posted May 2004


19th century literature

from The Bay State Monthly. A Massachusetts Magazine.
Boston: John N. McClintock and Company
Vol. I, No. V. May 1884. pages 284-290

issue contents:
Chester Alan Arthur. by Ben: Perley Poor. (with steel engraving.) page 265
Yesterday. by Kate L. Brown. p 277
The Boundary Lines of Old Groton.I.  by the Hon. Samuel Abbott Green, M.D. (with map) p 278
The New England Town-house. by J.B. Sewall. p 284
Bunker Hill. by General Henry B. Carrington, U.S.A., LL.D (with map). p 290
The Young Men's Christian Association of Massachusetts. by Russell Sturgis, Jr. p 302
Town and City Histories. by Robert Luce. p 306
publishers' department. p 328


By J. B. Sewall.

    A recollection of my boyhood is a large unpainted barnlike building standing at a point where three roads met at about the centre of the town. When all the inhabitants of the town were of one faith religiously, or at least the minority were not strong enough to divide from the majority, and one meeting-house served the purposes of all, this was the meeting-house. To this, the double line of windows all round, broken by the long round-topped window midway on the back side, and the two-storied vestibule on the front, and, more than all, the old pulpit still remaining within, with the sounding-board suspended above it, bore witness. Here assembled every spring, at the March meeting, the voters of the town, to elect their selectmen and other townofficers for the ensuing year, to vote what moneys should be raised for the repair of roads, bridges, maintaining the poor, etc., and take any other action their well-being as a community demanded ; in the autumn, to cast their votes for state representative, national representative, governor of the State, or President of the United States, one or all together, as the case might be.

    Many such town-houses, probably, are standing to-day in the New England States, — I know there are such in Maine,— and they are existing witnesses to what was generally the fact: towns, at the first, when young and small, built the meeting-house for two purposes; first, for use as a house of worship; second, for town meetings; and when in process of time a new church or churches

The New England Town-House.        285

were built for the better accommodation of the people, or because different denominations had come into existence, or because the young people wanted a smarter building with a steeple, white paint, green blinds, and a bell, the old building was sold to the town for purely town purposes.

    When the settlements were made, the first public building erected was generally the meeting-house, and this in the case of the earlier settlements was very soon. In Plymouth, the first building was a house twenty feet square for a storehouse and "for common occupation," then their separate dwellings.

    The "common" building was used for religious and other meetings until the meeting-house with its platform on top for cannon, on Burial Hill, was built in 1622. "Boston seems to have had no special building for public worship until, during the year 1632, was erected the small thatched-roof, one-story building which stood on State Street, where Brazer's building now stands." * This was in the second year, the settlement having been made in the autumn of 1630. In Charlestown, "The Great House," the first building erected that could be called a house, was first used as the official residence of the governor, and the sessions of the Court of Assistants appear to have been held in it until the removal to Boston, but when the church was formed, in 1632, it was used for a meeting-house.

    Dorchester had the first meetinghouse in the Bay, built in 1631, the next year after settlement, and by the famous order passed "mooneday eighth of October, 1633," it appears that it was the regular meeting-place of the inhabitants of the plantation for general purposes. The Lynn church was formed in 1632, and the meeting-house appears to have been built soon after, and was used for town meetings till 1806. It was the same in towns of later settlement. In Brunswick, Maine, which became a township in 1717, the first public building was the meetinghouse, and this also was the town-house for almost one hundred years. Belfast, Maine, incorporated in 1773, held its first two town meetings in a private house, afterwards, for eighteen years, "at the Common on the South end of No. 26" (house lot),+ whether under cover or in open air is not known, after that, in the meeting-house generally, till the town hall was built. In Harpswell, Maine, the old meeting-house, like that described, when abandoned as a house of worship, was sold to the town for one hundred dollars and is still in use as a town-house.

