Forgotten History of “Freeholder”: When Liberty Included Responsibility. When Americans Had More Freedom, Better Government, and Lower Taxes.

Almost every lawyer in New Jersey has a “Black’s Law Dictionary” that defines and describes the word “Freeholder”.

Most counties in New Jersey are run by a committee of seven elected officials called “The Board of Chosen Freeholders”.  Some, like Atlantic County, are run by a “County Executive”, together with an elected council known as the Freeholder Board.

The term “freeholder” has described the elected representatives of county government in New Jersey since soon after we became an English colony in 1664.

Last month, Democrats led by Governor Murphy began a campaign to abolish that title.  They falsely claimed that term somehow supported racial or gender injustice in the past, when the opposite was true.

They moved with lightning speed.  There was little or no research or open discussion by historians.  There was little or no debate in the State Assembly or Senate.  In just six weeks, fake history wiped out real history.  Lies were accepted as truth and written into a new law.  Starting next year, all freeholders in New Jersey will be called “county commissioners” instead.

Click here for article dated August 21, 2020 with headline “Freeholders no more — Murphy signs bill ending county title criticized as racist”.

The real history is that “freeholder” comes from a time when freedom in America was linked to responsibility.  That when most people in New Jersey had more freedom, more prosperity, more opportunity, lower taxes, and better government than any society in human history.

This is when New Jersey adopted “Liberty and Prosperity” as our state motto.  This is when America became known throughout Europe as “The Land of Boundless Opportunities”.

This is the America that “woke” Democrats want to erase from our memories.

For more than 500 years, English law defined “freeholder” as an owner of real estate.  A “freeholder” was not a tenant.  A freeholder was free to work and improve what he owned, and did not depend on the good will of a landlord.

The term “freeholder” became important soon after New Jersey became an English colony in 1664.  That was because the charter issued by King Charles gave the people who settled here the right to create their own local governments.

They did a remarkable job.  They did not copy any of the complicated, overlapping,  and expensive systems that ran local governments in Europe. There would be no dukes, lords, barons, and counts running their petty fiefdoms.  There would be no expensive licenses, fees, permits, tolls, and sales taxes to pay for them.

The original settlers of New Jersey instead divided the state into counties.  Each county was to have only four paid officials.  A county clerk would maintain public records of all land transfers.  This would let everybody know who which land.  A county surrogate would determine if wills were valid, and who received the property and cared for the minor children of those who died.  A county judge would decide criminal cases and resolve civil disputes.  A county sheriff, together with his deputies, enforced court judgments, summoned juries, enforced the law, and ran the jail.

Each of these four officials was paid with fees they charged for their services.  Each were elected.  If voters were unhappy with the fees or the services, they could vote those officials out in the next election.

There was also an often unpaid Board of Chosen Freeholders.  They decided where and how to build the court house and jail for the clerk, surrogate, judge and sheriff.  They also where and how to build and maintain roads and bridges to get there, and elsewhere in the county.   They also decided who to hire, how much to pay, and much in taxes had to be collected.

The original settlers of New Jersey decided that there would be only one simple tax – a tax on real estate.  This was because land could not be moved, hidden, or manipulated.  Everybody could see all the land and buildings in their county, and estimate their value.

The original settlers of New Jersey also decided that only freeholders, that is landowners, could vote and hold public office.  It seemed fair to them that nobody should have the power to force others to pay taxes, unless that person owned property and paid his or her share of those taxes.

This idea had nothing to do with the exclusion of women, blacks or anyone else.  It recognized the fundamental truth that  responsibility is a necessary component liberty and that the two go together.  America was not founded on “democracy”.  Democracy gives majorities the right to tax, persecute, and even enslave minorities.  Our nation was instead founded on the idea that “governments are instituted” to secure the equal and “unalienable rights” of each individual, and exercise “their just powers from the consent of the governed”.

New Jersey’s system of simple, limited, low-tax government gave New Jersey and early America some of the best government, lowest taxes and fastest economic growth ever seen in world history.

“By the 1750’s, America. . . was unquestionably a success story.  It was to a large extent self-governing.  . . It was already a rich country and growing richer.* Most men and women who lived there enjoyed, by European standards, middle-class incomes once the frugalities and struggles of their youth were over.  The opportunities for the skilled, the enterprising, the energetic, and the commercially imaginative were limitless. . . ” Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (1997) at page 108.

*It is worth mentioning that by 1750, slavery was inefficient and not sustainable in most of America, even in the South. It only became highly profitable in in the 1790’s when the newly invented cotton gin and new machines in England made it possible to cheaply mass produce cotton fabric and sell it around the world. America’s culture of inexpensive government, low taxes, and few government restrictions on businesses and trade brought prosperity to most Americans long before slavery became a significant factor.  That culture brought even more prosperity to America after the Civil War when two million Americans had fought and 350,000 died to end slavery.

This made it possible for young people, freed slaves and freed indentured servants with no money, to keep most of what they earned, and save enough to buy enough land to vote in just a few years.

This “freeholder” based system of government protected the rights of free blacks and women.  If they owned land, they paid taxes.  If they paid taxes, they enjoyed the equal right to vote and hold public office.   Public records show that several women were elected to the Board of Chosen Freeholders in those days.

Years later, that changed.  Young men, inspired by the French Revolution (and later by Andrew Jackson and his “Democratic” Party, demanded the right to vote before they worked and saved enough to become freeholders.  They also opposed voting rights for blacks and women.  Unfortunately, they succeeded starting in 1807. This was in spite of determined and heroic efforts by many respected leaders to stop them.  They included large numbers of Quakers including the families of Richard Stockton and Richard Somers.

Blacks did not regain what they lost, and win equal political rights in New Jersey until the Civil War.  Women did even begin to actively demand a restoration of their rights until after 1865. Before then, there was a “scarcity of women” in America.  Most women were married after having a wide choice of husbands.  They thought of themselves as equal partners in a family unit that had equal political rights.  That quickly changed after 600,000 American men were killed during the Civil War.  That left large numbers of women unmarried for the first time in American history.   It was then many for the first time demanded and won equal voting and property rights.

America and New Jersey certainly had dark moments in our past. It is important that we learn what they were and how our nation grew out of them.  However, the title “freeholder” was not part of any of those dark moments.  On the contrary, the freeholder system was part of one of America’s greatest success stories.

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