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Temples of Democracy

July 2024
13min read

There are over 3,000 county courthouse across the country -- staunch hometown symbols of our faith in our ability to govern ourselves

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.

When I worked as a newsmagazine reporter in the South, at the beginning of the sixties, everyone always seemed to be asking me where I was from. At the time, white people in the South preferred to believe that only ignorant and hopelessly vindictive Yankee reporters could portray racial turmoil as the product of genuine grievances rather than outside agitation. Loyalty to geography was assumed. County sheriffs seemed to have a particularly strong interest in my origins. “Where you from?” was always among the first questions a county sheriff asked. Often, he spoke while studying my press identification or my business card or even my driver’s license (outside reporters occasionally had difficulty keeping their cars stationary at a stop sign long enough to qualify for what the local sheriff considered a full stop), and he sometimes ended the question with my first name, just to remind me where we stood. “I work out of the Atlanta bureau” was not considered an adequate response. That would only bring a sad shaking of the head and a loud “huhuh.” (There is no way to reproduce on paper the sound of a Southern sheriff’s “huh-uh,” but I suspect some philologist somewhere has classified it as the “adenoidal negative.”) Then the sheriff would ask his second question: “Where you really from?” That meant “Where were you born?”

As it happens, I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. I could have done worse. The worst place to have been born was undoubtedly New York, the Center of Evil. If an outside reporter who had been born in New York was asked by a Southern sheriff where he was really from, the only sensible course open to him was perjury. In my case—my fellow stop-sign runners and I decided—there were better and worse ways to state the literal truth. Missouri, for instance, sounded less incriminating than Kansas City, only partly because Missouri had been a border state. To a Southern sheriff, practically any state would have sounded less ominous than practically any city. A county would have sounded best of all.

For a lot of Americans, “county” still means country. It implies, at least, the absence of a big city. The county sheriff and the county courthouse are often identified with the South partly because the South remains the least urbanized region of the United States. There are, of course, places where “out in the county” refers to a collection of suburbs that elects a slick county executive to sit in a modernistic county center and fiddle slickly with zoning laws designed to keep out people no poorer than the Southern sheriffs who were interested in my birthplace. There are huge cities that conduct the business of the county seat in a downtown office building indistinguishable from the city hall; as it happens, Kansas City is one of them. But I think the picture of a county courthouse that a lot of Americans have in their minds is similar to my picture of the county courthouse in the town square. “County” still means country, and my best answer to the sheriff’s question—if I had ever worked up the nerve to use it—would undoubtedly have been “Up around Jackson County, Missouri.”

I once visited a copper town in Arizona that was about to lose its copper mine. The town was nestled in some mountains not far from the Mexican border, and the company in charge had, as mining people say, “recovered” just about all the copper that could be taken from the mountains at a profit. Architecturally, the town looked pretty much as it must have looked in the first decade or so of the century—partly because of some preservationist sentiment that is uncharacteristic of Western towns, and mostly because of some commercial lethargy that is quite characteristic of company towns. There were residents who believed that, once mining was over, the town—because of its quaint appearance and its splendid setting in the mined-out mountains—would prosper as an artists’ colony or a tourist center. There were also residents who held out hope for the town simply because it was a county seat. In rural counties, the courthouse is an important industry. It provides not just county jobs but also lawsuits for lawyers and stationery orders for the office-supply store and repair work for the garage. It might mean a county hospital, and it is likely to mean a county newspaper. In the last century, tiny settlements often fought over designation as the county seat on the theory that the courthouse could mean survival. In this century, in areas where rural counties have lost population to the cities, the theory still holds.


The district attorney is a county official even in cities so large that a gaggle of assistant district attorneys is required to keep up with the trial work. In those cities, an assistant district attorney often turns out to be a neatly dressed young man with winged-tip shoes who conducts the trial methodically, following a loose-leaf notebook he keeps on the table in front of him. Occasionally, a flashy assistant district attorney comes along to play to the courtroom buffs and cultivate the press-he is likely to specialize in pornography trials or the showier murdershut normally assistant district attorneys are relatively cautious about what they say outside as well as inside the courtroom. In criminal trials, reporters tend to be more comfortable with defense attorneys, who are often indiscreet enough to hint that their client is, in fact, guilty—the assumption being that a defense attorney who wins acquittal for a guilty client must be particularly brilliant. At lunch with a reporter after the jury goes out, a defense attorney may raise his martini and say, “To Justice-whoops, what am I saying! To Not Guilty.” A defense lawyer can afford the style of a man not haunted by the prospect of having a victory reversed on appeal; there being no appeal from Not Guilty, he only has to win once. The caution of an assistant district attorney comes not only from the danger of reversible error but also from the conditions of his employment: a defense lawyer is engaged in private enterprise and an assistant district attorney is a man who works for the government.