    The town-house, therefore, though it cannot strictly be said to have been coeval with the town, was essentially so, the meeting-house being generally the first public building, and used equally for town meetings and public worship.

    How early, then, was the town ? When the settlement at Plymouth took place, in one sense a town existed at once. It was a collection of families living in neighborhood and united by the bonds of mutual obligation common in similar English communities. But it was a town as yet only in that sense. In fact, it was a state. The words of the compact signed on board the Mayflower were, in part: "We, whose names are underwritten .... do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another,

* Memorial History of Boston, vol. i, p. 119.
+ Williamson's History of Belfast.

The New England Town-House.            286

covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation, . . . and by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame such just and equal laws, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony ; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience."

    These words were the constitution of more than a town government. They erected a democratic state — a commonwealth. It was a general government separate from and above the town governments which were afterwards, instituted. It enacted general laws by an assembly of deputies in which the eight plantations in the colony, which afterwards became towns, were represented. These laws were executed by a governor and an assistant, and were of equal binding force in all the plantations after, as well as before, these plantations became towns.

    The Massachusetts Colony came over as a corporation with a royal charter which gave power to the freemen of the company to elect a governor, deputy-governor, and assistants, and "make laws and ordinances, not repugnant to the laws of England, for their own benefit and the government of persons inhabiting their territory." The colonists divided themselves into plantations, part at Naumkeag (Salem), at Mishawum (Charlestown), at Dorchester, Boston, Watertown, Roxbury, Mystic, and Saugus (Lynn), and while the General Court, as the governor, deputy-governor, and assistants were called, made general "laws and ordinances " for the whole, the plantations were at liberty to manage their own particular affairs as they pleased. They called meetings and took action by themselves, as at Watertown, when, in 1632, the people assembled and expressed their discontent with a tax laid by the court, and at Dorchester as previously referred to. To Dorchester, however, belongs the honor of leading the way to that form of town government which has prevailed in New England ever since. It came about in this way. The settlement was begun in June, 1630, and for more than three years the people seem to have managed their affairs under the administration of the Court of Assistants by means of meetings. At such a meeting, held October 8, 1633, it was ordered "for the generall good and well ordering of the affaires of the plantation," that there should be a general meeting of the inhabitants at the meeting-house every Monday morning before the court, which was four times a year, or became so the next year, "to settle & sett downe such orders as may tend to the general good as aforesayd, & every man to be bound thereby without gainsaying or resistance." This very interesting order is given entire in the Memorial History of Boston.* There were also appointed twelve selectmen, "who were to hold monthly meetings, & whose orders were binding when confirmed by the Plantation."

    Here was our New England town almost exactly as it is to-day. The inhabitants met at stated times and voted what seemed necessary for their own local order and welfare, and committed the execution of their will to twelve selectmen, who were to meet monthly. Our towns now have an annual meeting for the same purpose, and elect generally three selectmen, who meet at stated times,—sometimes as often as once a week. Watertown

*Vol. i, p. 427.

The New England Town-House.            287

followed, about the same time, selecting three men " for the ordering of public affairs." Boston appears to have done the same thing in 1634, and Charlestown in the following year, the latter being the first to give the name Selectmen to the persons so chosen, a name which soon was generally adopted and has since remained.

    The reason of this action it is easy to conjecture, but it is fully stated in the order of the inhabitants of Charlestown at the meeting in which lhe action for the government of the town by selectmen was taken : "In consideration of the great trouble and charge of the inhabitants of Charlestown by reason of the frequent meeting of the townsmen in general, and that, by reason of many men meeting, things were not so easily brought into a joint issue ; it is therefore agreed, by the said townsmen, jointly, that these eleven men . . . shall entreat of all such business as shall concern the townsmen, the choice of officers excepted ; and what they or the greater part of them shall conclude of, the rest of the town willingly to submit unto as their own proper act, and these eleven to continue in this employment for one year next ensuing the date hereof."

