New England town meetings

From Anarchy In Action

It must be stated that at the outset that the colonial “New England” settlements were complicit in the dispossession and numerous massacres of indigenous peoples' land. Moreover, participation in communal decision-making was not extended to women, slaves, indentured servants, teenagers, or men without property or income. With these huge caveats, many anarchists have looked to the “New England” town meetings as a example of (exclusionary but) horizontal self-governance.

Settling in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the late 1620s and 1630s, the Puritans formed autonomous towns around their churches. Adult men with property or income could participate at the regularly held decision-making assemblies called town meetings. Constables had very limited power to perform police functions, and communities instead relied on decentralized sanctions such as disapproval and shunning.


“The Puritans who settled colonial New England were neither willing nor conscious bearers of the tradition of direct democracy,” writes the social ecologist scholar Janet Biehl.[1] The colonial culture was highly conformist and patriarchal. In fact, according to the historian Michael Zuckerman, one reason for the social cohesion of their communities was that people were “disciplined from childhood against dissent.”[2]

People who were free on paper to fully participate in town meetings were often more restricted in practice. Zuckerman explains, “[M]en might have been free in principle to speak as they pleased, but they were unlikely to exercise their legal prerogatives under the watchful eyes of employers, ministers, and other officials who could give or withhold essential assistance of many kinds. Most men could exercise the privileges of citizenship, but since they were accustomed to bow before their betters, the exercise was an empty one.”[3]


Voting at town meetings in eighteenth-century “Massachusetts” was restricted to property-owning men over twenty-one years old. The qualification for property ownership was minimal, with the result that, “If the democracy of adult males was something less than universal, it was not ‘’very much’’ less.”[4]

In each town, an elected selectboard facilitated the meetings. This board handled administrative tasks, and the town meetings could veto the selectmen’s proposals.[5]

People at the meetings aimed for consensus or at least near consensus, so that communal norms would be popularly followed and supported. Violation of a rule decided at a meeting was thus considered an act of significant deviance.[6] The meetings generally did not seek to impose controversial rules. Michael Zuckerman finds less than ten mentions of debate in half a century of town meeting records in Massachusetts.[7]


The “New England” settlers rapidly killed wildlife and deforested the region for agriculture and lumber. Colonists put a bounty on wolves and organized collective hunts against them. Henry David Thoreau once lamented the extermination of the region’s wildlife: “When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here,—the cougar, panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, deer, the beaver, the turkey, etc., etc.,—I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed, and, as it were, emasculated country.”[8]

The colonists’ destruction of forests had serious consequences, including floods and the drying of streams and springs. By the 1790s, the lack of forest cover led to the quicker melting of snow. Because this snow acted as a blanket for the soil, the faster melting caused the soil to freeze to new depths. The frozen soil was unable to retain groundwater of the melting snow, and consequently, there was more flooding. Additionally, deforestation led to a faster runoff of water since forests’ tree roots and unfrozen land had previously held spring water in place.[9]


Decentralized sanctions were the main response to crime. Because town meetings passed rules based on consensus or near consensus, violation was deemed a serious social taboo. Members of a town threatened a “withdrawal of fellowship” against people who committed crimes against other residents.[10]

Each eighteenth-century town in “Massachusetts” elected one or two constables to perform police functions. The constables were heavily accountable to communal opinion. Michael Zuckerman explains, “The constables were effectively powerless when people refused to obey them. The constables generally did not make unpopular arrests.”[11] “Colonial America, for example, had nothing like our modern police departments,” writes Kristian Williams in ‘’Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.’’.[12]

Additionally, towns would require adult men to participate in a night watch, during which time they would keep order, light street lamps, and put out fires.[13]

From Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism

The Puritans who settled colonial New England were neither willing nor conscious bearers of the tradition of direct democracy. The original generation who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1629 thought democracy was quite frankly immoral. John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, and his fellow congregants much preferred rule by the elect, by the “visible saints,” as they were called, who had supposedly enjoyed an epiphany of divine “grace.” Scripture seemed to them to dictate that the elect should rule through aristocracy or monarchy.

