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Phillip Tutor: Anniston 1.0 -- how to build a city from scratch

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Anniston's oath of office

Anniston’s creators performed a not-so-minor miracle. They birthed a city out of piney wilderness. They also sucked all the fun out of this place.

Darn politicians.

From the git-go, Sam Noble and his disciples wanted calm and order, not chaos.

If you cussed or hollered close to your neighbor’s house, you’d get fined.

If you displayed your privates “in an indelicate manner on or around the public square, or along the streets,” you’d get fined.

If you ran a brothel — a “house of ill fame” — they’d fine you.

The johns got fined, too.

If your animal died, your cow or mule, you had 24 hours to get rid of its carcass.

They didn’t want anyone driving their ox on Noble Street’s sidewalks, or tying it to a tree on 10th Street. If you did — they’d fine you.

And alcohol? Well, if you were drunk and annoying people, they’d fine you, and if you sold booze without a license, they’d fine you, and if you sold booze to a student or a child (without their parents’ consent, because if mom and dad said they were cool with it, it was OK), they’d fine you.

Sense a trend?

Say what you will about Noble and his cohorts, but from day one they codified rules that governed the obvious and the strange, almost as if they were students of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, English philosophers whose writings on individual rights and society form the core of many Western-style governments, be they democratic, republican, socialist, monarchist or some European-style mashup of all of them.

“You’ve got to put yourself in that context,” Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart said Friday. He’s also a lawyer, so his insight is double-barrelled. “Those were big concerns in that day. It’s hard for us to imagine that, but those were some of the issues they were dealing with.”

We know about these codified rules because they’re written down, in 19th-century handwriting, in a ledger stored in a City Hall vault. Those few pieces of paper form the very beginnings of post-Civil War, Reconstruction-era government in Anniston.

In December 1873, Anniston’s first elected intendant (mayor) and aldermen (councilmen) signed the city’s oath of office. The March 1877 version (the oldest Anniston oath still in existence) is only 92 words long, though its remarkableness wasn’t its brevity. It was that those men swore they were not disenfranchised by the U.S. Constitution — a vital fact considering the oaths of allegiance former Confederates had to sign after the war to regain the vote.

Anniston’s intendant, Irish immigrant Charles O’Roarke, the Woodstock Iron Co. furnace foreman, signed first.

Then came the five aldermen.

Noble signed last, writing his full first name — “Samuel,” not simply “Sam.” His hand pressed hard with the pen, his signature deeper and darker than the others.

Anniston’s first 24 ordinances were recorded in the same ledger and in the same handwriting as the oath. Remember, though, that Anniston was hardly organic. It was a company town, created for economic, not social, reasons. Without Woodstock, there’d be no Anniston. The late author Grace Gates, in The Model City of the New South, made that clear. Initially, at least, Woodstock even paid the aldermen’s salaries. “The day-to-day political decisions affecting the lives of the people became ostensibly their own choice, and on the surface, Anniston operated as a self-governing political entity,” she wrote. “However, the community existed because of and at the whim of the Woodstock Iron Company.”

And those original 24 ordinances? They were Noble’s, which spoils some of these thoughts of a burgeoning village of democracy. “He drew up the council by-laws and the town’s ordinances, made nearly all the motions, and composed most of the resolutions,” Gates wrote.

Anniston City Hall

Anniston's City Hall soon after it was built around the turn of the century.

Oddly, Noble never served as Anniston’s mayor. That would have been overkill and politically pompous, even by 19th-century standards. Thirteen years as an alderman and his family’s role in Woodstock’s founding was power enough. It was his (and Gen. Daniel Tyler’s) company, his town, his ordinances, his dreams, his vision, his eventual Quintard Avenue statue.

When I chatted with Stewart, today’s mayor, about those original 24 ordinances, we both chuckled at the mentions of brothels, booze and oxen. But he brought up a point I hadn’t considered: Without Northern capital, Anniston would have died before it began. And Noble was wise enough to realize New York post-war industrialists who took the train to Anniston wouldn’t invest in a company town if drunks and johns and dead animals stunk up the place.

Noble wanted Anniston to be calm, reserved, educated, churched, Victorian — and sober.

“He was a PR genius as well as an astute businessman,” Stewart said. “I think he was ahead of his time, from what I’ve read.”

Even today, some may consider that tactic a bit overbearing.

Nevertheless, that struggle — the clash between individual rights and a community’s greater good — remains at the heart of local government, in Noble’s day and ours. Can I leave my pontoon boat in my front yard? Can City Hall force me to mow my grass? I’m an adult, so why can’t I walk down the street with a cold Yuengling?

Well, there’s this.

In the philosophical concept of the “state of nature,” living beings possess the liberty to protect themselves, to do as they wish. In other words, park your boat wherever you want. In describing Hobbes’ 17th-century writings, author Bernard Gert recalls that Hobbes believed the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In Hobbes’ view of the rights of nature, Gert explained, “in order to gain lasting preservation, the goal of reason, people must create a stable society; and this requires them to give up their right of nature.”

Likewise, English philosopher John Locke’s Treatises went further, saying people “enter into society to make one people, one body politic, under one supreme government.” But, as writer Roger Woolhouse points out, Locke’s stance is that authority is not absolute and that, “by remaining in society, one gives one’s tacit consent to it.”

So, in Anniston’s first days, its founders decided to create a stable society that forced residents to forfeit some of their rights of nature. But that society’s authority wasn’t infallible or perfect. Residents could retain their rights and do as they wish — and suffer the consequences. Or they could leave.

By today’s examples, city residents pay city taxes, follow city ordinances and receive city services. They give up to get. Common it is, however, to hear county residents say they prefer to live outside the city — any city, that is — so they are freer to do as they wish. And that means different things to different people.

“Quite often, when we are coming up with these rules of civic conduct, it’s a conflict between freedom and security,” said former U.S. Congressman Glen Browder, the noted political science professor at Jacksonville State University. “Originally, in a state of nature where you have complete freedom, it was a Garden of Eden kind of thing, but that can get out of hand.”

Anniston’s founders wanted none of that. To them, laws would create results.

“When you don’t have government, you have the threat of mob rule, the lynch mob, the Klan, the vigilante and also the tyrant,” Browder said. “The biggest, baddest, meanest man in the crowd runs things … And there are all kinds of sources of power. One is who is the biggest and meanest. The other is religion. You can have a monarchy, a theocracy, aristocracy, but somebody, in any society, somebody is going to rule, someone is going to authoritatively allocate values.”

In Anniston’s earliest days, that someone was a small group of men, piloted by Sam Noble, who literally laid down the law, 24 original rules to live by, written calligraphy-like in a ledger still reviewable today.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

To read the text of Anniston’s first 24 city ordinances, go to Annistonstar.com.

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