Although an important part of local government, particularly in the South, in their early years the county courts have not been thoroughly investigated. This book offers the first comprehensive examination of the county courts during the antebellum era in one southern state Kentucky, placing them in the context of its constitutional and political structure. More administrative than judicial in function, the courts were the means of providing most services of government for the people. This range of activity is fully discussed here, from road building to tax collecting to caring for the poor.
Robert M. Ireland also explores the political aspects of the courts as well as their sometimes complex relationship with the state legislature and with the growing towns and cities. The courts, however, often failed in performing their duties, and the justices, being appointed, became a self-perpetuating oligarchy who seldom consulted the wishes of the people. Elected officials and the voters themselves thus grew increasingly alienated by the working of the courts. Their resentment culminated finally in a constitutional reform that in 1850 created an elective system of county government in Kentucky.