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increased the powers and duties of the county courts, and at the Revolution they settled all cases at common law or chancery, except when loss of life or limb or law protection were involved. They were also courts of administration, had the care of orphans, and appeal was from them to the general court. The general court was originally the quarter court held by the Governor and Council in March, June, September and November. The June term was abolished in 1659, and on account of the absurdity of calling a court meeting three times only in the year a quarter court, the name general court was adopted in 1662. But November was too late in the year to allow planters to attend court with any degree of comfort, and September was too early, inasmuch as trading vessels did not arrive until later, and the tobacco trade was dull; hence, after 1684 the terms were held in April and October.
To return to the county court, probably one of its most important functions was the laying of the county levy, for Virginians paid three kinds of taxes-parish, county and public. For the laying of county taxes the court met and ascertained the county expenses for roads, bridges, buildings, burgesses' salaries, etc. To determine each man's proportion, the whole sum was divided by the number of tithables, for after a brief experiment during the years 1645-48 of taxes directly upon property, the authorities reverted to the poll system.* The court established rates of ordinances or inns, recommended attorneys to the governor, and paid fees for the destruction of wild beasts. Jones wrote in 1724: “The wolves of late are much destroyed by Virtue of a Law which allows good Rewards for their Heads, with the Ears on, to prevent Imposition and cheating the Public, for the Ears are crop'd when a Head is produced.” † The court had the yearly appointment of surveyors of highways, for whom it divided the county into precincts, that all county and church roads“ might be kept clear, respect being had to the course used in England." But waterways were used in preference to land routes, and the road system of Virginia was for a long time imperfect. The surveyor-general of the colony was appointed by the president of William and Mary College. The land surveyors were in general examined and recommended by the same person
* The following is a list of tax rates in 1645, taken from Hening's Statutes : 1 cow 3 years old 4 lbs. tobacco, horses, mares, and geldings, at 32 lbs. a piece, a breeding sheep 4 lbs., a breeding goat 2 lbs., a tithable person 20 lbs.
+ Hugh Jones. Present State of Va., p. 51.
# It is rather curious to note the expenses of a survey. In the bill for the Fairfax survey of 1736 among the items of expenditures embracing feed and shelter for horses, lodging, meals, etc., amounting in all to £37, are found claret, madeira wine, beer, punch for gentlemen, tea for gentlemen, and liquors for surveyors, costing over £11.
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or by the surveyor-general, and having been approved of by the Governor and Council took the oath of office before the court of the county where they were to serve. Although at one time there was a statute allowing county courts, with the consent of a majority of the inhabitants, to divide counties into parishes, it was the custom for parishes to be created by act of Assembly. The court made its own by-laws, and with repre- . sentatives from the parishes could make by-laws for the county; it nominated inspectors of tobacco, granted divorces, regulated the relations of whites to the Indians, tried cases of piracy, erected ducking stools, pillories, whipping-posts and stocks, appointed collectors of county levies, and regulated the relations of master to servant. For instance, in August, 1751, the sheriff of Augusta County “having informed the court that Henry Witherington, a servant boy belonging to John Stevenson, was in jail and that he had an iron lock in his mouth, it was ordered by the court that he immediately take off the same."*
When an Assembly had been called and the county had elected its two burgesses, the court sat as a court of claims, to take proof of debts and complaints which were to be presented to the Assembly by the burgesses, “and to know the pressures, humours, common talk, and designs of the people of that country, perhaps there is no better way than to peruse the journals of the house of burgesses, and of the committee of grievances and propositions." + When circumstances arose for which laws were not expressly provided, the court was empowered to attend to them. Thus in Lancaster county, in the lack of a vestry, the court with the minister of a parish appointed churchwardens and sidesmen or assistants. The jurisdiction of this court over slaves was varying. The court of Isle of Wight County had a slave, in 1709, receive forty lashes upon his bare back for being accessory to a negro insurrection ; and a free negro, who had entertained some of the runaway negroes at his house, received twenty-nine lashes “well laid on.” Information of offenses was laid before the court by the grand jury, consisting of impaneled freeholders possessed of at least fifty pounds in real or personal estate, or by churchwardens. An idea of the state of justice in the eighteenth century may be derived from the records of grand jury presentments: “We present Thomas Sims, for travelling on the road on the Sabbath day with a loaded beast;" “ William Montague and Garrett Minor for bringing oysters ashore on the Sabbath," etc. Persons were also presented for cursing, swearing, bastardy, and one for “ drinking a health to King James and refusing to drink a health to King George." If the accused desired he was tried by a petit jury consisting of from six to twelve persons, for the practice of the general court was followed by the lesser. In 1672 the sheriff of Henrico County was ordered to impanel six men to try a woman for stabbing to death her fellow servant; six men were summoned to try a traitor, and a cattle thief. In certain cases the old English custom of the appointment of a jury of matrons prevailed. Very early in the colony's life the jury consisted of ten and of fourteen men, notwithstanding the clause in the charter providing for a jury of twelve. But that there was an attempt at least to copy after English practice, may be inferred from the following enactment: “And the jurors to be kept from food and releise till they have agreed upon their verdict according to the custom practised in England." The county courts had great regard for their dignity, as has been shown where the court refused to sit with an unworthy member; and to prevent misconduct in a justice it was enacted “that whatsoever justice of the peace shall become soe notoriously scandalous upon court dayes at the court house, to be soe farre overtaken in drinke that by reason thereof he shalbe adjudged by the justices holding court to be incapable of that high office and place of trust, proper to inherett in a justice of the peace, shall for his first such offence be fined five hundred pounds of tobacco and cask and for his second such offence one thousand pounds of tobacco." If he was again guilty, a heavier fine was to be imposed and he should lose his position. One court passed a by-law that an attorney who interrupted another at the bar should be fined five shillings. At one session of this court the justices were in a quandary about the treatment of an old lawyer who had long practiced in the county, and who had been urged over the precipice of profanity by the sarcastic witticisms of a younger man. After considerable consultation they decided "that if Mister Holmes did not quit worrying Mister Jones and making him curse and swear so, he should be sent to jail."'t This court had some time before committed a man to the stocks for two hours and fined him twenty shillings “for damning the court and swearing four oaths in their presence."
