid,” has come upon the stage and is demanding modernization of county government, both in structure and manner of the performance of its functions.

Counties have two-fold functions:  They are divisions of the state for administrative purposes, and they also have local duties.  Counties are bodies politic and corporate, but their powers and activities are only such as are bestowed upon them by the state.  The Mississippi Supreme Court has said, “They have no life, no power, no rights, no obligations, but such as have been conferred upon them” (Jefferson County vs. Grafton, 74 Miss. 435).  In modern times the county has been given greater power and responsibilities, but it remains a governmental unit created by the state, and not, as is true of municipal governments, by choice of the people comprising them.  However, though the people did not create the counties originally, county boundaries followed natural lines, and county pride and county tradition soon became and are strong forces.   The people of each county develop and cherish its own traditions and exploit its own assets.  This has happened because the county is a natural unit.  More than that, it is a unit that has made possible local self-government in rural and agricultural communities.  It is through the counties that the people of Mississippi have exercised local self-government, which has been defined as “The right of a people within a given area to determine some governmental policies, to levy and collect taxes, to make appropriations, and to administer these policies through officers of their own choosing.”  County government is the heart of our democratic system.  That its roots are deep in the past should assure it of greater strength and usefulness in the future.

From:  Works Progress Administration for Mississippi, Source Material for Mississippi History,     Quitman County, Vol. LX, Compiled by State-Wide Historical Research Project, Susie V. Powell, State Supervisor, Illustrated, 1936-1938, page x and xi.

Photo taken by Sharon Fortner Wright.

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