The following is the introduction to the 1887 Memphis Taxing District Ordinances which came onto existence following the loss of Memphis’ Municipal Charter due to the Yellow Fever Plague of the late 1870’s. My great grandfather James Lee Jr served on the Memphis Legislative Council which was composed to the Board of Fire and Police Commissioners and the Supervisors of Public Works. This Digest of 1887 contained 261 pages of municipal ordinances in addition to contracts between the Taxing District and 11 railroads, the Memphis Grain and Package Elevator Co., Memphis Water Co. and other entities.
Introduction to First Digest
It may not be inappropriate, as introduction to this Digest to state some of the causes that gave birth to that government whose laws and ordinances it contains.
After the scourge of 1878 had done its work of death, those who survived found many deserted hearth-stones and desolate homes. Pestilence, more pitiless than war, had robbed Memphis of thousands of her truest and most enterprising citizens, and of millions of money, in paralyzed industry and diminished values; and the future, which once promised so fair, was beclouded with doubt and fear. For interest on debts made no pause, though the “pestilence walked in darkness,” and taxation in the devoted city vastly increased on greatly diminished resources; and our accumulated misfortunes did not appease the thirst for payment of a vast and insupportable debt. Friend met friend, and, as they looked each other in the face and remembered the past, wept for themselves and for their beloved city. What was to be done? Memphis has tried to settle her debt, and failed. Where the fault lay, it is not necessary to inquire. The fact is, the attempt failed. Besides, profoundly grateful for the beneficent charity that poured in upon her from the civilized world with unabated benefaction, through the yellow fever, it was felt that something ought to be done in the way of thorough sanitation, in order that the plague never return; and that it was essential to the life of trade that our dilapidated streets be repaired and paved. Added to all this was the realization of the fact that municipal government in the United States were a failure. It is curious, not to say sad reflection, that so enlightened and progressive a people as ours should have so lamentably failed in their management of municipal affairs.
So it was, these accumulated ills bought Memphis to the verge of destruction and despair, and these weighty considerations moved her to seek relief. It was a question of life or death. For what booted it that her position was the most commanding on the continent, and that she was the natural entrepot for all the varied production of the largest, most fertile and rapidly developing valley in the world, if all her earnings and income were only to fill the coffers of her creditors? What booted it that her muscle, brain and enterprise promise gave of prosperity and greatness, if all she had, and hoped for, was only held in trust for the payment of debts that were accumulated without permanent benefit to her, and that, like a millstone around her neck, dragged he down to bankruptcy and death? From these ills, and others worse to come, her citizens united to find a release; and believed that when governments fail of their purpose (the good of the governed), and that communities, like individuals, can invoke the protection of the maxim “self-preservation is the supreme Law,” they asked the sovereign State to take back their ancient privileges and franchises, and give them a new and better form of government .
To this end, mass meetings were held, committees appointed, and bills drawn and passed by the Legislature. These laws have been ratified by our Supreme Court, and the Taxing
District of Shelby County, Tennessee, is an accomplished fact. And it is fondly hoped that its organic law embodies the solution of that hitherto unsolved problem-how to govern, cheaply and well, a municipal corporation.
This government is simply an agent of the State government, without the power of credit or taxation, and the evils thereon. It owns no property, except for governmental purposes alone. It can issue no bonds, and has no power to pay them if they are issued. It contracts no debts, except as against particular taxes levied by the State itself, to pay them, year by year. It therefore pays as it goes-the only true policy for individuals and States. What improvements it makes, it pays for; and if it has no money to pay, it waits till it has. Launched under such auspices, it is hoped that it will prove a lasting blessing, and that economy, honesty and enterprise, cleanliness and thorough sanitation, good streets, and an efficient fire and police protection, will close its gates to pestilence forever, and open wide the doors to health and lasting prosperity.