New Jersey is in terrible shape. COVID-19 deaths are the second highest in the nation. State government’s finances were unsustainable before the pandemic lockdown reduced its revenue by billions. And the severe recession will almost certainly hit its residents, businesses and local governments harder than in the rest of the nation.
Last week state government leaders found another urgent issue worthy of their time and effort — getting rid of the term “freeholder” for the governing bodies of counties.
More than two centuries ago, newly self-governing Americans wanted their leaders to have a stake in local affairs and standing in society, so they followed the old English practice of requiring them to own or freely hold land. That property requirement was jettisoned long ago and for more than a century, a “freeholder” to New Jersey people has simply meant a county elected official.
One advantage of the term is that it is very specific. When someone says “freeholder,” there’s no doubt which governing body they’re talking about.
Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin want to change the name of county officials to “commissioners.” That’s safely generic, but already overused. Municipalities have commissioners, state and federal agencies have them, state authorities have them, bistate agencies have them. More commissioners means more confusion.
Why now? Two years ago Sweeney pushed a bill to change the name through the Senate and then it died. Freeholders in Cape May County voted against the idea, and those in Atlantic County declined a proposal to abandon the name.
Now the nation is focused on racial issues following recent killings by police. So politicians have an urgent desire and even need to display their disapproval of racism. If that could be done by tearing down a name from long ago, that would be easier than say getting public worker unions to allow the removal of “bad apples” among police or the expansion of educational choices in minority communities. Banishing “freeholder” could look good as long as the title can be judged racist.
That requires some sleight of hand. Since Black slaves weren’t citizens and therefore couldn’t own land (nor do many other ordinary things), they couldn’t be freeholders in the original sense. They also couldn’t vote, which then required property ownership too, but state leaders aren’t (yet) claiming that “voter” is a racist term.
The property requirement for freeholders wasn’t to exclude slaves or anyone on the basis of race from serving in local government. Indeed, property requirements for civic participation were eliminated long before slavery was ended in America.
One of the sponsors of the bill to change the name, Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Essex/Morris/Passaic, said, “The simple fact is most people have no idea what a ‘freeholder’ is or the important role they play in county government.”
Come now, surely many people know that freeholders are their county officials. And how would losing them in the realm of “commissioners” raise their profile among those unaware of them?
Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick, who two years ago on these pages said the title was “racist and misogynistic” (that’s right, women couldn’t own property either under old English law), last week showed restraint compared to the state leaders. She said “freeholder” was “a beloved artifact from the past,” but one that needs updating to “a more neutral, modern term.”
To everyone currently living, a county freeholder has never meant a property owner, let alone someone given a racial preference. But if state leaders want to change the name, fine. That won’t address racism, but it might look like doing something and wouldn’t be too harmful. Presumably they’ll next want to change the name of Freehold, the county seat in Monmouth.
“Freeholder” has been a traditional name reflecting New Jersey’s history in the founding of these United States, but it also has long been an anachronism. We hope Murphy, Sweeney and Coughlin attend to their important and urgent duties as vigorously.