New England Town Meetings


Town Meeting

by Norman Rockwell, 1943

The New England town meeting and school district meeting are the only direct democracy institutions in the United States involving lawmaking by assembled voters. Law making by assembled adult males dates to the age of Pericles in Greece in the fifth century B.C. However, today,  the only other assembled voters' lawmaking body is the Landsgemeinde in a handful of Swiss cantons.

The first recorded gathering of voters in America took place in Dorchester, MA in 1633.The gist of this historic first was that the townsmen, by vote, agreed to meet at regular intervals to see to the "good and well ordering of the affayres of the Plantation." Soon after, the greater Boston area had begun adopting the process

Proponents of the town assembly emphasize that it is the purest form of democracy that ensures that all policy decisions are in the public interest since no intermediaries are placed between the voters and the public decisions.

Critics of the institution claim that, in practice it is not the purest form of democracy. They point to low turnout of registered voters, and the alleged domination of the meetings by special interest groups. James Madison, a critic of town meetings, wrote in The Federalist Number 55, "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."

Studies of New England town meetings have shown that such gatherings cease to be effective for large populations. They may work in communities of a few hundred, but when the population reaches the many thousands, attendance drops and the connection to citizens is not vigorous.