Township government, established in Providence, Rhode Island in 1636, is the oldest existing unit of government continuing to serve in North America.  Township government was in existence for 140 years prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.  The wording of the Declaration of Independence reflects the fact that 38 of its 56 signers had experienced the benefits of township government.

The Declaration’s statement that “government should derive its just powers from the consent of the governed” is demonstrated at the Annual Town Meeting held on the second Tuesday of each April.  The Annual Town Meeting is still an important function of our nation’s 17,000 townships after more that 360 years.

Township government began in Illinois in 1849.  The Illinois constitution of 1848 allowed voters in each county the opportunity to adopt township government.  Today, 85 of the 102 counties in Illinois operate under the township form of government.  There are currently 1,432 townships in the state serving more that 8 million people.

Illinois townships are required by law to perform three functions:  general assistance, property assessments, and road and bridge maintenance.

Many townships provide a variety of other services such as:  senior citizens, disabled citizens, youth relief, health emergency, cemeteries and environmental services.  Truly, Illinois’ townships serve from the cradle to the grave.


Townships and other units of local government are regulated by provisions of Article VII, Sec. 8 of the 1970 Illinois Constitution which states in part, these governments “shall have only powers granted by law.”  In the late 1800s, John F. Dillon, a Supreme Court Justice in Iowa, developed this legal principle, which is known as Dillon’s Rule.  In plain language it means that if there is no statute permitting a township or road district (or official) to perform a function or service, the government or official may not carry out that function regardless of how much it’s needed or wanted.  If the statutes are silent (do not mention) regarding a particular power or function, it does not exist.  If the power doesn’t exist, the government (or official) may not perform the service.