Ancient History and Modern Constitutional Powers of American Sheriffs (Part 1/2)
By Kelly OConnell Sunday, March 24, 2013
Can America’s sheriffs save our Constitution and our precious liberties? The exhaustive history of the sheriff has yet to be written, but much is known of the rise of these county leaders, once called shire reeves, in old England. Sheriffs are termed the “the oldest appointment of the English crown.” They represent transition from simple local rule to a nationalized attempt at keeping law and order. Sheriffs were first established when the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were finally assembled into the Wessex-based Kingdom of England sometime around 1000 AD.
In the Colonies, the Crown established sheriffs, as done in Britain by royal decree. But, before long, the democratic process was employed to elect them. Today, they are the last bastion of popular representation in law enforcement.
Ironically, it now appears that the ancient sheriff, the last representative of popular, local federalism—might be the last chance for America to retain our civil liberties before the onslaught of Leviathan—the colossus of government tyranny.
This hope is best represented by the Oath Keepers, a group educating and supporting local sheriffs as defenders of our Constitution against creeping federal insurgency. Add to this the doctrine of Nullification, or refusal to apply unconstitutional laws, which sheriffs are now applying across America on various topics, such as gun regulations, and refusing federal demand for control.
This article is composed in two parts to better describe the history, function and constitutional warrant of the local, county American sheriff.
I. What is a Sheriff
A sheriff is the main peace keeper of a county in both ancient England and modern America. The office is defined by Webster’s:
In the U.S., the chief law-enforcement officer for the courts in a county. He is ordinarily elected, and he may appoint a deputy. The sheriff and his deputy have the power of police officers to enforce criminal law and may summon private citizens (the posse comitatus, or “force of the county”) to help maintain the peace. The main judicial duty of the sheriff is to execute processes and writs of the courts. Officers of this name also exist in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. In England the office of sheriff existed before the Norman Conquest (1066).
II. Ancient History of the Sheriff—Britain
The office of sheriff is said to be “the oldest appointment of the English crown.” The term Sheriff is derived from the ancient British designate “shire reeve.” A shire is an English term defined by the Free Dictionary as: “A former administrative division of Great Britain, equivalent to a county.” The term reeve is defined by Webster’s as: “a local administrative agent of an Anglo-Saxon king,” or “a medieval English manor officer responsible chiefly for overseeing the discharge of feudal obligations.”
A. History of the Shire Reeves
Thomas Jefferson claimed of the office of sheriff: “there is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the county sheriff whose role as a peace officer goes back at least to the time of Alfred the Great.”
To the contrary, Schenectady, NY Sheriff Buffardi offers this history of the beginnings of sheriffs in England to about 1000 AD, where groups of men—called hundreds, were assembled for defensive and taxation purposes:
The office of sheriff did not appear suddenly. It’s prolonged development began……..