In New Jersey’s early history, any person who owned land free from debts, mortgages, other legal claims or liens was a “freeholder.” Those who were elected to serve were the “Chosen Freeholders.” At first, legislative functions were performed by the Courts, later by a Board of Chosen Freeholders and Justices.
Gradually, the judges became increasingly involved with judicial concerns and in 1798 the State Legislature established the Board of Chosen Freeholders as the legislative and administrative head of county government in New Jersey. In 2020, the State Legislature voted to change the name “Freeholder” to “County Commissioner.”
As a result, the 21 counties of New Jersey serve as a middle level of government between the state and federal governments and the municipalities. The counties deal with regional problems such as solid waste disposal and water supply, as well as the historic responsibility with the courts, roads, general government, and the conduct of elections.
For the first half of the nineteenth century, the system of apportioning freeholders remained absolutely rigid; two freeholders for each township, town or city. But when the number of townships in the county began to grow at an appreciable rate, the board membership became unwieldy.
For example, in Morris County between 1806 and 1918 the number of persons sitting on the Board of Chosen Freeholders (now County Commissioners) ranged from 20 to 27. In the latter year the first small board (five members) was seated in Morris County. It was expanded to its present seven member size in 1972.