To the honourable the Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Delegates.
The Petition of sundry Freeholders and Inhabitants of the County of Fairfax, in Behalf of themselves and their Fellow Citizens.
the Power exercised by the Justices of the County Courts, of levying unlimitted Sums of Tobacco or Money upon the People, is not only inconsistent with the fundamental Principles of a free Government, but expressly contrary to the Spirit and Letter of our own Bill of Rights; which declares that the People shall not, "be taxed or deprived of their Property for public Uses, without their own Consent, or that of their Representatives.[1
That the Justices of the County Courts are so far from being the Representatives of the People, or amenable to them, that by a very faulty Part of our Constitution, they are a self-continued Body, with the Power of filling up their own Vacancys; a Power unknown in any other Part of the Constitution,2
and which must one day have the most dangerous and fatal Effects, in perverting the Administration of Justice into Party and Faction, or prostituting it to the Purposes of private Interest, or personal Malice; for whenever a Majority of the Members of any County Court shall happen to be leagued together in any sinister Views or Party-Interest, they can strengthen and for ever keep up their own Party, by confining their Recommendation to Men of simular Character and Principles; And from a Court so constituted common Justice is hardly to be expected.
That in Countys where there are corporate Towns, many of the Justices in the Commission of the County Courts are also Members of the Corporation Courts; whose private Interest, instead of being connected, as it ought to be, will frequently be contrasted with that of the People: it is the Interest of the People that Country-Produce should bear a good Price; but it will generally be the Interest of the Members of the Corporation, as Traders, to reduce the Price as low as possible; and for that Purpose to use every Means in their Power to distress the People, and compel them to sell their Commodities at an under Rate; which their being Justices of the County Court enables them to do, by appointing for Land-Commissioners Men who are known to have romantic and exorbitant Notions of the Value of Lands, and
by laying unnecessary and extravagant Levys; while their own peculiar Situation & Circumstances (having little Landed, or other visible taxable Property) exempts them from any or but a very inconsiderable Share of the Burthens which they wantonly lay upon others.3
That when the County Court-house happens to be within the Town (which is often the Case) it is in the Power of the Town Justices, being always upon the Spot, to avail themselves of the Absence of the Country Members, or by adjourning the laying of the County Levy, from Month to Month, until they find a Majority of their own Cabal upon the Bench, to levy such exorbitant & unnecessary Sums upon the People (with a View of future Application to the Emolument of the Town) as in a full Court dare not be attempted, or wou'd be refused by Men who had a common Interest with the People.
Your Petitioners beg Leave to represent to this honourable House,
that the Custom of uniting different & distinct Offices of Power & Authority in the same Men, tends to create an undue Influence in particular Individuals, naturally subversive of Liberty, and productive of Oppression, incompatible with the Genius of Republican Government,4
and inconsistent with the Principles of our own Laws and Constitution: And without the Interposition of the Legislature, that these Dangers will be every Year encreasing, in Proportion to the Number of Corporations established within the Commonwealth. That the Evils herein enumerated are so far from being groundless Suggestions, that they have lately been actually realized in this County, to the great Injury and Oppression of the Inhabitants; for the Truth of which we appeal to our Representatives in the present Assembly. That in the latter End of the Year 1780, notwithstanding the various & heavy Taxes & Burthens occasioned by the War, the Court of Fairfax County (the Members upon the Bench at the time consisting chiefly of Justices in the Town of Alexandria) besides the Sum necessary for defraying the Debts & Charges of the County that Year, levyed upon the Tytheables of the said County, the Sum of thirty odd thousand Pounds of Tobacco, to be collected in the Year 1781, unappropriated, and unapplied to any particular Use or Purpose; as will appear by the Copy of the Record hereunto annexed: which said Sum of Tobacco was levyed upon the People, and collected accordingly. But so illegal a Procedure giving general Offence, and alarming some of the Country Justices (particularly in the lower Parish of the County) who being Men of Property, had felt the Burthen, they exerted themselves to prevent the said Tobacco being disposed of, and at the usual time for laying the County Levy, in the latter End of Year 1781, prevented any new Levy being laid, by applying so much of the said Tobacco as was necessary to defray that Year's Charges; after which there still remains about sixteen thousand pounds of Tobacco to be applyed to preventing, or lessening the next Year's Levy; the Justices, who had acted thus illegally, not venturing to avow or disclose the Purposes for which they had levyed such an unreasonable Sum upon the People.