In large counties, the district attorney tends not to do much trial work himself, husbanding his courtroom skills for the occasional case that happens to be politically significant or particularly juicy. In the late sixties, about the only case anybody in Houston could remember the district attorney of Harris County having tried personally was one in which Lee Otis Johnson, the noisiest black militant in town, was sentenced to thirty years in the penitentiary for allegedly giving away one marijuana cigarette. The most trialwise district attorney that I ever met -a commonwealth’s attorney officially, since that is what the D. A. is called in Kentucky—was a man named Daniel Boone Smith, who practiced his art for thirty or forty years in Harlan County, one of the Appalachian counties in the eastern part of the state. Smith, who seemed to be called Dan’l Boone by just about everyone in the county, was said to have tried more capital cases than anyone in the history of the republic. Eight or nine years before I met him, Smith got curious about how many murder defendants he had prosecuted or defended—he did some defense work on the side in other counties—and his secretary counted up 750. Smith was able to amass a record like that partly because of longevity and partly because he was a quick worker (“Some people will take three days to try a murder case,” he told me. “I usually try to get my case on in a day.”) and partly because Harlan County, which used to be called Bloody Harlan, has traditionally offered a lot of opportunity for anyone interested in murder trials. Harlan County got to be known as Bloody Harlan in the thirties, when unions were trying to organize the mines, but mountain feuds had made it bloody long before that. Thirty years after the labor wars, Harlan had murders that often seemed the product of sudden drunken anger-one member of a family mowing down another who is breaking down the door trying to get at a third.

Smith, a man who knew his county, was renowned in eastern Kentucky for his ability to select a jury. In the urbanized counties of the Northeast, jury selection sometimes seems to be an exercise in ethnic studies. Is the Irish housewife a strong enough Catholic to take seriously what the Archbishop says about pornographic bookstores? Would the Polish construction worker be particularly antiblack or just normally anti-black? Does that Italian or Jewish grandfather have the sort of warm family feeling that would make him particularly sympathetic to the survivors of a young person killed needlessly in an auto crash? In a place like Harlan County, Kentucky, jury selection has a lot to do with local history—remembering which prospective juror’s uncle may have had a boundary dispute with which witness’s grandfather twenty years before. Daniel Boone Smith knew his local history. He also knew how to talk to eastern Kentucky jurors—how to get his point across with a personal recollection or a country anecdote that had Dan’l Boone Smith as the butt. Hearing him talk to a jury—hearing him recall old Uncle Bob Woolf ord who used to work up at Evarts or describe a case he once had over at Coldiron-it was hard to keep in mind that he was, as he confessed to me shortly after we met, a graduate of Harvard Law School.

Until the early sixties, all Democratic primaries in Georgia were operated under something called the County Unit System. The Democratic primary was the only primary that counted, of course, since the Republican nomination for state office at the time was, as the county politicians would have said, “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Under the County Unit System, carrying a county, by whatever margin, gave the candidate unit votes that varied according to the population of the county-the kicker being that the largest county in the state had only six votes and the smallest county had two. There are 159 counties in Georgia, and some of them, it is sometimes said, amount to no more than a courthouse and a speed trap. Even the smallest one had a third the vote of Atlanta. When Gene Talmadge was running for governor, he used to say that he never bothered to campaign in a county large enough to have a streetcar.

The years just before the federal court finally struck down the County Unit System were particularly frustrating for the civic leaders of Atlanta, who were then trying to build the city’s reputation as a progressive commercial center that was, in the words of its mayor, William B. Hartsfield, “too busy to hate”—a slogan I always thought of as Babbittry Over Bigotry. Atlanta boosters were embarrassed at being represented in Congress by a distinctly nonprogressive type named James Davis, who, because of the County Unit System, could win the nomination every two years even without carrying the city. Judge Davis, as he was always called, was not too busy to hate. In fact, he struck people in Washington as the sort of man who would drop anything he happened to be doing if a good opportunity for hating came along.