    Town government, thus instituted, was recognized the next year — 1636 — by the General Court, and thereafter the towns were corporations lawfully existing and endowed with certain fixed though limited powers.

    The plantations of the Plymouth Colony followed the example. In 1637, Duxbury was incorporated, and at the General Court of the colony, in 1639, deputies were in attendance from seven towns.

    "Thus," says. Judge Parker,* " there grew up a system of government embracing two jurisdictions, administered by the same people ; the Colonial government, having jurisdiction over the whole colony, administered by the great body of the freemen, through officers elected and appointed by them; and the town governments, having limited local jurisdiction, such as was conceded to them by the Colonial government, administered by the inhabitants, through officers and agents chosen by them."

    By this change, — the invention of the colonists themselves without copy or pattern, — the colonies were transformed from pure democracies into a congeries of democratic republics; and each town-house, or whatever building was used for such, became the State-house of a little republic. And this is what it is in every New England town to-day.

    Was not, then, the New England town-house a thing of inheritance at all? Yes, so far as it was a building for the common meeting of the inhabitants of the town, and so far as it was a place for free discussion and the ordering of purely local affairs. The colonists came from their English homes already familiar with the town-hall and its uses so far. If one will turn to any gazetteer or encyclopaedia which gives a description of Liverpool, England, he will find the town-hall described as one of the noble edifices of that town. The present structure was opened in 1754, but it was the successor of others, the first of which must have dated back somewhere near the time when King John gave the town its charter—1207. Or he may turn to the town of Hythe in the county of Kent. In its corporation records, it is said, is the following.entry,

* Origin, Organization, etc., of the Towns of New England.

The New England Town-House.            288

bearing date in the year 1399: "Thomas Goodeall came before the jurats in the common hall on the 10th day of October, and covenanted to give for his freedom 20d., and so he was received and sworn to bear fealty to our Lord the King and his successors, and to the commonalty and liberty of the port of Hethe, and to render faithful account of his lots and scots* as freeman there are wont." In another entry, in the same year, the building is mentioned again as the "Common House."

    We may go further back than this. History tells us that "the boroughs (towns) of England, during the period of oppression, after the Norman invasion, led the way in the silent growth and elevation of the English people; that, unnoticed and despised by prelate and noble, they had alone preserved the full tradition of Teutonic liberty; that, by their traders and shopkeepers, the rights of self-government, of free speech in free meeting, of equal justice by one's equals, were brought safely across the ages of Norman tyranny."! The rights of self-government and free speech in free meeting, then, were rights and practices of our Anglo-Saxon ancestry, and we are to go back with them across the English channel to their barbarian German home, and to the people described by Tacitus in his Germania, for the origin, as far as we can trace it, of this part of our inheritance. These people were famed for their spirit of independence and freedom. The mass are described as freemen, voting together in the great assemblies of the tribe, and choosing their own leaders or kings from the class of nobles, who were nobles not as constituting a distinct and privileged caste. " It was their greater estates and the greater consequence which accompanied these that marked their rank." When we first learn of these assemblies, they are out-of-doors, under the broad canopy of heaven alone, but the time came, as the rathhaus of the German town to-day attests, when they built the common hall or town-house ; and we, to-day, in this remote and then unknown and unconjectured land of the West, are in this regard their heirs as well as descendants.++

    In what, then, is the New England town-house more than, or different from, the English town-house ? In this, that it is the state-house of a little democratic republic which came into existence of and by itself of a natural necessity, and not merely governs itself, making all the laws of local need and executing them — levying taxes, maintaining schools, and taking charge of its own poor, of roads, bridges, and all matters pertaining to the health, peace, and safety of all within its bounds, in a word, all things which it can do for itself, — but also in confederation with other little democratic republics has called into being, and clothed with all the power it has for those matters of common need which the town cannot do, the State. The State of Massachusetts, from the day that the people created the General Court the body it still is, by electing deputies from the towns, — representatives we now call them, — to sit instead of the whole body of freemen, with the governor and

*The "lot "was the obligation to perform the public services which might fall to the inhabitants by due rotation. " Scot" means tax.

