Town Meeting is as old as the European settlement of New England, and it’s a tradition that persists in town halls, schools and auditoriums throughout the region.
Not to be confused with Town Hall meetings, the New England Town Meeting is a form of direct democracy in which a community gathers and votes on budgets and policies. They've been called 'a little primitive nursery of republican truth' and many other things, including 'misery.'
The New England Historical Society tried to find the oldest continuously run Town Meeting in each state. We searched records to find the oldest town (or city, in the case of Vermont), when it held its first Town Meeting and whether it still holds them. We did our best, but if you know of an older town with a continuous Town Meeting, please include it in the comment section below the story.
Windsor is the oldest English town in Connecticut, having been settled in 1633. In the early days, it was the duty of every man who was an inhabitant, or ‘freeman,’ to attend Town Meeting. Men were fined for failing to attend without excuse.
The meetings were convened as often as needed, sometimes to publish orders and laws from the General Court, sometimes after lecture or on Training Day when all the men would attend.
Town Meeting was originally held in a thatched hut surrounded by a stockade, but eventually moved to the First Church of Windsor
To be an inhabitant, you had to have a good character, a blameless life and honest conversation. Women weren’t allowed to be inhabitants, nor were vicious and abandoned persons, idlers, vagabonds and paupers.
In 1637, Connecticut’s General Court decreed that unmarried young men couldn’t live by themselves or with a family unless the town allowed it. Disobeying the law brought a fine of 20 shillings a week. In Windsor, Town Meeting decided who should stay and who should go. Windsor inhabitants in 1652 allowed Isaac Shelden and Samuel Rockwell to keep house together in Isaac's house 'so they carry themselves soberly and do not entertain idle persons.'
In 2017, Windsor held a special town meeting Feb. 6 at Windsor Town Hall to discuss appropriating $2.7 million for the public safety complex and public works facility.
On June 9, 1713, Berwick became Maine’s ninth town. Since Maine’s older towns no longer have town meeting – or, like Castine, didn’t hold Town Meeting until later -- we’re going with Berwick as having the oldest Town Meeting in Maine.
Berwick got its start in 1630, the first settlement in Maine to survive. Two others, Saint Croix Island and the Popham Colony didn’t last long. For nearly a century Berwick was a parish of Kittery, considered ‘too poor and low’ to ever form a town. Among its early settlers were indentured royalist soldiers from Scotland who’d been taken prisoners of war at the Battle of Dunbar during the English Civil War.
The first Town Meeting was held in the meeting house built in 1706. Benjamin Nason was elected moderator and the town officers were elected.
Berwick today offers a handy guide for newcomers to Town Meeting with questions and answers such as, “Won’t I seem like an idiot if I ask questions?”
Dorchester, Mass., claims to be the first to establish the New England Town Meeting by selectmen. On Oct. 8, 1633, Dorchester passed an order establishing that form of town government. Dorchester has since been absorbed in Boston, so the distinction of the first town meeting will go to Plymouth, Mass., which had its first town meeting in 1622 anyway.
In Massachusetts, the General Court in 1635 enacted the New Towne Ordinance, which authorized each town to dispose of common property, order its civil affairs and to choose its 'own particular officers.'
The right to vote in colonial government elections was limited to freemen, who were shareholders in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and male property owners. But all adult taxpayers could vote in town government.
The next Plymouth Town Meeting will be held at 8 a.m. on April 1, 2017, at the Plymouth North High School Performing Arts Center. It will be followed by a special town meeting. Warrant articles involve budgets, personnel, road maintenance, zoning and open space.
A special mention goes to Pelham, Mass., which the oldest town hall in continuous use for town meetings. It was built in 1743.
Exeter was founded in 1638, one of the first four townships in New Hampshire. It’s the only one of the four to still hold Town Meeting.
During the earliest days, the men of Exeter came to the town center, voted on how to divide up land and then had refreshments, perhaps an Election Cake, rum or hard cider. They brought their African-American servants, who elected their own shadow government, called the ‘Negro Court,’ as they did in many towns throughout New England.
In addition to dividing land, electing officers and setting budgets, Exeter Town Meeting had to resolve controversies. According to the Exeter Historical Society, in 1641 a goodman, whose name was illegible, let his pig run wild through the fields. The pig spoiled some corn planted by the Squamscott Indians, who had been guaranteed the right to plant and harvest their own crops. Exeter Town Meeting voted the goodman had to give the Indians a bushel of corn.
Town Meeting was usually held in March. Starting in 1855, it was held at the Exeter Town Hall. Sawdust was spread on the floor to sop up the mud on meeting-goers’ feet.
In 1898, Exeter judge Henry Shute complained about Town Meeting, writing,
The hall is full of smoke, there are not seats enough, and the people walk restlessly to and fro, talk gossip, laugh and pay but little attention to the speakers, unless the discussion waxes warm, when there is a rush forward, and the speakers are loudly applauded or roundly hooted, as their opinions find favor or otherwise with the audience. Small boys and some not so small chase each other and wrestle, and the occasional attempt of some inebriated gentlemen to harangue the crowd in the back part of the hall meets with great favor.
New Hampshire allowed towns to adopt a ballot vote in 1996, and two years later Exeter did just that.
Town Meeting for 2017 was held on Feb. 4 at the Exeter High School auditorium.
New Shoreham, R.I.
Town Meeting has disappeared from nearly half of Rhode Island’s towns. Since Rhode Island adopted the Home Rule Amendment to its Constitution in 1951, 15 of the state's 31 towns abandoned the Financial Town Meeting as the final step in adopting a budget.
New Shoreham -- Block Island – is one of the 16 towns that still hold Financial Town Meeting. It’s one of the oldest towns in Rhode Island. And according to our research, its Town Meeting is the earliest recorded in Rhode Island, dating to 1672.
New Shoreham’s annual Financial Town Meeting is held at the Block Island School on the first Monday in May. The town holds the distinction of the longest Town Meeting in recent memory: 4-1/2 days in 1991.
Most towns are bigger than Vergennes, Vt., which incorporated as a city in 1788 without first incorporating as a town or a village. Though its annual meeting is called a City Meeting, we’ll grant it the honor of ‘oldest town meeting’ as it takes up issues typically resolved in town meeting.
Vergennes was settled in 1766 along the Otter Creek Falls. It incorporated as a city in 1788, without first incorporating as a town or village. The settlement had big ambitions to develop as an industrial center.
For a while it succeeded. The Monkton Ironworks Co. became the biggest iron foundry in the United States by the War of 1812, when it made the fittings for the fleet that defeated the British on Lake Champlain. Commerce boomed until the latter half of the 19th century, when the railroads made Vergennes’ location on waterways irrelevant. Today it’s the smallest of Vermont’s nine cities, with a population of 2,588 in 2010.
Vergennes still has an annual meeting, called a City Meeting, that dates to 1789, the year after it incorporated.
Photos: Plimoth Plantation Meetinghouse By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002716; Block Island By Billy Hathorn at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17667939