The Nineteenth Century is alive and sometimes well

–and it’s living in Missouri’s counties.

The legacy of Martin Van Buren is an overlooked part of Missouri history.  As far as we know he was never in Missouri.  He is remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a founder of the modern Democratic Party, and as the man responsible for the 1837 national depression.  He was so unpopular that he was voted out of the presidency in 1840 and spurned for his party’s nomination later.

But Van Buren County was named for him.  Not sure where Van Buren County is?  We call it Cass County today, named for Lewis Cass, who was Van Buren’s opponent for the Presidency in 1848.  Cass didn’t win the presidency either.

Kinderhook County was named for the town in which Van Buren was born.  You don’t know where Kinderhook County is?   It has been known as Camden County since 1843.

Johnson County is named for Richard M. Johnson, who was Van Buren’s vice president.

Butler County is named for Kentucky Congressman William O. Butler, who was Lewis Cass’s vice-presidential candidate.

How about Ashley County, named for St. Louis explorer, fur trade entrepreneur, and former Lieutenant Governor William H. Ashley?   Or Decatur County, named for naval hero Stephen Decatur?  Highland County?  Lilliard County, named for one of the members of the first legislature?  Or Seneca County?

Ashley County became Texas County in 1841.  Decatur has been Ozark since 1845.  Highland became Sullivan that same year.  Seneca County became McDonald County in 1847.  And Lillliard became Lafayette in 1825, the year Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolution, visited St. Louis.

We have a peculiar situation with St. Louis, which broke away from St. Louis County in 1876, creating a strange creature that is a city not within a county but having some county offices (sheriff, for example, in addition to the city police department).

Other than the St. Louis/St. Louis County divorce in 1876, Missouri has not gained any new counties since Carter and Christian Counties were created in 1859.

Maybe it’s time for a shakeup.   Our county structures don’t make a lot of sense in a lot of places.   Twenty six places in particular.   Missouri has that many counties with fewer than ten-thousand people.  And Worth County, up along the Iowa border, has dwindled to fewer than 2,200.  In fact, the northern tier of counties in Missouri are so sparsely populated that the entire area is represented by only two state senators.  A few years ago we wrote a blog for the Missourinet about “The Senator from Everywhere,” Brad Lager, who listed his senatorial district as the counties of Andrew, Atchison, Clinton, Daviess, DeKalb, Gentry,  Grundy, Harrison, Holt, Mercer,  Nodaway, Putnam, Sullivan,  Worth and Part of Clay County.  Fourteen entire counties and part of a fifteenth.  Dan Hegeman has those counties now that Lager has been forced out by term limits.

The other half of north Missouri is represented by Senator Brian Munzlinger. His district is  Adair, Chariton, Clark,  Knox, Lewis, Linn, Macon,  Marion, Pike, Schuyler, Scotland,  Shelby, Ralls and Randolph Counties.

Two Senators represent about one-fourth of all of the counties in Missouri.

A longtime friend from college days sent me a proposal for new counties a few years ago.  Wayne Vinyard and his wife Jan ran the Longview Gardens nursery in Jackson County for many years before they retired.  Now that he doesn’t have to water the plants and fight off bugs and other pests, Wayne has had time to ruminate on the state’s nineteenth-century county structure.  He has decided to try to make more sense out of our county government system by drawing more practical boundaries for the twenty-first century.

 vineyard map

His plan creates fifty-four counties plus the city of St. Louis.  St. Louis County would be the only county to shrink.

Wayne has suggested a new name for one of the newly-formed counties.  He thinks “Arcadia” would be a nice name for an area in southeast Missouri.  But that suggestion leads to another issue.

Do we have to continue having counties named for Revolutionary War soldiers who never lived here, colleagues and opponents of Martin Van Buren, a Whig politician from England who was never in this country as far as we know, or other obscure figures?

Some of our counties’ names are….are……Well, consider these:

Christian County is named for William Christian, a Revolutionary War soldier who signed the Fincastle Resolution (???) and brokered a peace treaty between the Overmountain Men and the Overhill Cherokees (more???s). Never lived in Missouri.

Carter County is named after an early settler whose first name is, ummm, unusual.  But should someone named Zimri have a county bearing their last name?

