Town Meeting wasn’t exactly what the Puritans had in mind when they came to New England to build their cities on a hill.
Samuel Stone, who came over with Thomas Hooker and John Cotton, described the Congregational church government as “a speaking Aristocracy in the face of a silent Democracy.”
Some Puritan leaders like John Winthrop were reluctant to allow a noisy democracy in civil government. William Bradford, on the other hand, was the moderator of the first-ever Town Meeting in Plimoth Plantation in 1622.
Town Meeting only took root throughout New England after a struggle, but it refused to die. Some of the old Town Meeting traditions, like eating meetinghouse seeds and daylong discussions, disappeared. But their original impetus continues in New England – as does the republic they created.
During the earliest days of Town Meeting, “the cardinal principles of political equality, opposition to tyranny, and freedom of speech were taught, and taught in such a way that they were never forgotten,” observed historian Daniel Ward Howe.
No wonder Town Meeting was viewed by British governor William Shirley as a crucible of mob politics.
During the Great Migration the Puritans fled the monarchy, not the monarch. But they also brought with them English ideas of the rights of subjects and of constitutional guarantees against arbitrary power. As a result, freemen struggled against arbitrary rule in Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Boston, members of the general court elected themselves for life in 1630. The freemen objected. In 1632 they got the right to elect two people from each plantation to confer with the Court about raising a public stock – and 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.
The colonies of Connecticut and New Haven were more democratic, to John Winthrop’s dismay. 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, ‘all the free planters assembled together in a general meeting to consult about settling Civill government according to God.’ The meeting was held in Robert Newman’s barn.
In Massachusetts, the freemen ultimately prevailed. At first all affairs were handled at Town Meeting. In the earliest days of Dorchester, Mass., Town Meeting was held every Monday at 8 a.m.
The Puritans realized that was an unwieldy way to do business, so Town Meeting issues were limited to taxes, appropriations and other recurring items. Attendance was mandatory and fines imposed on those who were absent.
In colonial elections, only male property owners could vote, but all adult male taxpayers could vote in Town Meeting. 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’ at Town Meeting: people to affix the relative rank and dignity of the meetinghouse seats.
Whatever was discussed at town meetings was discussed thoroughly — and that is still true, sometimes to the despair of the meeting-goers. During the all-day meetings, men chewed on meetinghouse seeds — dill or caraway — to promote concentration. Election Day Cake was another culinary feature of the event.
… that peculiar confection that is as distinctive to town meeting itself is distinctive to the soil of New England. But alas, not as persistent as town meeting, it has disappeared with the small baker from all but the farthest rural towns.
The Revolutionary Town Meeting
“The cardinal idea of the New England town system was that the nearer government is brought to the people, the more clearly it shows their sentiments and reflects their will,” wrote Daniel Ward Howe in 1879.
Howe 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 were the main forum for the leaders of the American Revolution.
Through the organization of Town Meeting New Englanders were influenced to an active patriotism, organized depots of military stores, converted farmers and tradesmen to Minute Men and prevented anarchy in a time of war.
As a revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson admired Town Meeting. As a president who imposed an embargo unpopular in New England, he disdained it.
How powerfully did we feel the energy of this organization in the case of embargo? I felt the foundations of the government shaken under my feet by the New England townships. There was not an individual in their states whose body was not thrown with all its momentum into action; and although 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 and Town Meeting was viewed by some 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, which parked freight cars that 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, such local disputes were settled 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
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 it was so popular it 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.
No Town Meeting Cake was served, though. 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.’