+ Green's Short History of the English People, chap, ii, sec. 6.

++The present rathhaus of the quaint old city of Nuremberg, built in 1619, is a notable building, much visited by travelers. Around the wall of the hall within runs the legend: " Eins manns red ist eine halbe red, man soil die teyl verhören bed,"-- " One man's talk is a half talk; one should hear both sides."

The New England Town-House.            289

council, for the performance of all acts of legislation for the common good, is the outgrowth of and exists only by virtue of the towns. The towns created it, compose it, send up to it its heart-and-life blood. This it is which makes the New England town unique, attracting the attention and interest of intelligent foreigners who visit our shores. Judge Parker says: "I very well recollect the curiosity expressed by some of the gentlemen in the suite of Lafayette, on his visit to this country in 1825, respecting these town organizations and their powers and operations." In the same connection he adds that "a careful examination of the history of the New England towns will show that,"instead of being modeled after the town of our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, or the free cities of the continent of the twelfth century, "they were not founded or modeled on precedent" at all. Mr. E. A. Freeman, however, puts it more truthfully in saying: "The circumstances of New England called the primitive assembly (that is, the Homeric agora, Athenian ekklesia, Roman comitia, Swiss landesgemeinde, English folk-moot) again into being, when in the older England it was well-nigh forgotten. What in Switzerland was a survival was in New England rather a revival." *

    Our New England town-house, therefore, is a symbol of institutions, partly original with our fathers, partly a priceless inheritance from Old England the land of our fathers, and nearly in the whole, if not quite, a regermination and new growth of old race instincts and practices on a new soil.

    The New England town is not an institution of all the States, but its principle has invaded the majority. To the West and Northwest it has been carried by the New Englander himself, and is being carried by him both directly and indirectly into the South and Southwest, and will show there in no great length of time its prevailing and vitalizing power.

    It was Jefferson, himself a Virginian, reared in the midst of another system, aristocratical and central in its character, who said : "These wards, called townships in New England, are the vital principle of their governments, and have proved themselves the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation."

    The New England town-house, therefore, is significant of more than its predecessor in England or Germany. While with them it means freedom in the management of local affairs, beyond them it means a relation to the State and the National government which they did not. It means not merely a broad basis for the general government in the people, that the people are the reason and remote source of governing power, but that they are themselves the governors. Every man who enters a New England town-house and casts his vote knows that that expression of his will is a force which reaches, or may reach, the Legislature of his State, the governor in his chair, the National Congress, and the President in the White House at Washington. He feels an interest therefore, and a responsibility which the voter in no other land in the world feels, and the town-house is an education to him in the art of self-government which no other country affords, and because of it the town is an institution teaching how to maintain government, local,

*Introduction to American Institutional History. Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science.

Bunker Hill.            290

state, and general, and so bases that government in self-interest and beneficial experience, that it is a pledge of security and perpetuity as regards socialism, communism, and as it would seem every other revolutionary influence from within. It is in strong contrast with the commune of France. France is divided for the purposes of local government into departments; departments into arrondissements; and arrondissements into communes, the commune being the administrative unit. The department is governed by a prefet and a conseil-général, the préfet being appointed by the central government and directly under its control, and the conseil-général an elective body. The arrondissement is presided over by a sous-préfet and an elective council. The commune is governed by a maire and a conseil-municipal. The conseil-municipal is an elective body, but its duties " consist in assisting and to some extent controlling the maire, and in the management of the communal affairs," but the maire is appointed by the central government and is liable to suspension by the préfet.

    The relation of the citizen to the general government in France is therefore totally different from that of the citizen of the United States to his general government, and the town organization is a school of free citizenship which the commune is not, and so far republican institutions in America have a guaranty which in France they have not.