* Virginia Historical Register, iii., + Mass. Historical Coll. Series v., p. 149.
Very petty cases were heard by one or by two justices, from whom appeal was to the county court, in which case the justices who had had original jurisdiction were not allowed to participate in the trial. In the absence of a coroner a justice could act in his stead.
The executive officer of the court was the sheriff, who was not so much
Old Churches and Families of Virginia, i., pp. 230, 254, 365 ; Va. Hist. Reg. iii, 77.
+ Va. Hist. Reg. iii., p. 17.
the representative of the Governor in the county court as he was the representative of the county to the Governor. He was appointed as follows: the justices nominated three persons, generally from their own body, one of whom was, as a rule, commissioned by the Governor, though the practice varied. The sheriff or his deputies had to serve writs, superintended elections of burgesses, collected public and county levies and sometimes parish tithes, impressed men for service on shipboard, sold estates of suicides at public outcry, made arrests, sometimes resorting to the old “hue and cry" in pursuit of runaway servants or slaves, collected fines, and carried the public levy to the capital. Sheriffs as well as other officers of the law adopted the practice of attending parish churches for the purpose of serying writs, warrants, etc. This was, no doubt, easy and agreeable for the sheriffs, but the worshiping delinquent could not have relished such an interruption to his devotions. Persons liable to such visitations neglected their church duties, so that a law had to be passed forbidding sheriffs to make arrests on Sundays or muster days. This law did not prohibit, however, the pursuit on Sunday of an escaped felon. By special warrant from the Governor, a councillor, or two justices, a sheriff could make arrests on shipboard. When peace was concluded between Queen Anne and the King of France, in 1713, Governor Spotswood ordered a proclamation to be " openly read and published at the principal Church of each parish immediately before divine service by the Sheriffs of the respective Countys, their officers, or substitutes on horseback.” The sheriffs had also to see that copies of the special collect for the occasion should be distributed in time. The sheriffs or their deputies executed the orders of the courts, and in some cases they were sore let and hindered in running the race set before them. Peyton gives examples of writs returned with indorsements such as -"Not executed by reason there is no road to the place where he lives;" “not executed by reason of excess of weather ;” “ by reason of an axe;" and “
of a gun;" “because the defendant's horse was faster than mine;" " because the defendant got into deep water-out of my reach."* Such were the duties and cares of the sheriff, who, in the exercise of his various functions, from executing an order of the Governor to ducking a witch, was but the old shire-reeve of England, with powers changed to suit a new order of things. The other officers of the county were the coroner, who was commissioned by the governor to view corpses, and, if necessary, to act as sheriff, and the constables, who were the assistants of the sheriffs in giving
Peyton, Hist. of Augusta Co., p. 58.
+ For an account of the ducking of Grace Sherwood, the so-called Virginia witch, see MAGAZINE OF AMERICAN History, November, 1883 p. 425.
notice of court meetings and of levies, in looking after runaway slaves, in transferring paupers from parish to parish, and in pursuing criminals.
The county system of ante-revolutionary Virginia has been studied thus minutely in view of the fact that it served as a model for, if it did not directly influence, similar institutions in the South, South-west, and even in some States of the West.
In this system the dominant idea was gradation of power from the governor downward, not upward from the people. The necessary tendency to strong centralization was counteracted, however, by the individuality of officers, high and low. But the system offered many loop-holes for corruption, and possessed real evils. The justices, serving at the Governor's pleasure, might be wrongly influenced by him; the sheriff, his appointee, might use corrupt means to return, as elected to the Assembly, burgesses who could be used as tools by the Governor. Few, comparatively, were allowed, by reason of property qualification, to effectively raise their voice against corruption. In view of these chances it is somewhat remarkable to find how few instances of malfeasance in office are recorded. Many changes have been introduced in the county system since the Revolution; but, as long as Virginia remains a largely agricultural State, so long will her local political life be molded upon the plan which has prevailed for two centuries.