When it comes to American politics, it has often been said that “All politics is local”. The saying is commonly associated with former Speaker Tip O’Neill, but the notion goes back, long before his time. When it comes to self-governance, it’s hard to know what could be more local, than the body known as Town Meeting.
The town meeting form of local government is found in parts of the United States, where some localities elect town meeting members, and others where citizens who simply “show up”. The roots go back to 11th century Anglo Saxon England and before, the Old English “moot” or “mot,” deriving from the same root which gave us “meet”. Most often used in “gemot,” meaning “community meeting to discuss public affairs and policies”, this parliamentary forebear was known as the “Witenagemot,” literally “meeting of wise men”.
The Basque region of northern Spain has held Town Meeting since the middle ages. Residents of a town would meet at the “Anteiglesia” (“in front of the church”) to vote on local matters, and to elect representatives to the regional assembly. All but the largest 10% of municipalities in Switzerland still use town meetings for their usual legislative body.
Southern American populations were more widely scattered in colonial America, where in New England, shorter distances encouraged regular town meetings, instilling in our forebears the belief that they could (and should) govern themselves.
The 1st American town meeting took place on March 14, 1743 in Faneuil Hall, Boston. Faneuil Hall was given to the city by the merchant Peter Faneuil in 1742. Destroyed by fire in 1761, the place was rebuilt the following year. It was here that colonists gathered to protest the Sugar Act in 1764, and here where you may have first heard the protest, “no taxation without representation.” Faneuil Hall became the scene of Revolutionary meetings, today this Birthplace of the Revolution is described by many as “the cradle of liberty.” Charles Bulfinch enlarged the hall in 1806, and the building is still in use today as a market, gathering place, meeting hall, and living museum.
The southern part of Burlington Vermont was re-chartered in 1971 as the City of South Burlington, the new charter providing that only budget increases of 10% or more annually be placed before town meeting. The results have been predictable and it’s unlikely that there will be any such exceptions in the future.
Town meetings have been more prevalent in New England states, but not exclusively. Michigan was the first Midwestern state to adopt the system, and Minnesota townships of more than 25 regularly hold town meeting.
The town meeting continues today as a form of direct democratic rule, in which members of a community come together to legislate and direct policy and budgets for local government.
The 19th century naturalist Henry David Thoreau captured the spirit of the age, in comparing town meeting to more top-down styles of government. “On any moral question”, he said, “I would rather have the opinion of Boxboro than of Boston and New York put together… When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States”.
William F. Buckley, Jr., was rather more pithy, when he said “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University”.
Feature image, top of page: 41 men sign the Mayflower Compact off Provincetown Harbor, the first written framework of self-government, in the New World. November 11, 1620.