Town Meeting in History
Town meeting—the act of a group of individuals gathering together to make decisions—can be traced to the 1630s. Town meeting finds its roots in the earliest New England settlements, when towns people assembled to discuss and decide upon all matters that impacted the community. Records show that town meeting was a serious matter: attendance was mandatory—not only was it expected and required, failure to attend was punishable by a fine.
In New Hampshire, town meeting dates to the earliest settlements of Dover and Portsmouth in 1623. Records of the time are scarce, but there is little doubt that the business of the town was discussed collectively by settlers and likely in the town meeting style of gathering. The first formal town government in New Hampshire did not appear until 1639, in Exeter, followed by Dover and Portsmouth in 1641.
As settlements grew larger and evolved into more formal government structures, residents opted for fewer meetings. Evidence exists to show that in the early days, towns people gathered at regularly scheduled weekly meetings, gradually moving toward a monthly or as needed schedule. Zimmerman cites that Cambridge, Massachusetts records show that on December 24, 1632, participants established the monthly meeting as the standard. The concept of annual meeting evolved not long afterwards, and in 1663, Watertown, Massachusetts was the first to move to an annual meeting.
As town meeting evolved and colonists became more empowered by their government, it was increasingly seen as a threat to Britain. Town meeting fueled the spark that ultimately led to the American Revolution, and was lauded and studied for more than a century to follow. Elevated by the great writers and scholars of the day, town meeting represented the best of American government. Henry David Thoreau called it “the true Congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States."