At the corner of two dirt roads sits a building.
Once you get what folks call “out in the county,” buildings are further apart. This structure is probably a good quarter-mile from the closest house. You’ll see homes, barns, garages, churches, and in many places, one of these. This is a township hall, and I would argue it is the single most important building in its area.
A township, in American governmental parlance, is an area organized to facilitate land records, road management, public assistance, and other aspects of government. In places where cities and towns are not yet incorporated – or have been disincorporated – the township is the most local level of governance. In some places, the civil township corresponds almost perfectly with the survey township, the six-square-mile units of land surveyors mapped whenever new areas came under United States control. (That story is often not pretty, and the ugliness of it should never be discounted when we tell the story of who we are.) Stevens County, Minnesota is one such place. Other counties organize their townships by landmarks and rivers, leading to the same odd shapes that permeate so much of governmental cartography.
As the most local level of governance, the township provides the clearest example of the sclerotic nature of too many local and state governments. The largest township by population in Stevens County is Morris Township, with a population of 396 (2020 Census data). Some townships in Minnesota have less than 50 people. Like too many small towns and rural areas, the population of these structures has dropped precipitously over the past century.
It would be easy to abolish townships. Many states don’t even have them. Most are tiny, and the governmental functions could easily be assumed by county governments. Like small town speed traps (anyone remember New Rome, Ohio?), some exist only to provide sinecures and pensions for long-time “elected” officials who only needed to get the votes of those around their kitchen table. Yet I cannot endorse this move. The local government is the first – and in some cases, the only – point of contact citizens will have with the idea of government. If you make access to an official who can hear your petition for a redress of grievances more difficult, you also make it less likely that your fellow citizens will stay engaged. This leads to the aforementioned sclerotic structures. Self-governance – even at the most local of levels – requires effort and commitment. These smaller governments also provide the necessary training for higher levels of governance. Recent history shows us what can happen when elected officials want to start at the top. Not only do these sudden governors misunderstand processes, they through their ignorance allow malicious but intelligent people who do understand local government to use these systems and institutions for nefarious purposes. In both situations, the end result is the same – trust in institutions is eroded, and bad actors have an easier path to engage in chicanery.
Active local governance, even – nay, especially – at the township level, is how we preserve our nation, with its government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
I promise to get back to opera updates soon, but it was important that I think about this out loud. Want to change the world? Change your corner of it. If a state has townships, that state likely has a township trustee/officer association. (Here’s Minnesota.) Learn more about your local government. Get involved. Make those township halls temples of democracy once again. The future of the Republic depends on it.