The first Town Meeting controversies didn’t have anything to do with buying a new fire truck or a proposed zoning law, but whether Town Meeting should even happen in the first place.
When John Winthrop arrived on the shore of Massachusetts to build a city on a hill, he didn’t have Town Meeting in mind at all.
The First Town Meeting Controversies
During their Great Migration to New England, the Puritans fled the monarchy, not the monarch. Massachusetts Bay Colony hardly started out as a bastion of representative democracy. Members of the General Court elected themselves for life in 1630.
But the Puritans had also brought with them English ideas of the rights of subjects and of constitutional guarantees against arbitrary power. As a result, freemen struggled against the lifers in Massachusetts’ General Court.
In 1632 they got the right to elect two people from each plantation (an early version of a township) to confer with the Court about raising a public stock. They also agitated to elect their representatives annually.
In 1639, the Rev. Nathaniel Ward cautioned against allowing the freemen to vote on laws. “I see the spirits of the people runne high and what they get they hould,” he wrote.
Town Meeting Gets Started in Connecticut
To the south of Massachusetts, the colonies of Connecticut and New Haven had more democratic leanings. Winthrop wrote to Thomas Hooker in 1639 telling him he thought the leaders of Connecticut’s government shouldn’t have submitted its constitution to the people.
And on June 4, 1639, in New Haven Colony, a Town Meeting took place when “all the free planters assembled together in a general meeting to consult about settling Civill government according to God.”
Winthrop was fighting a losing battle.
Early Town Meeting
At first, Town Meeting handled all civil affairs. In the earliest days, for example, Dorchester, Mass., held Town Meeting every Monday at 8 a.m.
The colonists realized that was an unwieldy way to do business. So they limited Town Meeting issues to taxes, appropriations and other recurring items. They made attendance mandatory and imposed fines on those who didn’t show up.
In colonial elections, only male property owners could vote. But in Town Meeting, all adult male taxpayers voted. Early town meetings dealt with grants of land, bridges and pounds, the appointment of fence viewers, loose animals, alms for the poor, bounties for wolves, ministers’ salaries and provisions for churches and schools. Early Puritan towns sometimes elected ‘seaters’ to affix the relative rank and dignity of the meetinghouse seats.
Whatever was discussed at town meetings was discussed thoroughly. That still holds true, sometimes to the despair of the meeting-goers. During the all-day meetings, men chewed on meeting house seeds — dill or caraway — to promote concentration.
The Revolutionary Town Meeting
Massachusetts royal governor William Shirley viewed Town Meeting as a crucible of democracy. Not a good thing, to his way of thinking.
In his book, The Unknown American Revolution, historian Gary Nash quotes Shirley complaining about the “Mobbish turn in this town.” Shirley blamed it on the constitution, by which the management of it is devovl’d upon the populace assembled in their town meetings.” The “meanest inhabitants” generally outvote the “gentlemen, merchants, substantial traders and all the better part of the inhabitants; to whom it is irksome to attend.”
Nash and other historians drew a straight line between New England’s Town Meeting, the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution. Town Meetings at Faneuil Hall provided the main forum for the leaders of the American Revolution. Throughout New England, they organized depots of military stores, converted farmers and tradesmen to Minute Men and prevented anarchy in a time of war.
Town meeting controversies erupted in Boston in the 1740s and in 1784, when elitist conservatives proposed replacing the annual gatherings with an elected mayor and aldermen. “At a raucous town meeting in 1784, efforts to present the plan were met with shouts of “No incorporation. No mayor and aldermen. No innovations.”
As a revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson admired Town Meeting. As a president who imposed an embargo unpopular in New England, he disdained it.
“I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships,” he wrote. “[A]lthough the whole of the other states were known to be in favor of the measure, yet the organization of this little selfish minority enabled it to override the Union.
The Last Century
Perhaps no state guards its prerogative of direct democracy more jealously than Vermont, which held its first Town Meeting in Bennington in 1762. In 1844, the Town of St. Albans refused to allow presidential emissary Gen. Winfield Scott to speak to them about flouting the country’s neutrality laws. Today the first Tuesday in March is a state holiday in Vermont. Coffee and maple sinkers (doughnuts) are the preferred treat.
By the early 19th century, towns turned into cities. Some began to view Town Meeting as a quaint, if admirable, artifact of the past. Newspaper reporters focused on the impassioned wrangling over minor disagreements. In 1892, the Boston Globe reported Melrose, Mass., Town Meeting had a lively debate over the wisdom of suing the Boston and Maine Railroad. The issue? The railroad parked freight cars so they blocked a shortcut to the depot.
At Barnstable, Mass., Town Meeting in 1937 a fight between two brothers earned press attention because one described his overweight sibling as “an elephant.” The dispute involved the right-of-way over Henry B. Day’s Wianno property.
Year after year, Town Meeting settled such local disputes in New England town halls, schools and gymnasiums. What to do about the failings of the Reading, Mass., municipal light board in 1926. The fate of the Scituate elms in 1937. Whether to sell intoxicating beverages in Woodstock, Vt., in 1940. The $350 bonus to the Redding, Conn., highway employees in 1948.
… that peculiar confection that is as distinctive to town meeting itself is distinctive to the soil of New England.
On the Radio
In 1935, New England Town Meeting caught the attention of NBC Radio. The network decided to experiment with a talk radio show featuring live comments and questions from the audience. NBC expected little from America’s Town Meeting of the Air, but listeners loved it. The show ran from May 30, 1935, to July 1, 1956.
Throughout the 20th century, Town Meeting survived and flourished in New England, despite the press’s lamentations that it was dying out. In 1953, the Boston Globe reported Harvard, Mass., was one of the few towns to continue the tradition of an all-day town meeting.
The menu was turkey and lemon meringue pie. And, according to the Globe, ‘there was more debate over not spending $1,500 for road improvements than there was in spending $170,000 for the new school.’
This story was updated in 2021.