“Hear ye, hear ye!” A gavel slams and a New England town meeting beings. Town meetings have been a New England institution since the seventeenth century. At these meetings, voters elect officials, approve local laws, and levy taxes on themselves. Thus colonists began a strong tradition of self-rule and community responsibility that has continued to the present day.
Town meetings were held at least once a year and were attended by each town’s “freemen”---male property owners. The election of the town officials usually came from prosperous, highly respected families. But all the men in the community were expected to take a turn at some public office---constable, tax collector, fence inspector, or hog reeve (the catcher of runaway pigs).
After the election, the freemen would debate other issues such as proposed new laws, taxes, and public projects. Town meetings served to nourish the New England colonists’ passion for democracy. Not surprisingly, they soon began to resent any interference from a distant king or country.
Today’s town meetings ramain the basic unit of self-government in many New England towns. One major change is that they are now attended by all registered voters, including women and people who don’t own property.
Because of population growth, some towns have “representative town meetings” with attendees elected by their neighbors.