|Title||Town Meeting in Quabbin, Reminiscence|
|Author||Francis W. Underwood|
|Type||Primary Sources: Reminiscence|
Francis Underwood was a lawyer, editor and writer who had grown up in the small Massachusetts town of Enfield. Recalling his youth years later, he wrote Quabbin: The Story of a Small Town, which carefully and accurately described life in rural New England in the early nineteenth century. One of the subjects that particularly interested him was town government.
Excerpted from Quabbin, The Story of a Small Town by Francis Underwood
A “town” in Massachusetts is a small republic, or a corporation erected by statute in certain fixed limits, and exercising powers established and defined by a general law… “Township” is not a native term, and, so far as it has any meaning in Massachusetts, refers to the territory of a town. The town…maintains within its boundaries roads, bridges, and schools, and supports its poor, if there should be any having a legal settlement*. Formerly it was obliged to provide for the military drill and equipment of its able-bodied citizens of legal age. Formerly, also, it elected the minister, voted his salary, and raised the amount by taxation, like other town charges*; for in early times the town and parish were one. Later, the notion of the town was that of a corporation for civil purposes; and of the parish, a corporation for religious purposes; in many cases both corporations covered the same area. If a town was large and became populous, it might be divided (for religious purposes solely) into two or more parishes. A “church” means such persons as have made a prescribed profession of faith and experience, and have united under a covenant*. A church-member, unless non-resident, was necessarily a member of the parish, but the reverse was not necessary.
Every inhabitant used to be assessed by the authorities of the town for civil purposes, and of the parish for religious purposes. In earlier times, and while the town and parish were virtually one, there was no exception to this rule; but after a time the law allowed a man to sever his connection with the parish, without changing his residence, if he could show that he was taxed for the support of worship elsewhere. Unbelievers and dissidents, sixty years ago, considered the compulsory support of the gospel an oppression; and there was no end of wrath and profanity about it, until at length the voluntary system was established by law, and the final divorce of church and state accomplished*. That, one would think, was the “Emancipation of Massachusetts.”
Most well-disposed people paid the “minister tax” whether they went to meeting or not. To withdraw was called “signing-off,”—a bull in terms, but a proceeding perfectly understood,—and was considered disreputable, unless prompted by religious conviction. Many members of the parish were not church-members, although they might regularly attend meeting. When the bi-monthly communion was to be celebrated, non church-members usually left the meeting-house after sermon.
The parish and church voted separately upon the calling of a minister, and upon the amount of his salary. Differences often occurred, and, even when the two bodies agreed, there was a third power to be consulted, namely an ecclesiastical council, composed of minister and delegates from neighboring churches, whose approval was considered necessary in later times. A minister’s first settlement was an “ordination;” a subsequent one an “installation.”
So Quabbin sixty years ago [in the 1830s] was a duplex republic; an organized democracy in civil affairs, and a religious corporation in its other aspect. In the annual town-meeting, and in the parish-meeting, every man had his voice and his vote. There was (and still is) no rank or primacy except from known ability and worth. With characteristic simplicity the chief officers of a town were styled the “Selectmen,” and, with a view of restraining loquacity* and personalities, the chairman, chosen for each occasion, was termed the “Moderator.” There were also chosen each year a School Committee, Overseers of the Poor, Town Clerk, Treasurer, and Surveyors of Highways.
The first business in order was the presentation of reports of town officers for the year then ending. These were read, discussed, and acted upon, and their recommendations submitted to a vote. Appropriations were then made for the various town charges, after which the officers for the coming year were elected by ballot…The moderator ruled upon the admissibility of motions, and the order of precedence, in case more than one was made at the same time. He knew the “p’ints [points] of order,” and promptly decided what question was rightfully before the meeting. Any one aggrieved by his decision might appeal to the meeting, which sustained or reversed his ruling by a majority vote. Probably there is nowhere a body of men better trained to public service than the voters of New England, and of those States that have followed the same methods…The state of schools, roads, bridges, and the town accounts, with all that concerns public order and well-being, were discussed by and in presence of those vitally interested. Whoever had anything to say, said it; and practice made speech pointed and effective. It was fact to fact and man to man…
This simple and automatic machine, with the general education and moral training which then came into being, was the sure foundation of personal liberty and free government. Every voter was in effect a member of a committee of supervision upon all matters which concerned him. By himself, or by a known and accepted proxy*, he managed the schools, kept order, repressed evil-doers, and maintained highways. It was to his own nominee that he paid the taxes he had assisted in levying; no stranger came to take his hard earned money. His trusted neighbor was the justice before whom he could plead his cause. The law was not a distant or distrusted power; its force was exercised for him in so far as he was just…Why should he not cheerfully obey, since the precepts were of his own making, and the instruments of justice named by his own voice?…
There are people who are reasonably intelligent, and yet are unable to listen to opinions and arguments which they do not approve. At the appearance of a leader of a party opposed to theirs, and often at the bare mention of his name, they burst forth in imprecations*, hootings, and yells, and endeavor to drown the speaker’s voice and break up the meeting. Others still more violent use missiles* and clubs, so that bandages, eye shades, and sticking-plaster become necessities for a candidate’s outfit. Such men would need some preliminary education before they could take part in the business of a deliberative body. The people of New England have not been without blame in this respect…but in town meetings the decorum observed, even in the sharpest contest, has been remarkable…
Quabbin, like other towns, had its stormy meetings; sometimes it was the town party, and sometime the country party that won; but in the long run justice was generally done. An instance of sharp practice may be mentioned:—
A wealthy and prominent citizen, who was a leading church-member, and vehemently* disliked by the people of the outlying districts, made a motion at one meeting that the authorities be instructed to close a certain road that was little used. He said nothing in support of his motion, and preserved an impassible look. A leading man in the country party was quick to see that the mover really wanted the road kept open, as it led to his own land. This man, therefore, promptly seconded the motion looking round keenly at his supporters in the rear of the hall. They were in full force that day, and the motion was carried by show of hands. The truth was, the mover had found that whatever he proposed was defeated, and, desiring to have this road maintained for his personal convenience, moved to discontinue it, and was caught in his own trap. It was a pity he resorted to a trick by which his influence was so much impaired…
Glossary*covenant - formal, solemn and binding agreement
*divorce of church and state - In 1833, the electorate approved the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It replaced Article III of the Declaration of Rights and brought about the disestablishment of the church in Massachusetts. Local governments were no longer directed by the state to maintain religious worship and raise monies by taxes for that purpose. In 1834 enabling legislation was enacted to put the Eleventh Amendment into effect.
*imprecations - curses
*legal settlement - legally established place of residence that allows the person certain rights and privileges
*loquacity - talkativeness
*missiles - objects that are thrown so as to strike something or someone
*precepts - laws
*proxy - a person authorized to act for another; representative
*town charges - costs or expenses to the town
*vehemently - strongly
SourceFrancis H. Underwood, Quabbin, The Story of a Small Town with Outlooks upon Puritan Life (Boston: Lee and Shepard Publishers, 1893), 133-140. Edited by Old Sturbridge Village.