Nevertheless the New England Puritans practiced a religion, called Congregationalism, that was remarkably democratic. A form of English Protestantism that championed the autonomy of the individual congregation against all priests and bishops, Congregationalism was based on the idea that each congregation of worshippers was an autonomous compact unto itself, subordinate to no mortal person, that was to be guided only by Scripture. Thus Congregationalist Puritanism rejected all liturgical and ecclesiastical aspects of the Christian religion—that is, it rejected not only the Roman church but the Anglican, which shared many of the hierarchical features of Catholicism. Congregationalists relied instead on scripture, on their own private relationship with the divine, and on one another, unmediated by clergy, for the salvation of their souls. Binding themselves into covenanted communities in the New World, they promised to obey God and to look out for one another’s souls in a spirit of mutual fellowship.

As they settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s, the Congregational Puritans formed fairly autonomous towns, structured around their own self-gathered churches. Each congregation governed itself by a covenant that its members wrote together as a community. An embryonic democratic ideal thus informed the ethos of each congregation: That the entire congregation participated in group decisions implied democratic rule, and just as each congregation had made its own religious covenant, so too did each town make a town covenant by which it handled its temporal affairs.

Their town-planning practices reflected this orientation toward democratic community. The original group who founded a town would collectively receive from the colony itself a deed to the land, which they divided among themselves. Each male inhabitant was given a one-to-ten-acre plot of land as a freehold, on which he could support himself and his family. Land ownership was thus kept roughly egalitarian, and extremes of wealth and poverty were avoided for a considerable period of time. The town militias, to which all able-bodied male members of the community belonged, were products of the same egalitarian spirit, as they mustered in drills on the town green.

As for town government, the New Englanders established town meetings—general assemblies—that met on a regular basis to conduct the town’s affairs. The town meeting was essentially the religious congregation—With its insistence on a self-generated, autonomous covenant—reconstituted for dealing with civil affairs. Although the town meeting lacked any underpinning in democratic theory, it was astonishingly democratic in practice.

In theory only adult male churchmembers—those who had received “grace” and become “visible saints”—-were eligible to vote in town meetings. Nonchurchmembers could attend meetings and participate in the deliberations, but they were not permitted to share in actual decision-making. But the towns quickly found that it was simply not feasible to allow only a minority to occupy the political realm, and the religious qualification for voting became a dead letter. The franchise was widened to include all adult male inhabitants Who had some property or a regular income (20 pounds sterling, a relatively small sum), then finally any man Who simply swore an oath to the effect that he possessed the right amount of property. The New England political realm was thus increasingly opened to men who would have been excluded in almost every English borough and town—that is, to most male heads of household. Moreover, anyone Who could vote was also eligible to hold office. Contrary to the oligarchical prerogatives of England, officeholding in Massachusetts Bay was broadly elective rather than narrowly appointive.

The town meeting, held in Cambridge in 1632, was a monthly meeting called in order to make decisions about local problems. Soon other towns were holding similar meetings, and they were doing so as often as they deemed necessary. In 1635 the General Court—the government of the whole colony—statutorily recognized the town meeting as the supreme governing body in each town.

At first, the townspeople themselves were fairly passive about exercising the broad sovereign powers granted them both by the 1635 statute and by their existing situation. Their town meetings assembled infrequently, only a few times a year, and transacted only routine business when they did. Townspeople preferred to delegate their power to the selectmen—the handful of officials who made up the select board, the administrative arm of the town meeting.

Nothing in the colony’s legal code gave the selectmen greater or more powers than the town meeting itself—they were only supposed to carry out the decisions of the town meeting in between sessions. But in the first generation of settlement, the selectmen were religious elders or their secular equivalent—actually constituting a de facto aristocracy of “visible saints.” As a small group of seven to nine members, the select board could meet more frequently and more informally than the larger and hence more cumbersome town meetings, and they could make decisions more expeditiously, without having to consult many different individual points of view. The townspeople could have voted the selectmen out of office easily—their terms of office lasted only one year but in the early years the people were still deferential to the venerable men who had guided them to the new land and formed their religious covenant. Holding the selectmen in awe, they reelected them indefinitely year after year and allowed them to exercise the primary governing power, while the town meetings themselves acted as mere rubber stamps, out of reverence for their higher wisdom and experience.

