Local Autonomy Grew as Nation Changed

History and Landscape
Published July 3, 1997

Local Autonomy Grew as Nation Changed

| Published July 3, 1997

William C. Fischer, a member of the Common Council. 1904. The Newark Public Library

Today's article focuses on the city's early governing bodies. While we have come to think of the current government in modern terms as a series of neatly arranged checks and balances, largely based upon the federal constitution, our local government has evolved over many years.

Granted, all power originally rested in the hands of the king, but in practice here in the American wilderness of 17th century East Jersey, 3000 miles from Whitehall, there was another authority that ruled. That power was legislative, not executive in nature. In 1666, Robert Treat negotiated with the Lenni Lenapi for all the land between the Passaic River and the Watchung Mountains for about $750 worth of trinkets. It was here that the colonists from Milford and later Branford, Connecticut settled. Under the Fundamental Agreements, only members of the Congregational Church were granted voting rights. Outside planters were invited to share in local rights, but in return they were asked to support the church. They had to certify that they were of good character, would not sell their lands without township approval, and agreed to be led and ruled by the town magistrates. In fact, they were bowing to the legal or legislative authority that was the church.

Newark Charter

In 1713, Queen Anne issued Newark a charter, and in return they were responsible for an annual tax of five shillings. But, once again while legal authority was vested in the crown, the thousands of miles of ocean between London and Newark virtually guaranteed local authority. In 1798, under a new form of government, and as part of a new nation, the New Jersey Legislature decided to incorporate all its New Jersey townships under its authority. As a result came the first challenge to Newark's custom of acting independently. Trenton was determined to keep close reins over its municipalities, closer than London. Thus, began the long battle for home rule, which continues to this day.

In past years, later governments were to complain that too much power had been transferred to the statehouse, and not enough remained in city hall. Mayor Jacob Raussling, early in the 20th century, complains continually in his annual message of the 'need to go to Trenton in regard to matters that should be completely under Newark's control.' For well over a century, following the Revolution, Newark's legislative body clearly overshadowed the executive branch of government. As changes evolved as the 19th century unfolded, and as society as well as government became more complicated, the tide turned dramatically.

Equal partners

Gradually, the two branches of government have become equal partners in modern day municipal administration. But in the early days, the concept was to keep government close to the people, and especially to guard against any type of executive abuse or mistreatment associated with the then recently overthrown king or royal governor. So officials were elected annually, and their powers were severely limited. The mayor, the weaker of the two, presided over meetings, voted only in case of tie and had no veto power, made no appointments and possessed only a few real administrative functions. On the other hand, the Common Council could regulate the sale of liquor, controlled the police and fire departments, health agencies, schools and municipal markets. It also managed the streets and had control of local finance.

Ray Ralph's dissertation on Newark as an emerging modern city in the 19th century discussed, among other things, the legislative makeup of the Newark Common Council, and how it reflected the emergence of a new population. In his analysis of the 179 aldermen who served between 1836 and 1860, he produces an interesting profile. The typical alderman was 41 years old, married with four children, had one live-in servant and owned $16,000 worth of real estate — a pretty fair amount for the times. He also determined that 32 percent belonged to a profession, 42 percent were classified as white collar, 41 percent were skilled, and only 3 percent were described as unskilled. Of the industries represented, the greatest number were associated with Newark's leather industry, which mainly consisted of the manufacture of boots, shoes, harnesses or saddles. In fact, at one time early in the last century somebody noted that, 'no one could be elected to important local office without the approval of Newark's tanners and curriers.' Of the professions represented, the majority were lawyers, but three were doctors, four were insurance executives and several were teachers. Skilled artisans included six carpenters, five brewers and six contractors.

The manufacturers

In the middle of the 19th century, manufacturers tended to become increasingly important, while the unskilled worker remained virtually unrepresented until the present century. Politically, the Whigs dominated the chamber until after the Civil War when the Democrats gained control. One of the richest men to hold political office in the city was Daniel Dodd Jr., a lawyer and a Whig-turned-Democrat. His real property was valued at $100,000, and his personal property at $20,000. William Rankin's estate was valued at $150,000, and the estate of Owen McFarland, a recent Irish immigrant, was estimated at $100,000. After 1850, wealthy elected public officials declined. Seventy-five percent were born in New Jersey, and 14 percent in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Four each were from Ireland and Germany. Following 1860, the Council included more representatives of white collar workers, artisans and workers in small business. Immigrants, who were pouring into town by the time of the Civil War, were more frequently elected. After 1852, the Council came to reflect the new dominant groups in town, and by 1865, had become thoroughly a two-party assembly. The old patricians and manufacturers were being replaced by a new breed of political masters — the Germans and the Irish. Like the office of the mayor, the Newark Common Council had come to represent a growing city of Newark and a new group which was to shape the city for years to come. While change was not always welcome – remember the rise of the Know Nothing Party here and across the country – Newark's political machinery was well suited to see the community through the next half century, meeting its needs and demands.

A transformation

As the 19th century progressed, the power of a weak mayor and strong council gradually was transformed into that of a powerful mayor and forceful council. For no sooner had the Charter of 1836 come into existence, than the office of mayor began to add powers that was to soon make it an equal political partner with the council. Between 1857 and 1916, two strong tendencies emerged in Newark's municipal structure: the diffusion of political power and a tendency to concentrate power in the mayor's office. For one thing, the Council lost some of its earlier potency by distributing responsibilities to a variety of boards and commissions. As the news of division grew, there was less opportunity to regulate or supervise them. This very lack of proper supervision resulted in the demand for yet another form of government in the 20th century. By 1860, the mayor was authorized to fill vacancies; in 1872 he was given the power to appoint a comptroller and auditor; in 1885 he could appoint the police and fire commissioners, and named the street and water commissioners in 1894. So by the end of the last century, Newark government had pretty much evolved into a powerful mayor/council combination, each wielding great authority, and the battle for political ascendancy continued.