In 1960, Mayor Hartsfield finally got so irritated at Davis’ continual nomination that he ran an ape against him in the general election. The ape lived in the Atlanta zoo and was himself named Willie B., after the mayor. Hartsfield held a press conference at the zoo to introduce Willie B. and compare his progress on the scale of political evolution favorably with that of Judge Davis. Willie B. actually received a few hundred votes. On election night, a sign in the city room of the Atlanta Constitution said, “Vote for Willie B.-Let Us Begin Again.”

I once attended an auction of land sold for taxes at the Costilla County courthouse, in San Luis, Colorado. Costilla County was settled by Spanish-Americans from around Taos and Chama, in northern New Mexico, who came in the 1850’s as pobladores , or settlers, on something called the Sangre de Cristo land grant. The courthouse, a plain, one-story building of adobe, was built in 1870. Some of its offices have been modernized, but the courtroom, where the land auction was being held, looked pretty much the way it must have looked in the nineteenth century. It did have electricity-a couple of naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling by electric cords. The walls of the courtroom were bare except for what seemed to be a large square of upholstery fabric taped behind the judge’s chair-provided, I gathered, so that the judge could, during slow summations, tilt back and lean his head comfortably against the wall.


The county clerk, who was acting as auctioneer, would describe each parcel in some detail, often continuing the description from his own knowledge after he finished reading what was on the official list. Some of the parcels went for as little as fifteen or twenty dollars. I happened to be in Costilla County because of an argument over the use of a 67-thousand-acre tract of land that had been purchased for $500,000-an argument about whether the descendants of the pobladores had hunting and grazing and gathering rights even though an outsider had bought and obtained clear title to the land. The county clerk could also describe that tract without reference to notes. So could the county treasurer. It was all there in the courthouse—the deed and the surveys and the correspondence over assessment disputes and the tax receipts.

Land—real estate—is often at the center of disputes around the country, although normally not as overtly as in the Costilla County controversy. Usually, the argument seems on the surface to be about industrial development or the environment or schools or highway construction, but in the background is often the question of who owns what real estate and how its value will be affected by what happens. The county courthouse keeps score.

County Sheriff is a job that comes with not only a salary and a police cruiser but a persona. The folklore that clings to a county sheriff is strong—the fearless sheriff seen in Western films, the fearsome sheriff seen in Southern civil rights demonstrations. In New England, where the sheriff is often just the man in charge of the jail, I have seen sheriffs who could be mistaken for the county clerk or an assistant district attorney, but most of the sheriffs I have met look like sheriffs. They wear a star. They wear a wide-brimmed hat. They often wear boots. They like large silver belt buckles. A lot of sheriffs walk alike and talk alike and wear their stomachs over their gun belts in the same style. A sheriff I once knew in Cole County, Missouri, outraged an Iranian exchange student who wouldn’t walk to his cell on his own two feet by saying, in what I have come to think of as a Sheriff Accent, “Well, jus’ lay there you damn Commanus.” The student’s anger at being called a Communist, I decided, was based on the assumption that the word was meant to describe political ideology; he didn’t realize that a county sheriff might call a man a Communist as an alternative to calling him a sissy or a yellow dog. A lot of sheriffs-compassionate sheriffs as well as brutal sheriffs, sophisticated sheriffs as well as xenophobic sheriffs—do a Sheriff Act.

I suppose there are sheriffs these days who wear double-knit suits and sheriffs with computerized headquarters and even sheriffs who act like those coldly polite, sharply creased state troopers who call everybody “sir” while continuing to complete the required report. But the sheriff whose picture I carry in my mind looks something like the sheriff of Cole County, Missouri—a man I once described as having “an old-fashioned countysheriff speech pattern that tends to relax the formality of his headquarters, as well as an old-fashioned county-sheriff build that tends to tighten the pressure on the lower buttons of his shirt.” He is asking me where I am really from. And I am telling him that I am really from right there in Missouri—over around Jackson County.


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