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Image Massachusetts Power Ways: The Politics of Town Meeting Government

Within a few years of settlement, a unique system of government by town meetings and selectmen took form in Massachusetts. Many historians believe that these institutions were invented in the New World. Leading dictionaries identify the words town meetingand selectman as Americanisms.1 Nothing could be farther from the case. New England town meetings were transplanted from East Anglia, where they had existed for many centuries before the great migration. In the Suffolk County Record Office at Ipswich, for example, one may find a musty leather-bound folio volume of great antiquity which contains the records of the parish of Framlingham—after which the Massachusetts town of Framingham took its name. On its cover, this volume bears a title which is written in an old hand: “Town Book.” In many East Anglian communities, the words “town” and “parish” were used interchangeably. In the great book of Framlingham, the expressions “general parish meeting” and “general town meeting” were synonyms.2

These East Anglian towns governed themselves through officers sometimes called “selectmen.” Some East Anglian selectmen were elected by all the people called “townsmen.” Others were self-perpetuating oligarchies. Always, selectmen were men of substance—prosperous yeomen and artisans for the most part.3 They were also men with grey heads, chosen for their maturity, wisdom and experience in local government. In some East Anglian communities, selectmen were called “ancients.”4

The selectmen disposed of routine business, but in many parishes of East Anglia, larger questions were dealt with by assemblies explicitly called “town meetings,” which brought together the “principal inhabitants” of the community. These East Anglian town meetings were diverse in their structure. No two of them were quite the same. But they commonly allowed a large number of townsmen to participate in local government.5

Another part of the New England polity was a set of fundamental documents that functioned very much like a written constitution. The East Anglian community of Dedham, for example, had a local constitution called “The Ancient Customs of the Town and Parish of Dedham, County of Essex, which is and hath been, tyme out of minde, of both the lordships there.”6 This document laid down the rules of inheritance, which in Dedham happened to favor the youngest son. It described the processes of law and self-government in that community, and included by-laws for building, farming, and animal keeping such as were commonly covered by manorial customals throughout England during the early decades of the seventeenth century. But the Dedham document was something different from manorial documents. It was a single set of laws that existed for all the manors in the “town.” Further, Dedham’s “ancient customs” were enforced not by a manorial lord but by all the landholders who lived in the town. “If any man offend in any of these lawes,” the document declared, “the tenants may set such fines on their heads as they shall thinke meet and convenient.”7

Every East Anglian town had its own customs; no two were ever exactly the same and most changed through time. The word town itself altered its meaning in this period—slowly beginning to be used in a new sense to describe small urban centers. East Anglia had many towns in this modern sense—more than any other part of England in the early seventeenth century. These places developed systems of self-government that were very different from more rural communities. An example was the market town of Brain tree, whose government was mainly in the hands of a local oligarchy called the “Four and Twenty,” who functioned much like the ruling elites of many market towns throughout Europe. But when major problems occurred, the “governors of the town” called general town meetings to decide the matter. In September 1625, for example, Braintree’s Four and Twenty summoned all the “chiefe inhabitants of the town” to meet in the Church and to “confer on some course to be taken to set the poor to work at this hard time.”8 In 1630, these institutions were still common throughout the eastern counties of England.

When the Puritans came to America, this ancient system of government by town meetings, selectmen and fundamental laws became the basis of local government in New England. In the year 1636, a statute of the Massachusetts General Court defined town governments in their classical form. Throughout the smaller communities of New England, these institutions have remained remarkably stable for many generations. The institutional building blocks were town meetings, town selectmen, town covenants and town records. Many differences of detail developed from one town to another. The nature of the relationship between selectmen and town meetings, for instance, was very unclear: some Massachusetts towns met more frequently than others; some selectmen were more powerful; some covenants were more formal. In consequence, a variety of town customs developed in New England. But they did so within a narrow range which was fixed by the laws of the colony within a few years of its beginning.

A distinctive pattern of participation in town meetings also developed at an early date in Massachusetts. It was normally characterized by very low levels of turnout—normally in the range of 10 to 30 percent of adult males. But when controversial questions came before the town, participation surged—sometimes approaching 100 percent.9

This pattern still exists in New England. The major issues today might be a tax-override or a middle school, rather than the choice of a new minister or the location of a meetinghouse. But the traditional pattern of very low participation, punctuated by sudden surges of very high turnout, has been characteristic of New England town government for three centuries—and very different as we shall see from voting patterns in other American regions.

New England town governments tended to become very active in the life of their communities. The inhabitants voted to tax themselves heavily by comparison with other parts of British America. On a per capita basis, levels of spending by local government in Massachusetts were two to four times higher than in many other colonies, though much below the cost of government in Europe. These relative patterns have also persisted for three centuries.10

Town meeting government in early New England was not really democratic in our majoritarian sense. The object was not rule by majority, but by consensus. The purpose of a town meeting was to achieve that consensual goal by discussion, persuasion and mutual adjustment of differences. The numbers of votes were rarely counted, but merely recorded as the “will of the town.” This system was unique to New England, and nearly universal within it. It was the combined product of East Anglian experiences, Puritan ideas, and the American environment.

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