Temples of Democracy


There are 3,101 county courthouses in the United States, and a lot of history has happened in them. Abraham Lincoln was just one of hundreds of small-town lawyers who first made their marks in county courthouses, and scores of celebrated trials—from Lizzie Borden to Patty Hearst—have taken place inside them. Most of us have humbler courthouse errands—to file a deed, argue about a tax assessment, or buy a dog license.

Some of the buildings seem, wonderfully incongruous now—ornate Renaissancestyle palaces lording it over tiny cow towns; others are sadly anachronistic—turreted medieval fortresses in the bigger county seats, now dwarfed by glass and steel neighbors. Nor are they as central to our lives as they once were, since much of their power has leached away to state capitals and to Washington.

But they are still staunch hometown symbols of our faith in our ability to govern ourselves—and sometimes, too, of one county’s determination to outshine the next.

As a Bicentennial project, the Seagram Company recently undertook to photograph county courthouses throughout America. Twenty-four photographers have produced over eight thousand photographs, covering more than a third of the existing buildings. Groups of the pictures will be exhibited around the country, and there will also be a book, Court House, in which the cheerful essay by Calvin Trillin that appears on the following pages will serve as an introduction. Mr. Trillin is a staff writer for The New Yorker. The book will be edited by Richard Pare and published early next year by Horizon Press.

Not since the Farm Security Administration recorded rural life in the 1930 ‘s has such a vast photographic documentation of America been attempted. As one of the photographers on the project said, “The buildings are a kind of temple of the community filled with icons of what people think government should be.” Our portfolio, selected from the Seagram collection, suggests this American iconography.


The county courthouse—the one whose picture I carry in my mind—stands in the middle of a town square, with law offices pressing in on it like cocktail party guests bellying up to the hors d’oeuvres table. The building tries for height. The wide concrete stairs on the outside are high, and the ceilings are high, and, above the third floor, a high cupola displays on all four sides a clock that comes within fifteen or twenty minutes of telling everyone downtown the right time. Just inside the front door, a bulletin board displays the schedule of the circuit court and a notice about where to obtain crop-spraying advice and a poster from the Army recruiting service and a letter from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare about food stamp eligibility and a brittle old piece of paper telling citizens what to do if they happen to be in the building paying their taxes or disputing their assessment at the moment of nuclear attack.

There are offices on either side of a broad hallway—with small signs, like oldfashioned lawyers’ shingles, extending into the hall above each door to identify the county clerk or the county treasurer or the county assessor. A wooden sign on the wall indicates with an arrow the direction of the jury room. The broad wooden steps leading to the second floor are bowed in the center from use. (A narrower flight of stairs leads down to the sheriff and his radio dispatcher and his jail in the basement, where there is no attempt at height.) On the second floor, court is in session. A lawyer with carefully tended sideburns and white patent-leather shoes is trying to explain why the skinny, miserable-looking teenage boy next to him should not be forever branded a felon merely because he yielded, just this one time, to the temptation of an unlocked Pontiac. The judge looks bored. The courtroom is otherwise empty except for the court clerk and the teen-ager’s mother and a few elderly men who like to pass the time watching trials. On a bench outside the courtroom, a couple of men with tattoos and untended sideburns sit smoking, waiting their turn. Two or three small groups of people stand in the hall, each group dominated by a lawyer who is holding a fat brown file-envelope.

Downstairs, I enter the office of the county clerk. Printing on the frosted glass of the door identifies him once again by both name and title. I am there as a reporter from outside the county—to ask what the county clerk thinks about a dispute in the local schools or about the prospects of a murder defendant or about the fortunes of the local Democratic party (of which he happens to be the chairman). The county clerk’s office has been modernized. The ceiling has been lowered and is made of white perforated squares. The walls have been covered in the sort of masonite made to simulate wood paneling. A couple of glass partitions mark off an office for the county clerk’s secretary. There is no one at the secretary’s desk. Ina moment, the secretary returns. She has been at the vending machines that are tucked under the stairs. It is almost ten o’clock in the morning—time for her first Coke of the day.