We have all been taught that the Puritans arrived in the New World to escape religious persecution in the old one. Specifically, English Puritans sought to free themselves from the official Church of England, established by Tudor King Henry VIII in the mid-16th Century and firmly embedded in the governance of Britain.
Ironically, it did not take too long for the Puritans here to engage in some religious intolerance of their own, new churches and new towns founded throughout New England as the result of disagreements on how the Puritan dream of the City on the Hill should be realized. The early Puritans were led by men who understood fully the impact of the Protestant reformation and the freedom of the New World: if you didn’t like the way your neighbors worshipped God, you simply left (assuming the neighbors didn’t kick you out first) and set up your own church two valleys away.
From the beginning, the well-educated religious leaders of New England understood as well the need for a separation of church and state. One of the earliest Europeans to articulate this was Roger Williams, Cambridge alumnus, tutor of John Milton, and founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1636. For Williams, it was just as much about protecting the church as the state, and not wishing to have the evolution of an official church to the exclusion of any others arising in New England as it had in Olde England.
It was in this context that the New England Town Meeting came to be, a society with strong religious beliefs evolving equally strong commitment to civic community.
Many of the institutions of town government in Milton date back to the earliest days of European settlement. A decree for Town Meeting can be found in October of 1636. By the following year, a grouping of ten men met regularly to carry on the affairs of the town, what little European population that existed at the time mostly in what is now Milton Village, then a part of Dorchester. By 1644 these men were referred to by the name they are known today, the Selectmen. Three years previously in 1641 the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Body of Liberties directed that all men were free to attend Town Meeting, although by 1664 there was a property requirement of £20 in assets to vote. Property requirements for voting were abolished in the Commonwealth in 1820.
When Milton was still part of Dorchester, as early as 1645 several ancestral posts to current offices are already in place. According to the historical record, in that year there exists a Moderator to run Town Meeting with all comments directed toward him, a Recorder or Town Clerk, and a group of three Town Assessors.
Many appointed officers of the Town have come and gone in the ensuing time. In the 17th Century the Town required a Bailiff to execute the orders of the Selectmen, later replaced by Constables to keep the peace and to collect taxes directly from residents upon the warrant of the Selectmen, often an unpleasant duty in which they could be held personally responsible for any uncollected sums. At the behest of the General Court in 1679 all Massachusetts towns elected Tithing-men to inspect licensed houses of entertainment, enforce the observance of the Sabbath Laws (the forerunners of the now-antiquated Blue Laws), and to curtail drinking, swearing, and the entertaining of “out-of-town” guests, all unsurprising concerns to a Puritan community. Fence Viewers to ensure the proper maintenance of property fences, Hog Reeves to oversee the yoking and ringing of pigs, and a Clerk of the Market to regulate a fair price to be charged for bread are also no longer with us.
In the 17th Century, only freemen could vote and hold property, and in almost all cases freemen would also be members of the local church in their towns as civic participation and faith were intrinsically linked. This began to change slowly during the 18th Century, and for Milton the final decoupling of the Congregational Church away from its direct role in the Town happened in the early 19th Century as the faith-based Puritan Colonies had become a more secular United States. The offices of the Tithing-men, for instance, were dispensed with in 1835.
Town Meeting took place at the Meeting House from the earliest days to 1835, at which point the building became the property of the Unitarian Church, which then refused to allow its use to the Town. After an interim period of town business conducted at temporary locations, a Town House was built in 1837 on the site of the present Town Hall. Town Hall was erected in 1878, still remembered by many residents of Milton today. It was demolished in 1970 after the current building was completed adjacent to the old one.
As the Town grew and evolved with the new nation, there also grew the need for various committees, which had been occasional advisory bodies, to become more permanent fixtures with set responsibilities. The first formal School Committee was established in 1826. Auditors and been appointed sporadically but left no records, but by 1838 a report of the financial activities of the Town was published, now our Town Warrant today. A committee of finance was established in 1841, and in 1887 the current Warrant Committee came into being.
But through all this Town Meeting itself remained the final arbiter of policy decisions within the Town of Milton. This most direct example of popular control of resources and action has apparently had great effect in strengthening democracy.
Town Meetings played a central role during the revolutionary period, and in many cases the forum for discussion at Town Meeting provided the wellspring for ideas embodied in the Suffolk Resolves, and the impetus to form the Continental Congress.
According to a metric devised by Tom Rice of the University of Iowa and Alexander Sumberg of the University of Vermont in 1997, the six New England states were among the top ten in the nation for what the authors deemed civic culture, with the states of Vermont and Massachusetts respectively nos. one and two. Causality is always difficult to prove in such matters, but it’s probably not a coincidence that the tradition of Town Meeting in New England has led to a higher rate of participation in democratic process for those states.
The Town Meeting in Milton has existed for three and three-quarters centuries, longer than the town itself. It has weathered the transformation of Milton from a small village of Puritan settlers through the War for Independence and a subsequent Industrial Revolution, the adoption of first precinct voting in 1924 and then the representational town meeting system in 1928, and to its current suburban population of 27,003 as of 2010. Edward Pierce Hamilton, the writer of a history of Milton published in 1957 five years before the Milton 300th anniversary, said this about Town Meeting:
“No form of local government could be better than that in which each year the citizenry assemble, elect their executive officers for the following year, instruct them in those cases which they see fit, decide how much money shall be spent for various operations, and tax themselves for the total sum. In theory it is simple, sane, and logical, and in practice it has worked for almost three centuries while Milton has grown from a hamlet of a handful of families to a town of many thousands.”
Words of wisdom as true today as they were 55 years ago.
Edward Pierce Hamilton, A History of Milton. Milton: Milton Historical Society, 1957. Quote from
Johnson, Trustman, and Wadsworth, Town Meeting Time. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1962.
Frank M. Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2004. Rice-Sumberg metric from page 290.
The above article was provided by Paul Pasquerella.