I thought it was some archaic ritual, but they said it was the purest form of democracy. It was a Annual Town Meeting. No, it wasn’t the civilized sort of obscured politics of boroughs, mayors, and city councils I’d seen in New York or even Boston, where things happened in smokey rooms and offices. This was the vigorous, sharp-clawed, rip and tear, raw politics of small-town New England. The sweetest people in daily life, Grannies, got up and said awful things about the selectman. The moderator banged the gavel down hard three times and ordered the chief of police to remove a disorderly man pulled from the Meeting. I thought I knew something about the small town I was living in, but that first Town Meeting was a revelation.
First of all, everything seemed to be up for discussion. Parliamentary rules guided the Meeting, but in between the rules, there was ample space for innuendo, disputation, and the playing out of old grievances. It was a town of fewer than six hundred people, and about ninety percent were crammed into the meeting house, and they all had issues.
The Cap’n had tried to warn me. He’d pointed out that many of the Board of Selectmen were people “from away.” they’d moved into town over the past decades. As a result, they had few family ties to the local families and the town. Being naive about government, I asked why that was a plus. The Cap’n gave me that look he reserved for when he thought I was behaving like an ass. “Wes, there are about six hundred of us. Many families have been here since before the Mayflower was a silly idea of the Pilgrims. That’s a lot of history for nursing aggravation and dispute. Newcomers have no ties; they’re bound to be fairer.”
I was trained as an anthropologist, a surgical technician, a woodworker, and a folksinger. I had traveled widely. I could tell you what a dermatome was, why the size of a kerf on a saw was important, and parse the circle of fifths in music. I had met all sorts of people in my travels and seen many interesting things, but the Town Meeting was a unique nonpareil sort of thing. It had formal ritualized aspects mixed with just a touch of blood sport.
Critical documents were involved; the annual Town Report and the Warrant. The Town Report chronicled the activities of Town Committees, expenses, and government happenings throughout the year. You coud find rows of past Town Reports in homes.
The Warrant was another sort of beast. It outlined all the Articles that needed to be voted for. This was where the blood sport entered the picture. Individual articles got discussed in detail before balloting. This was where personality, family vendetta, and personal belief intersected and clashed. A two hundred dollar item for the library could be a half-hour of vicious back and forth.
At the end of the Meeting, I noticed many residents tearing up the Warrant, walking out, and talking amiably with those they had been in a violent dispute with an hour ago. Turning to the Cap’n, I asked how this could be so? Why didn’t they elect a mayor and a council to get the work done? Why this annual brawl. The Cap’n quickly told me to shut up before I was overheard. The Town Meeting was the primary underlying civic structure of small-town New England. ” We wouldn’t be who we are without it.”
I rapidly wrote my notes on the Meeting and started thinking about how I could describe it to my professors and in my thesis. What I found most amazing was that so much agreement and unity had come out of such vigorous dispute.
All these years after, and many Town Meetings later, I am still amazed by the process but convinced that the Cap’n was right. It is an underlying civic structure in New England, and its shadow extends even over the larger towns and cities that have moved beyond it.