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Town Meeting and the Revolution

03/05/07 12:00AM
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(HOST) When you participate in your local Town Meeting, commentator Neil Stout thinks you should take a moment to reflect on the fact that you're part of a long and glorious tradition.

(STOUT) Throughout New England's history, Town Meeting has been the primary unit of government and the collective voice of the people.

Town meetings gave colonial governors fits with resolutions and instructions to their representatives in the colonial assemblies against British legislation like the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Tea Act. More importantly, in 1772 the New England town meetings created Committees of Correspondence that coordinated resistance to Britain and became the framework of a revolutionary party.

The "Perfect Crisis" of the Revolution came after a kind of super town meeting of Boston and surrounding towns engineered the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773. Parliament responded with the "Coercive" or "Intolerable" Acts.

One of these was the Massachusetts Government Act, whose purpose, said Prime Minister Lord North, was "to take the executive power from the democratic part of Government." Among its provisions, town meetings could be held only once a year, just to elect officers and choose members of the House of Representatives. Other meetings would require the governor's written consent, and they could discuss only an approved agenda. North forgot he was dealing with a people who had 140 years experience with parliamentary procedure; they simply adjourned the town meeting from week to week, thus keeping the annual meeting going for a whole year. Town meetings throughout New England condemned the Coercive Acts. For example, Farmington, Connecticut, resolved "That those pimps and parasites who dared to advise their master to such detestable measures be held in utter abhorrence by us and every American and their names be loaded with the curses of all succeeding generations." They didn't say it was non-binding, either.

The Providence, Rhode Island, town meeting on May 17, 1774 issued the first call for a Continental Congress, our first national government. Most town meetings voted to send relief to Boston, and they put their militia companies in readiness, so that within twelve hours of Lexington, 20,000 troops from all over New England were marching on Boston.

Massachusetts had no legal government from the autumn of 1774 until several months after the Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775. The town meetings continued to keep the peace and collect taxes for the extra-legal Provincial Congress. The regular legislature resumed operations on July 20, 1775, but it was the towns, not the legislature, that instructed the delegates to the Continental Congress to vote for Independence. In that way, the independent United States of America was born in town meeting.

Neil Stout of Burlington is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont.

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