Between 1680 and 1720, however, the town meetings gained the upper hand over the select boards, transforming town polities from de facto oligarchies into de facto democracies. After the original generation of selectmen died off, the second generation did not command the level of veneration that their predecessors had enjoyed; merely by virtue of their relative youth the new selectmen were less experienced and less awe-inspiring. Thenceforth the townspeople gradually took the policy-making initiative back from the select boards. Instead of meeting only a few times a year to ratify the selectmen’s decisions, the town meetings met more frequently—as often as they themselves felt was necessary, and they freely exercised their veto over the selectmen’s proposals instead of accepting them docilely. They now claimed in practice the power that they already possessed legally.

Ultimately the town meetings came completely into their own as decision-making bodies. They imposed taxes, spent money, authorized land divisions, settled title and land use disputes, approved immigrants, granted economic concessions, and gave permission for creating various economic enterprises, functioning as the towns’ economic planning boards. W1th the exercise of these expanding powers, debate and contention grew, and a new spirit of action and pride pervaded the meetings.

As for the colonywide government of Massachusetts Bay, each town sent delegates to the assembly in Boston. Early in the colony’s history, the delegates, like the selectmen, had been elders, and their actions in the capital had been above public scrutiny. But in later generations the town meetings took an acute interest in making certain that their delegates voted in Boston the way the public at home had instructed them: An elected committee in the town would draw up a set of instructions to the delegate, then debate and vote on them in the town meeting, whereupon the meetings would bind the delegate to vote accordingly. Under the injunction of such mandates, a deputy became a mere agent of citizens in their towns.

As a result of popular pressure after around 1700, the delegates to the Boston assembly were required to bring an account of each session back to their respective town meetings. In fact, at least one town even sent a guardian along with the delegate to make sure he behaved in accordance with the public’s mandate, and journals of the assembly were printed up precisely to publicize how delegates had voted. Finally, the election of deputies was annual—another powerful constraint on their power. (As John Adams would declare in 1776, “Where annual elections end, slavery begins”) By virtue of the towns’ strong control over the assembly, the Boston assembly was less a legislative body than a confederal council or congress.

For much of the eighteenth century the Massachusetts towns enjoyed an extraordinary degree of freedom, a degree of sovereignty remarkable for their era or any other, by any standard. Although the “confederal congress” in Boston passed laws that affected the towns, most towns obeyed them mainly at their own discretion. In fact, disobedience was flagrant: in eighteenth-century Massachusetts the towns were supreme, not only on paper but in practice.

This experience with local power gave the townspeople an entirely new orientation toward authority. Long before the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts towns were operating on the principle that the only legitimate government derives from the consent of the governed—indeed, that the only legitimate government was self-government. It was the direct democracy of the Massachusetts towns, with what became their radical political views, that the British crown found most intolerable, and after the Boston Tea Party one of London’s first acts was to pass a law shutting down the town meetings. It was an “intolerable act” that, given the self-sovereignty of the towns, could not supress their political practices, and their open defiance became a flashpoint for the revolt of all the American colonies against British rule.

In one of the ironies of history, the town meetings did not survive intact the revolution they did so much to generate; their power was eviscerated first by the State constitutions drawn up during the war and subsequently by the federal constitution. Although town meetings exist today, mainly in New England, the days when they were sovereign have long since passed into history.

  1. Janet Biehl, ‘’The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism’’ (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), 31.
  2. Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century’’ (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 93.
  3. Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 188-189.
  4. Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 191, 197.
  5. Biehl, ‘’The Politics of Social Ecology’’, 34.
  6. Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 93-94.
  7. Zuckerman, ‘’Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 105.
  8. William Cronon, ‘’Changes to the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England’’ (New York: Hill and Wang, 2003), 4, 132.
  9. Cronon, ‘’Changes to the Land’’, 108-109, 122-125.
  10. Zuckerman, ‘’Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 112.
  11. Zuckerman, ‘’Peaceable Kingdoms’’, 86-87.
  12. Kristian Williams, ‘’Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America’’ (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007), 27.
  13. Williams, ‘’Our Enemies in Blue’’, 35.