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Town and Town Meetings

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TOWN AND TOWN MEETINGS. In its broadest meaning the word town denotes simply a collection of houses without regard to the size of the collection and without regard to the form of its political organization. In this sense a hamlet without any governmental powers at all of its own may be referred to as a town and likewise a great municipality like New York or London may be thus desig nated. In some of the Southern and Western States ((town)) is the legal designation of a immicipal corporation whose powers are greater than those of a village and smaller than those of a city. In the New England States, while the word town is often used in a loose or broad sense, more frequently a town denotes a minor civil division (elsewhere called township) which is sometimes wholly rural, sometimes wholly urban and sometimes partly rural and partly urban. An advertised meeting of the voters of a New England town summoned for the con sideration of local business is called a town meeting.

The Pilgrim Fathers who settled at Ply mouth (1620) and the Puritans who settled (1628-30) at Salem and Boston began at once to develop a system of local government They settled in compact communities and gave the name town to the thicldy inhabited portion of a grant or purchase. The organization of the town was accomplished through the agency of a town meeting. The early settlers of New Eng land were equals in social rank; their average of intelligence was high; they were nearly equal in worldly possessions. Respecting mat ters of government, they were intensely dem ocratic and at the same time intensely theo cratic. They believed that the state should be a "city of God" and that authority in spiritual and temporal matters should flow from a com mon source. Accordingly their town meetings were religious assemblages acting as pure democracies, except in Rhode Island, where the civil authority did not interfere in matters of conscience. The meetings in colonies where the theocratic principle prevailed were usually held in a church, and all the male church members of the town who were of legal age could at tend and take part in the discussions and vote upon any question that might arise. The town was incorporated and its boundaries were de fined by the colonial legislature. It was then left to govern itself pretty much in its own way, providing, of course, it did nothing con trary to the laws of the colony. At first, while local government was getting under way, town tneetings were called every month or two. In Boston in 1635 10 general town meetings were held. The people soon found, however, that they could not give so much time to public affairs and it was not long before it became the custom to summon the town meeting but once in the year, provision being made for calling special meetings when there was need. The

town meetings elected such officers as were re quired for the management of local business and made such by-laws (town laws) as com mended themselves to the judgment of the com munity. For the management of the affairs of the town during the Interval between town meetings a board of townsmen, usually called selectmen, was elected. The number of select men in the earlier towns ranged from 3 to 13. These officers administered die finances of the town, appointed sundry subordinate officials, let out contracts for public work and exercised such powers as were necessary to secure and main tain the peace, safety, comfort and religious conformity of the people. As stewards of the people they gave to the town meeting an ac count of their stewardship in the form of an annual report. A town clerk, who acted as secretary of the meeting and who served as the recording officer of the town, and a con stable, whose duties, broadly speaking, were those of a peace officer, were always chosen. The selectmen, the clerk and the constable were the constitutive officers; no town was without them. Among other officers elected in the early town meetings may be mentioned the tithing man, a kind of Sunday constable, who saw that the people came to church and with fox-tail wand kept them awake during the sermon; the fence-viewer, who supervised the erection of boundary fences between adjoining owners; the hog-reeve, who saw that rings were kept in the noses of swine running at large; the field driver, who impounded stray cattle. Repre sentatives to the colonial legislature were also elected in town meeting. Besides electing town officers, the town meeting acted as a legislature for all matters of local concern. It levied the town taxes; it passed by-laws relating to the use of common fields and pastures; it made assignments oi lands to individuals; it pro vided for the management and support of the schools. In all New England colonies but Rhode Island it regulated and controlled all affairs connected with the church, subject to the superior authority of the colonial legisla ture. No detail of the civil or religious life of the community was too stnall for the attention of the town meeting. It prescribed the man ner in which the schoolmaster should use the rod; it directed the arrangement of seats in the church; it specified the hour of the day at which the woodman should begin to wield his axe.

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