In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Local Governments in the United States

  • Introduction
  • The Emergence of Local Governments in the United States
  • Types of Local Government
  • Evolution of Local Structure and Forms of Government
  • Municipal Boundary Change and Consolidation
  • City Mayors and Managers
  • City Councils and Other Legislative Bodies
  • Local Representation and Bureaucracy
  • Public Choice, Local Competition, and Public Service Delivery
  • Neighborhoods, Interest Groups, and Urban Regimes
  • Governance and Networks
  • Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations
  • Economic Development
  • Land Use and Growth Management
  • Energy, Sustainability, and Climate Change
  • Local Governments and Globalization
  • Institutions and the Political Market

Political Science Local Governments in the United States
Jisun Youm, Richard Feiock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 March 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0070


The study of local governments has a long tradition in political science and has provided a laboratory for testing the many theories developed elsewhere as well as theories specific to the politics and operation of local governments. Formal institutions (rules and laws) and informal institutions (relational networks and conventions) are at the core of local governance and any understanding of how and why local governments do what they do must include the constraints and incentives derived from institutions. The institutional perspective has played only a minor role in the behavioral and class-conflict scholarship that dominated the late 20th century, but institutions have come to play a key role in the contemporary study of urban politics as in the discipline more generally. Forms of local government are numerous and include cities, counties, and a wide array of special districts in the United States. Their formation and institutional structures can be traced to the founding of the Progressive reform movement. Cities are similar to other governments in that they are venues for political interaction of interests groups, legislators, and executive officials. By contrast, they are unique in their number, geographic scale, and intergovernmental position. This places local governments in competition with each other for residents and development. In this environment, local government institutions play a central role in mediating competing constituency demands, the ambitions of local government officials, and the incentives and constraints of intergovernmental competition in a political market. Thus, this literature can make important contributions to understanding politics at every level.

The Emergence of Local Governments in the United States

The emergence of American local government coincided with the birth of American federal government under the United States Constitution in 1789. Even though American city government already existed in the British colonial era in the United States, early era local governments were not organized and did not provide municipal utilities or other services. Van Riper 1983 provides an historical assessment for the US administrative state. The first modern form of American administrative state was under the Federalist-Jeffersonian auspices between 1789 (Washington) and 1829 (Adams). In this era, the rational administrative procedures supported by Alexander Hamilton, such as hierarchical department structure, a merit system, rational and systematic decision making and record keeping, were introduced in the national government and also influenced the operation of local governments. The central theme between the 1770s and the 1870s was that of centralized and strong government based on efficiency. However, a different perspective existed concerning local government, which was captured in Tocqueville’s classic work. Tocqueville 2000 (originally published in 1835) lauds the American local government system for its democratic values, arguing that towns embodied “local-self-government.” Thus, Tocqueville 2000 considers local government as the foundation of all free republican government and the protection of the rights of minorities from all great political combinations. After recognizing the critical role of local government in the US administrative state, Griffith and Adrian 1938 documents the emergence and evolution of early local governments. Based on the previous work, Adrian 1987 explains the transformation of local governments that took place from 1920 to 1945.

  • Adrian, Charles R. A History of American City Government: The Emergence of the Metropolis, 1920–1945. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1987.

    Introduces issues related to the formation and structure of local governments. The strength of this book lies in its narrative in explicating why local governments during this period transformed themselves and in providing an account of the historical forces that influenced the process.

  • Griffith, Ernest S., and Charles R. Adrian. A History of American City Government: The Formation of Traditions, 1775–1870. Washington, DC: National Municipal League by University Press of America, 1938.

    Documents the emergence, characteristics, and structures of cities from 1775 to 1870, explaining the historical background at this time. In the early years, cities emerged as a municipal corporation and were greatly influenced by political parties. Also, since the Industrial Revolution, cities have confronted demands for expansion of services.

  • Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. Translated by Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

    English translation of De la démocratie en Amérique, first published in 1835. Tocqueville compares the values of American democracy with European democracy through the account of his travels. He believes that local government promotes responsible citizenship by encouraging the formation of civic associations and attaching citizens psychologically to the ideal of democratic self-governance.

  • Van Riper, Paul P. “The American Administrative State: Wilson and the Founders—An Unorthodox View.” Public Administration Review 43.6 (November 1983): 477–489.

    DOI: 10.2307/975915

    Reviews and assesses the administrative evolutions of the US administrative state through four eras. It also covers Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian systems, thus capturing the emergence of the administrative bureaucratic system and the political-administrative dichotomy that emerged.

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