History of Township Government

Medieval and Pre-Colonial England

Prior to 1100 AD a township was the term applied to the inhabitants of a particular manor, parish, division of a hundred, tun (small town) or village. Frederic A. Youngs’ Guide to the Local Administrative Units of England Volume 1: 1979, describes a township or vill after 1100 AD as a division of an original parish that had its own church, and which usually had civil functions. The civil functions of the township or vill enabled it to maintain the poor inhabitants of that community starting around 1540 and continuing until 1906.

 Township Government History in the United States

If a community of people can determine policies of their own, provide ways and means of executing them, and see that they are executed through officers locally chosen, and who are not responsible to superior authorities outside the district-there is a manifestation of local self-government. County and Township Government in the United States,1922, Kirk H. Porter. Ph.D.

 In the spring of 1636, Rodger Williams and several others from Salem began a new settlement on land which he had bought from Massasoit in Rumford, Rhode Island. It was established in order to create a colony with greater religious freedom. The settlers adopted a covenant of local self-governance that stressed the separation of religious and civil affairs. They called this Towne(ship) Providence. The inhabitants of the Towne(ship) of Providence formalized their self-governance with the Agreement at Providence August 27-September 6, 1640. This is the first known creation of local controlled civil government of its kind in the world at the time.

This form of local self-governance (Township government) was in existence for 140 years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The wording of the Declaration of Independence directly reflects the fact that 38 of its 56 signers had experienced the benefits of township government.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was adopted by the United States Congress of the Confederation on May 20, 1785. It set up a standardized system whereby settlers could purchase title to farmland in the undeveloped west.

On May 7, 1784, the committee reported “An ordinance for ascertaining the mode of locating and disposing of lands in the western territories, and for other purposes therein mentioned.” The ordinance required surveyors “to divide the said territory into townships seven miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles. — The plats of the townships, respectively, shall be marked into sections of one mile square, or 640 acres.” This is the first recorded use of the term “township”.

On May 3, 1785, William Grayson of Virginia made a motion seconded by James Monroe to change “seven miles square” to “six miles square”.

This is the final shape that we know of as Plainfield Township today.

The map above shows how in the Northwest Territory was to be subdivided into Township and sections according to the Land Ordinance of 1785.


Illinois Township governments are formed

New England model vs. Virginia model

In pre-colonial America, the New England area was more densely populated than the rural Virginia area. We see two types of local self-governance forming. In rural areas, the county commission type of government, “Virginia model”, was preferred. In the more populous New England area the township government, “New England model”, a more local controlled form of self-governance, was preferred.

In the early 1800’s as Illinois grew in population from New England area settlers, the township, New England model, became the popular form of local self-governance.

Plainfield Township begins

The Illinois Constitution of 1848 gave voters in each county the opportunity to adopt township governance. Will County residents voted overwhelmingly for the creation of Township Government in this election, 1436 votes for vs. 29 votes against. By 1850, the first township governments began operations, including Plainfield Township. United States Census data from 1850 shows the Population of Plainfield Township at 1,092.

The first Plainfield Township meeting took place on April 2, 1850, at the home of George W. Bradley. The meeting was quickly moved to the M.E. Church nearby to accommodate the 129 attendees.

At this meeting, they elected Leander Hamlin as Plainfield Township’s first supervisor. He is listed in the U.S. Census of 1850 of Plainfield as a farmer, age 43, born in New York with a wife and two children.

Their first motion after getting organized was to prohibit hogs or sheep from running freely in the township.

The complete minutes from this meeting can be found here

The minutes from the first Highway Commissioner’s meeting can be found here

Today, 85 of the 102 Illinois counties operate under the township form of government, and the 1,428 townships serve more than 8 million citizens. As of 2012, 19 states, including Illinois, have township governments.

Dillon’s Rule and Township Government

Judge John F. Dillon was serving on the Iowa Supreme Court in 1868. That year, he wrote an opinion expressing a concept that was to be upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and that would influence the constitution of every state in the union. That concept generally states that local government is a creation of the state and as such it has only those powers explicitly granted to it by the state. In plain language, it means, that if there is no statute permitting a township or road district (or official) to perform a function or service, the government or official may not carry out that function regardless of how much it’s needed or wanted. If the statutes are silent (do not mention) regarding a particular power or function, it does not exist. If the power doesn’t exist, the government (or official) may not perform the service.

When Illinois drafted and ratified its third constitution in 1870, it incorporated Dillon’s concepts. The current version was adopted at a special election on December 15, 1970, and is known as the “1970 Convention”.

Article VII of the State Constitution defines local government with Townships specifically in Section 5. The concept of local community helping those in need, from late middle ages in England through the dawn of American history, is specifically written into the function of Illinois Township code.


    The General Assembly shall provide by law for the formation of townships in any county when approved by county-wide referendum. http://www.ilga.gov/commission/lrb/con7.htm

To see a full list of Township corporate powers, see http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/documents/006000010K85-10.htm

Functions of Illinois Townships

By law (60 ILCS 1/ Township Code), Illinois townships are charged with many basic functions. Some of these include; general assistance for the indigent; the assessment of real property for the basis of local taxation; senior citizen service; maintenance of all roads and bridges outside federal, state, and other local jurisdictions.

To see the complete (60 ILCS 1/) Township Code click here http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ChapterID=13&ActID=770

About Plainfield Township

Area – Plainfield Township is located in Will County, Illinois and covers an area 36 square miles. Plainfield Township government serves the residents in the unincorporated area as well as the communities of Plainfield, Joliet, Romeoville and Crest Hill. Plainfield Township’s boundaries run to the North by 135th Street, to the South by Theodore Street, to the East by Gaylord Road and to the West by County Line Road.

Population – As of the 2018 U.S. Census estimate, its population was 81,778.

Assessed Property – According to the Final Abstract of 2018 Assessments from the Township Assessor, Plainfield Township has 27,517 parcels listed as residential, 113 parcels listed as farmland, 939 parcels listed as commercial and 136 parcels listed as industrial for a total assessment value of $2,123,997,087.

For a complete list of Plainfield Township Services and current board members, view our menu on this website.

Minutes for a Plainfield Township meeting in 1850. Motion to fund fencing at the Township Cemetery for $50.00.

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