Here’s a doozy for you:  Camden County honors someone named Pratt.   No kidding.  Charles Pratt died nine years before Missouri became American territory.  He was a Whig politician, lawyer, and judge in England.  He was the Earl of Camden.  Given some of the deep political thinkers of our present day, we’re not sure he would be county-naming fodder now.  He was, you see, an early proponent of civil liberties.  Before they were unionized.

And Andrew County?   Ohhhhhhh, my.  This one is in dispute.  One source says it was named for Andrew Jackson.  Another says it was named for Andrew Jackson Davis, a prominent St. Louis lawyer.  But we’ve turned up a third alternative that is so bizarre that it cannot possibly be true. But this is Missouri.  The third candidate is Andrew Jackson Davis, who was known as “The Poughkeepsie Seer.” He became a devotee of “animal magnetism,” which we today call hypnotism, and was an advocate of “magnetic healing.”

It is easy to dismiss a county being named for a New York spiritualist.  But then again, consider that the original name of Fulton was Volney, for Constantin Francois de Chasseboeuf, Comte de Volney, a French abolitionist, philosopher and orientalist who once wrote, “All the Egyptians have bloated faces, puffed-up eyes, flat noses, thick lips—in a word, the true face of the mulatto.”

We have wandered far afield but this is such an entertaining diversion.

Back to our topic.

From time to time there have been discussions about whether it makes any sense to have seven counties with fewer than five-thousand people (twenty-six with fewer than ten thousand).  Worth County in 1900 had 9,382 of Missouri’s 3,106,665 people or .003% of the state’s population.  Now it has .0004 of Missouri’s 5,988,927 people (2010 census figures).  Mercer County is the second-least populated county in Missouri with 3,785.  In 1900, it had 14,706.

So the question becomes whether it makes any economic, or any other kind of, sense to have counties this small or the eleven others with fewer than seven-thousand people trying to maintain county courthouses and the officials who work in them?

And haven’t we had some other heroes from Missouri since 1859 who deserve to have counties named after them instead of counties named for people who’ve never been here?  Pershing, Bradley, Lindbergh, Danforth, Symington, Virginia Minor, Betty Grable, Yogi Berra?  Visit the Hall of Famous Missourians at the Capitol someday.  You won’t find anybody there named Van Buren, Zimri, or the Earl of Camden.   And try not to think of naming a Missouri County after Bob Barker or Rush Limbaugh or Jack Buck—although renaming St. Louis County “Musial County” might be appropriate.  History shows county names are not particularly sacred. We do have a precedent for re-naming our counties.

Regardless of how much sense the Vinyard map makes, we all know that any effort to make it or something like it a reality will ignite enormous protests from the 114 kingdoms that call themselves counties.  Border-to-border turf warfare will erupt.  After all, Wayne proposes turning about sixty county courthouses into—what?  Condos?   Museums? Antique malls?  Vacant lots in the hearts of communities?   Imagine the havoc that could be created by sixty county clerks, sheriffs, assessors, collectors, nurses, and 180 county commission members who would be forced to consider processing pigs or turkeys instead of drawing a government paycheck.   Imagine going into a big-box store and being greeted by your former presiding commissioner.  It’s not a vision very many county officials would tolerate.

Perhaps our legislators in 2016, when they’re not creating new state symbols at the behest of fourth-graders, will consider modernizing Missouri’s county government system and recognizing that a county named for, say, Reinhold Niebuhr makes more sense than one named for Martin Van Buren’s vice-president.

Niebuhr?  (Rine-hold Knee-bur) He might have been this nation’s foremost twentieth-century theologian and ethicist.  He was from Wright City.  Some of his musings are particularly appropriate in today’s political climate.

“Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.”

Or: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

But the one that is best known is his Serenity Prayer.  There are various versions of it but the lines from it that are most familiar are:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Maybe my friend Wayne’s map represents something that cannot be changed.  But maybe it’s time for the courage to change some things that can be changed.   Or should be.

And whether it’s county boundaries or social boundaries, let us all pray that those who return to the Capitol in a couple of weeks gain the wisdom to know the difference between specious proofs and the general interest.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be a map for that?

Let me know what you think......