September 25, 1789  Bill of Rights

Today the American system is often described as “democracy”, but such a description is in error.  Four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner, is a democracy.  The genius of the founders can be demonstrated in a system which protects the rights of All its citizens, including that individual.  The proverbial lamb.

The Founding Fathers ratified the United States Constitution on June 21, 1788.  In so doing, our forebears bestowed on generations yet unborn, a governing system unique in all history.  A system of diffuse authority, of checks and balances, and authority delegated but Never relinquished, by a sovereign electorate.

Today the American system is often described as “democracy”, but such a description is in error.  Four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for dinner, is a democracy.  The genius of the founders can be demonstrated in a system which protects the rights of All its citizens, including that individual.  The proverbial lamb. The specifics are enumerated in our bill of rights, twelve amendments adopted by the first Congress on this day in 1789, and sent to the states for ratification.

bill-of-rightsEven at the Constitutional Convention, delegates expressed concerns about the larger, more populous states holding sway, at the expense of the smaller states. The “Connecticut Compromise” solved the problem, creating a bicameral legislature with proportional representation in the lower house (House of Representatives) and equal representation of the states themselves in the upper house (Senate).

The 62nd Congress proposed a Constitutional amendment in 1912, negating the intent of the founders and proposing that Senators be chosen by popular election.  The measure was adopted the following year, the seventeenth amendment having been ratified by ¾ of the states.  Since that time, it’s difficult to understand what the United States Senate even is,  an institution neither democratic nor republican.  But I digress.

Five states: Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut, ratified the document in quick succession. Some states objected to the new Constitution, especially Massachusetts, which wanted more protection for basic political rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and of the press. These wanted the document to specify, that those powers left un-delegated to the Federal government, were reserved to the states.

sherman-ellsworthA compromise was reached in February, 1788 whereby Massachusetts and other states would ratify the document, with the assurance that such amendments would immediately be put up for consideration.

With these assurances, Massachusetts ratified the Constitution by a two-vote margin, followed by Maryland and South Carolina. New Hampshire became the ninth state on June 21. The new Constitutional Government would take effect on March 4 of the following year.

Amendments 2-12 were adopted on December 15, 1791, becoming the “Bill of Rights”.

It’s interesting to note the priorities of that first Congress, as expressed in their original 1st and 2nd amendments.  As proposed to the 1st Congress, the original 1st amendment dictated apportionment of representation. It was ratified by only 11 states, and technically remained pending. Had the states ratified that original first amendment, we would now have a Congress of at least 6,345 members, instead of the 535 we currently have.

The original 2nd amendment was an article related to Congressional compensation, that no future Congress could change their own salaries.   The measure would in fact, pass, becoming the 27th amendment in 1992.  Following a ratification period of 202 years, 7 months, and 10 days.

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March 14, 1743 Town Meeting

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 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”.

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Foreign dignitaries appearing before an Anglo-Saxon King and the Witenagemot

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.

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Town Meeting in Colonial America

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.

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Faneuil Hall Marketplace in 1944

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.

320px-Walden_ThoreauTown 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.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.