CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY AT WORK: FERRY VS. WILLIAMS (1879)
GEORGE J. FERRY
SIGNED SLIP, 3.5 x 1, by the Mayor of Orange, NJ (1868-70), prominent business man
(hat factory owner), passionate temperance and women’s rights campaigner, NJ
Supreme Court decision in Ferry vs.
Williams (1879). In fine condition, with age toning and stain on bottom edge.
George J. Ferry felt that the tavern-keepers were not meeting the requirements that they submit letters by six voters affirming a high moral character and commitment to temperance and that no voter could serve as a reference for more than one person in any one year. He suspected that some tavern-keepers were not, in fact, believers in temperance and that the letters either did not exist or that letter-signers freely and insincerely endorsed more than one license at a time. Ferry asked the town’s collector of the taxes if he could check. The collector, Chauncey Williams refused and Ferry went to court. Ferry’s belief that he could see if Williams was doing his job was shared by the justices of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Their declaration of a right to an accounting eventually swept the nation. Judges in several states quickly adopted the Ferry vs. Williams decision’s principle of, a general right to know, with opinions enlivened by impassioned passages about American democracy and the exalted position of the individual citizen in it.”
The actual decision is noted for its contents regarding an individual’s rights/standing to sue officials to correct a wrongful act. Ferry’s belief that he could demand to see if Williams was doing his job in regards to the tavern-keepers requirements. Ferry had a belief that there was a proper way for government to operate and believed in the old fashioned republican notion that as a citizen, he had a duty to participate in civic life.
Ferry vs. Williams Abstract: “A case study from 1870’s New Jersey involving accountability over the issuance of tavern licenses led to a clear confirmation of the right to demand an accounting. Here, the traditional ideology of municipal governance gave at least some members of a community (a prominent businessman and temperance campaigner in this case, George J. Ferry) the confident belief that when they questioned officials they would get the answers they sought. The language of the court’s opinion in this case (and in several others that followed in the 1880’s and 1890’s) show that the idea of accountability was considered fundamental to the American approach to democracy. This rhetoric led U.S. judges to rule that any citizen was entitled to an accounting from government officials, as apposed to British jurisprudence limiting this right to corporation members of a corporation ( either municipal or commercial) or those with a direct personal interest in the acts of a corporation.” (quote reference: Municipal Accountability in the American Age of Reform by David Ress)