Town meeting and grassroots democracy

New England’s annual town meetings are often hailed as an epitome of participatory democracy, but I have yet to hear an examination of how they mutated from the original Congregational churches’ model of self-governance, back when the town and Puritan parish were one.

As long as voting on town affairs was limited only to males in good standing with the local congregation, up to two-thirds of a town’s households were excluded from the deliberations.

In New Hampshire, that wasn’t the case, even after Massachusetts annexed the colony. What happened then, I’ll venture, is that the Quakers and Baptists tempered the deliberations in the future Granite State in ways that eventually seeped elsewhere.

Quakers, or more formally Friends, served as a loyal opposition, one that wouldn’t take up arms in its cause but that would nonetheless hold firm to its convictions. Like the Baptists, they also believed in a separation of church and state.

The Quaker practice of conducting community business in a monthly session meant seeking unity on an issue without ever taking a vote. A vote, after all, would create a minority. Instead, when differences arose, due consideration might produce a synthesis – not a compromise. The former would be superior to either of the earlier positions. The latter would mean settling on the lowest common denominator.

Crucial to this process was the Meeting’s clerk, carefully listening to all involved.

A skillful town moderator, so I’ve heard, needs similar abilities.

I’m curious to hear how this played out in Rhode Island and on the Cape, where Friends and Baptists were also an influence.

Do note, the Puritan colonies had none of the toleration of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York to the south and west, yet they lacked the town meeting heritage.

I do want to hear more.

 

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