History of the Sheriff

Looking around for more information about the new LTC standards, I found this very interesting page on the PA Sheriff Association’s web site on the history of the office:

Under Anglo-Saxon rule it was the duty of the citizens themselves to see that the law was not broken, and if it was, to catch the offenders. All the males in the community between the ages of 12 and 60 were responsible for this duty. They were organized in groups of about ten families, and each group was called a “tything”: At their head was a “tythingman.” Each member of the tything was held responsible for the good behavior of the others. Ten tythings were led by a “reeve.” If one member committed a crime, the others had to catch him and bring him before the court, or the “moot” as the Saxons called it. If they failed to do so they were all punished, usually by paying a fine. If anyone saw a crime he raised a “hue and cry” and all men had to join in the chase to catch the criminal and bring him before the court. Under Alfred the Great, (A.D. 871-901), reeves began to be combined, forming “shires” or counties. Each shire was led by a reeve. For minor offenses, people accused of crimes were brought before the local “folk moot.” More serious cases went to the “Shire Court,” which came under the “shire reeve” (meaning “keeper and chief of his county”), who came to be known as the Sheriff. After the Normans conquered England in A.D. 1066, they adopted many Anglo-Saxon law keeping methods, including the system of tythings, the use of the hue and cry, and the Sheriff’s courts. In A.D. 1085, King William ordered a compilation of all taxable property in a census, and decreed that the Sheriff was to be the official tax collector of the king.

Read the whole thing. I found it to be quite interesting.

UPDATE: If you think about it, this type of system is probably what made English liberty possible. If the King was dependent on the community to enforce the King’s law, then the laws had to largely reflect the values of those communities. You wouldn’t be much interested in catching law breakers over laws that went against the values held in that community, would you? You’d probably spend a lot of time looking the other way. So English law didn’t develop in the same manner as other countries, and when they came here, they brought the law with them. Obviously neither the English nor Americans use this type of system for law enforcement anymore, but the American distrust of centralized police forces is probably rooted in this tradition, and has probably helped keep locally controlled policing, despite the efficiencies that could be gained from centralized police forces. Though most states have State Police, at least in Pennsylvania, they have jurisdiction over our highways, and in any communities that don’t hire local police.

11 thoughts on “History of the Sheriff”

  1. I find this stuff fascinating. I recently came across an article by Roger Roots (http://www.constitution.org/lrev/roots/cops.htm) that looks at how law enforcement was typically handled during our nation’s founding. It sounds like PA’s experience was typical–a very, very small number of official law enforcement officers who heavily relied on the support of the populous to catch criminals and enforce the laws. (In their spare time they repaired sidewalks!) The article also wonders what the founding fathers would think of our modern law enforcement, given their abhorrence for standing armies. Interesting food for thought.

  2. It’s hard to say, I think. That kind of enforcement worked largely because people knew each other, and most folks spent their entire lives within just a few miles of their home. I’m not sure you could run a modern society on part-time community driven law enforcement. At least not for the most of the 20th century. I actually think technology might enable such a thing again.

  3. In 1790, nearly the entire population of the U.S. lived in towns of a few hundred people. Even the “big cities” of the period would be barely qualify as cities today. If a stranger showed up anywhere but New York City, Boston, Charleston, or Phiadelphia, everyone in town knew it immediately.

    There are parts of our Constitution that actually are arguably obsolete–but it is the parts that the gun control types never seem interested in having amended.

  4. In Ohio, the Highway Patrol has jurisdiction over highways and state prisons and I think the protection of the executive officers. Other than that they are subordinate to the County Sheriff.

  5. I occasionally wonder what the modern history of this country would look like if the federal law enforcement agents had no arrest power outside of federal juristiction (DC, territories, forts&magazines, etc) and were perforce required to involve local authorities. I think, on balance, this would be A Bad Thing (civil rights and corrupt politicians are both examples of issues where local-arrest only would have been very bad). OTOH, I’m not entirely sure that having federal agents with police powers outside federal enclaves is constitutional either – I don’t believe plenary police powers are granted to the federal government.

    That ship has long since sailed, though

  6. Mr. Cramer –

    Could you expand on which sections might be obsolete? It’s an interesting topic that doesn’t get much serious attention (far as I can tell, anyway).

  7. Not clayton, but I’ll take a shot:

    Obsolete or merely deprecated? I don’t think we have to worry about quartering any more (3rd amendment), for example – but I wouldn’t remove it, either.

    Art 1 Section 7 (revenue bills must be raised in the House) is a dead letter due to the practice of “hollowing out” other bills. Not subject to a legislative fix, IMHO.

    Art 1 Sec 8: letters of marque and reprisal are deprecated (though again, I wouldn’t remove it).

    Exercising eclusive legislation in the federal district is again a dead letter (delegated in the name of Home Rule). While not something I’d get rid of, I’d cede the district itself outside the core around the Mall back to MD and prohibit establishment of legal residency in the rump.

    4th amendment is not a dead letter, quite…

    The 7th amendment’s “value in controversy” was a large sum when it was ratified, not so much today.

    17th amendment did its job – repeal or not, the states will popularly appoint their senators.

    18th and 21st cancel each other. I suppose you could say the 18th is obsolete :)

    23rd would become obsolete if DC has no residents :)

  8. I think Dave Hardy once said that “The Third Amendment is the only Amendment that was made obsolete by the construction industry.” Essentially that once the French adopted the concept of barracks for soldiers, quartering fell out of favor. It was easy to find all your soldiers if you needed to, and you didn’t have to worry about your subordinates raping the host’s daughter, or raiding their hosts liquor supply.

  9. Yeah – but housing a squad on “drug interdiction” detail in a political opponent’s house (which was the original point of the exercise) is still harassment.

  10. Fun article. I love that kind of history anyway, and I wondered where the word “sheriff” came from.

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