New Jersey originated the name ‘Chosen Freeholder’
New Jersey alone of all the United States has the distinction of retaining the title of “FREEHOLDER” to denote the elected members of the county governing bodies. This descriptive name, which commemorates the origin of home rule, is used by only 21 of the nation’s 3,047 counties. The Atlantic County Board of Freeholders continues this tradition. In other states, these county officials are known as commissioners, supervisors, probate judges, police jurors, councilors and a variety of other names.
An old English term, a “freeholder” originally denoted a person who owned an estate of land over which he had complete control. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 A.D., British kings found it necessary under pressure to call together an assemblage of higher clergy, earls and barons of the nobility and later Knights of the Realm, to sit as advisors and to grant taxes for defense of the kingdom. By the 13th century, through battles against abuses by royal power and the growing influence of Burghesses and Freeman, the British Parliament was enlarged to include these Freeman who owned their land free and clear, who were called “Freeholders.”
English history from this time onward is a story of the increasing power of the subject and his participation in the government. The Franklyn in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is described as being born a Freeman and “Freeholder.” He sat with the lord and knights of his shire (county) in the Parliament of that day.
The name “Freeholder” was well known by the 17th century, and the holder of the title had a definite place in society. Thus, when the first settlers came to the New World and settled what was to become “New Jersey” under the original proprietors, it is not to be wondered that we find the “Freeholder” prominently mentioned. In the first archives of East Jersey, signed and dated, we discover the origin of the name “Chosen Freeholder.” By crossing the sea, these stout-hearted men had already added a popular or democratic refinement to the traditional English name for a Freeman, although they still lived under the British Crown.
Uniquely, our original “Chosen Freeholders” were members of the state’s General Assembly, its first legislature, even before they became the elected representatives of the County Board’s of Chosen Freeholders. No other state in the federal union has so carefully preserved the ancient freedom of its representative government, in the historic title it still confers on its county governing officials.
By: Colonel John J. M. Dudley