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Town Meeting

Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England

Donald L. Robinson
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Town Meeting
    Book Description:

    At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln described government by the people as "the great task remaining before us." Many citizens of modern America, frustrated and disheartened, are tempted to despair of realizing that ideal. Yet, it is a project still alive in parts of New England. This book traces the origins of townmeeting democracy in Ashfield, a community of just under 2,000 people in the foothills of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Donald Robinson begins by recounting several crises at the town's founding in the eighteenth century that helped to shape its character. He shows how the town has changed since then and examines how democratic selfgovernment functions in the modern context. The picture is not pretty. Selfgovernment carries no guarantees, and Ashfield is no utopia. Human failings are abundantly on display. Leaders mislead. Citizens don't pay attention and they forget hardearned lessons. But in this candid account of the operation of democracy in one New England town, Robinson demonstrates that for better and for worse, Ashfield governs itself democratically. Citizens control the actions of their government. Not everyone participates, but all may, and everyone who lives in the town must accept and obey what town meeting decides.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-036-9
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    This is a book about the practice of democracy. It focuses on Ashfield, Massachusetts, a rural town of about two thousand inhabitants in the foothills of the Berkshires, in western New England. Ashfield governs itself by a process known generally as town-meeting democracy. It is one of 262 towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that still practice this form of direct democracy.

    In 2002 the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts, voted to stick with its town-meeting form of government, rather than switch to a mayor-and-council format. A glossy new magazine,CommonWealth, published by an organization called MassINC, commented that the vote...

  6. Part I: Origins

    • 1 Becoming Ashfield
      (pp. 23-40)

      “The past is a foreign country,” an appropriate warning for anyone writing history, is particularly apt for Part I of this book.¹ Colonial New England is a foreign country for us, and not just in the technical sense that it was part of the British Empire. Modern observers must be careful about assuming we know it very well, no matter how many documents and books we have studied.

      That said, we cannot avoid the effort of trying to understand it, because therein lie the origins of town-meeting democracy. Because those origins explain a great deal about how Ashfield developed, and...

    • 2 Baptist Troubles
      (pp. 41-52)

      This book presents the governance of Ashfield as a significant example of democracy in action.¹ It should not come as a surprise, then, that a major episode from the founding period turned on a sharp clash between democracy and religious liberty.

      The legislation that created the Huntstown plantation in 1736 directed that one six-acre lot be reserved as a home site for a “learned, orthodox” minister and another portion of the same size be dedicated to the support of his ministry.² It also required that the settlers build a meetinghouse to serve both as a place of worship and as...

    • 3 Governing through a Revolution
      (pp. 53-84)

      War, particularly a civil war, presents a difficult set of challenges for democratic government. People must decide which side they are on, how far they are willing to push their convictions, and what to do with those who disagree. When the stakes are high—when the aim of war is a revolution in political allegiances—strains accumulate. The longer the war drags on, the harder it is for revolutionaries to maintain the necessary discipline.

      Just one short decade after people of European background began to build houses in what became Ashfield, the people of this frontier settlement found themselves struggling...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  7. Interlude

    • 4 Transformation
      (pp. 87-114)

      The prevailing culture of Ashfield changed relatively little from the town’s founding in the last half of the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Historians of American development may be surprised by this statement; in the united States generally, this was a time of tremendous transformation: from agricultural to industrial, from rural to urban and suburban, from ethnic homogeneity¹ to great diversity, from isolation to integration in the worldwide system of nations. By comparison, Ashfield seemed caught in a time-warp. In the eighteenth century, it was a typical New England village: rural, agricultural, mostly Yankee, largely isolated from currents sweeping...

  8. Part II: Tales of Modern Governance

    • 5 Town Hall and Town Meeting
      (pp. 117-124)

      At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there were 351 municipalities in Massachusetts, 312 of them incorporated as towns, 39 as cities. The cities and many of the larger towns no longer use the classical town-meeting form. Forty-two towns have representative town meetings; nine elect town councils. Five of those nine with town councils also have town managers; four elect a mayor to work with the town council. But of the 312 towns in the commonwealth, 261 of them, including Ashfield, still make laws and appropriate money at a meeting where all adult citizens legally resident in town are eligible...

    • 6 Tinkering with the System
      (pp. 125-134)

      My wife, Molly, and I moved to Ashfield in 1983. Molly led a Girl Scout troop, and we occasionally attended a local church (we remained active members of a church in Northampton), but otherwise we were not much involved in town affairs. We lived just around the corner from Elmer’s Country Store, then a grocery store and butcher shop located on Main Street (which is part of Route 116 as it passes through town). The proprietors, Jack and Lisa Mattis, became good friends and were an inexhaustible source of local lore and good-natured gossip. Jack’s father, to hear Jack tell...

    • 7 Building a Sewer System
      (pp. 135-162)

      In 1962 Rachel Carson publishedSilent Spring, the call that quickened the modern environmental movement. Three years earlier, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health had taken some samples from the South River, a small stream that runs through the center of Ashfield and then through neighboring Conway, where it flows into the Deerfield River and on to the Connecticut River, one of New England’s principal sources of fresh water. Analysis of the samples found a high coliform bacteria count—not surprising, considering that several houses and stores in the town center, not to mention the town’s primary school, the fire...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 8 Controlling the Police
      (pp. 163-177)

      Max Weber defines a state as an organization that has a “monopoly of legitimate violence” over a particular territory.¹ Citizens of a democracy like to think of government in a softer way: we establish government to form a more perfect union, to provide for the common welfare. Weber, in his mordant way (like Thomas Hobbes), focuses hard on the first responsibility of any government: security. People’s capacity for goodness makes compassionate government possible, but people’s inclination to evil makes strong law enforcement necessary.² Democrats cannot escape the disagreeable truth: governments are necessarily coercive.

      In larger polities, democracies deal with the...

    • 9 Educating Children
      (pp. 178-201)

      The purpose of this book is to assess the performance of a small town in the pursuit and exercise of democracy. Most of the book supports the argument that local people, operating through democratic assemblies, are capable of self-government. Education is at least a partial exception—no small concession.

      The education of its children is the most important thing a community does together. It is certainly the most expensive. School budgets consume over half of the money the voters of Ashfield appropriate at each annual meeting. In 2005, for example, citizens voted to spend nearly $2 million to pay for...

    • 10 Finally, a Town Common
      (pp. 202-210)

      Our final story deals with citizens in Ashfield considering whether a democracy ought to impose on itself an ordinance that limits its own powers in a certain area.

      At the turn of the millennium Ashfield had no town common. For several decades we had been using two acres or so of private land on Main Street, next to Town Hall, rent free, for festivals and other public events. This property was made available to us by the remarkable generosity of its owners, the O’Donnell family, and it disguised the fact that Ashfield had no common.

      In chapters 2 and 3...

  9. Conclusion: Implications for Democratic Practice and Theory
    (pp. 211-226)

    In the introduction, setting up the argument of this book, I used Tocqueville’s concept of the “point of departure.” The origins of New England in colonial America included two important aspects: the physical situation (remote, hard, dangerous) and the cultural inheritance of the settlers (Protestant, self-reliant, egalitarian, law-abiding).

    In this setting and from these elements, colonial New Englanders fashioned a way of governing themselves that centered on a particular set of institutions, namely, town meeting and a select board. In much of New England, particularly in the cities of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, population growth eventually forced citizens to...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 227-252)
  11. Index
    (pp. 253-261)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 262-263)