This Business has already produced such Party-feuds, that your Petitioners have Cause to apprehend from it much Partiality & Injustice; and
that the Decisions of some of the Justices will depend more upon the Name or Place of Residence of the Plaintif or Defendant, than upon the Merits of the Cause: in Proof of which, we beg Leave to adduce the following notorious Instance.5
In Consequence of the Exception in the Present Tax Laws of "such free Persons or Slaves as shall be exempted, on Application to the respective County Courts, through Age or Infirmity" the Court thought it necessary to direct the Sherif to give public Notice thereof, that those who had a Right to such Exemption might apply at the then next following, vizt. the last March Court; when several Applications were accordingly made, and Exemptions granted. Among others an Application was made for an Exemption of the Parish-Poor in the lower Parish of the County, by a Vestry-Man of the said Parish, but the Gentleman who moved it, having formerly opposed, and in some Measure frustrated the beforementioned illegal Proceedings respecting the County Levy, and the presiding Magistrate at this time being one of the Town Justices, who had been principally concerned in laying the said Levy, he wou'd take no Notice of the said Application, and tho' frequently pressed, in the most decent & modest Terms, refused to put the Question, or take the Court's Opinion upon it, until the Court at large was appealed to, and a Hint given him of a Prosecution for partiality; the said presiding Justice at the same time treating other just & legal Applications (from Persons who had opposed his former Conduct) with a Degree of Insolence & Partiality that disgraced the Bench.
Your Petitioners are sensible that
the Mode of appointing new Justices, upon the Recommendation of the respective county Courts, is directed by the Constitution or Form of Government, no Part of which can safely be altered, until an Assembly or Convention shall be chosen by the People for that express Purpose;6
and this we think an additional strong Reason for limitting the Power, and guarding against the Partiality or Oppression of the County Courts, in the mean Time.
Your Petitioners therefore humbly submit it to the Consideration of this honourable House whether these desireable Ends may not, in a great Measure, be attained, by a Law
disqualifying the Mayor, Recorder, Alderman, & Common Council Men of any Corporation from acting as Justices of a County Court;7
and limitting the County Courts in laying the County Levy to a certain reasonable Sum of Tobacco or Money, which they shou'd not have power to exceed, without the Consent of a Majority of the free taxable Inhabitants of the County, obtained under their Hands; or without Application to, and Approbation of the General Assembly, after Public Notice thereof first given in the County.
Your Petitioners being informed that a Petition has been, or will be presented to this Session of Assembly, for altering the Place for holding the County Court, from the Town of Alexandria to the Center of the County, beg Leave to declare their Disapprobation thereof, for the following Reasons.
Because the present Court-House and Prison have been lately repaired, and may at a small Expence, be kept in sufficient order to serve the County many Years.
Because most of the Materials for building being raised by the War to four or five times their former Price, and the Value of Country Produce greatly reduced, the Charge of a new Court-House and Prison will, at this time, be an intollerable Burthen upon the County. Because the high Taxes requisite to support the War are as much as the People are able to pay, and therefore every additional Expence ought carefully to be avoided, as grievously encreasing the public Burthens.
And Because the Town of Alexandria, from it's Situation and other natural Advantages, is like to become a place of considerable and encreasing Trade & Commerce, from which great Benefits may be derived not only to this Part of the Country, but to the whole Commonwealth. And altho' your Petitioners earnestly desire to be secured in their Persons and Property, against the Danger of Oppression and Partiality; Yet they wish, to the utmost of their Power, to promote the honest Interest, and real Prosperity of the Town of Alexandria. And as the Court House has continued near thirty Years in the said Town, without any Petition for a Removal, except in a single Instance, about twenty Years ago, upon the Justices illegally levying the Sum of one hundred pounds upon the People, for building a Town-wharf, we have great Cause to believe that Resentment of the late Oppressions, and the Apprehension of their Repetition, so natural to a free People, have been the prevailing Motives for desiring, at this time, the Removal of the County Court from the Town of Alexandria. And therefore that some such Regulations as are herein before proposed, will give general Satisfaction to the County, more effectually prevent the apprehended Evils, and promote the Good of the Community at large, without injuring, or affecting the Interest of a growing Town; which deserves Encouragement from the Public.
Finally your Petitioners doubt not but this honourable House, upon due Consideration of the Premises, will grant such Remedy, as shall be judged just and necessary for securing our Rights, and those of our Fellow-Citizens.
And your Petitioners will ever pray