Democracy in Action: The Time-Honored Tradition of New England Town Meetings

As sure as the snows melt, maple sap flows and the birds fly north to build their nests, the coming of spring in New England wouldn’t be complete without the annual Town Meeting. Join the Mountain Farmgirl for some old-fashioned Democracy in Action …

It all gets done in a day … or an evening to be more precise. Although it’s often a L—O—N--G evening at that, sometimes stretching till the wee hours of the morning. But on a specially ordained day in the month of March, comes the opportunity for Town Business all across New England to get done in one fell swoop … and it’s accomplished NOT by our elected representatives, but  ‘Of the People, By the People, and For the People’ in a distinctly old-fashioned way … one which our Founding Fathers (and Mothers!) would most definitely approve. I’m not saying it’s easy; far from it! Issues here can be as hotly debated as they were at the original Constitutional Convention. 

The evening begins with a charming ‘Town Social’ consisting of coffee, tea, desserts and neighborly chat that gets served to – and by -- our town citizenry before the start of  ‘Meeting’. But once that gavel hits the podium, social niceties take a temporary back seat to the important business at hand. Everyone has one object in mind: getting down to the serious task of running our town and making decisions that will affect us all in the coming year. We’re Yankees after all … some of us from families as old as the hills, others of us more recent transplants, here by choice. But something in the crisp mountain air and the sparkling waters of New England makes Yankee blood flow in our veins no matter what our origins. The next several hours of Town Meeting will typify the hard work, ingenuity, practicality, independence and community spirit that the term ‘Yankee’ brings to mind. In the process, tempers may flare (… MAY, you say??!!!), and sparks fly (oh, yeah)… but by the end of a very long night every voter will have had a say in where and how their money will be spent, and decide important issues from education, to road repair, to whether a new town building should be built … and everything imaginable in-between. There will be issues for the common good, and also plenty of personal agendas … but it will all get addressed and sorted out tonight. Then suddenly, business taken care of for another year, friends and neighbors shake one another’s hands, help put away the chairs and escort one another out to their cars. ‘See you at the Garden Club on Monday’, ‘Are you coming to Janet’s 98th birthday party?’ ‘Wait … I’ve got that book you lent me out in the car’… and life is back to ‘normal’, the heated ‘discussions’ of moments before mostly forgotten.  Of course the meeting will be talked about for weeks over cups of coffee at the local cafe, and discussed endlessly at the Post Office in the spring-like days ahead, but for all intents and purposes, ‘Town Meeting’ is over until next year.


What is this wondrous institution that dates back to the founding and shaping of our country, and survives in some fortunate geographical sections of it to this very day?Town Meetings are the purest form of democracy in action, as citizens gather together to discuss issues and debate various matters that impact their personal lives and communities. Originally formed for protection as well as governance, they evolved to cover all aspects of life and commerce affecting each town. There has been some speculations that as populations continue to grow, such forums will become too cumbersome to remain practicable, and will one day be in danger of extinction. I pray this never happens; it would be a grievous loss to the democratic process, but one can see how limited meeting space, as well as the time it takes for many citizens to express and debate personal opinions could reach impracticality when very large groups of people are involved. Just try debating a hot topic even amongst a few family members or friends and see what happens … then multiply that a hundred fold!  This is a recipe for some excitement, I can tell you!

The earliest town meetings – the act of individuals gathering together to make local decisions -- can be traced back to the early 1600s, and it was a responsibility that was taken very seriously. Attendance by citizens was not only mandatory back then, but failure to attend was punishable by fine. Then as now, decisions made by the people instantly became local law. As settlements grew larger, residents opted for fewer meetings. Weekly or ‘as needed’ meetings gave way to monthly ones at first, and soon afterward the concept of the Annual Meeting evolved and has remained to this day. Call it colorful, charming, quintessentially American, or ‘high drama’ … it is anything but dull!  Come with me to see one in action.


Before we go to meeting, let me first introduce you to my little town:  Jackson, NH. I love my town. LOVE it, do you hear?!!!  Yankee Magazine has named it one of the ‘Top Ten Most Romantic Villages in the Northeast.’  National Geographic just called our White Mountain area ‘One of the World’s Top 25 Ski Areas’. Recently I saw a TV interview clip where someone likened Jackson to the beauty inside a snow globe … bit I’ve also heard it referred to as ‘Norman Rockwell-ville’ and a ‘Living Currier and Ives painting’ … all of which are true.  Tonight I am walking through all these beautiful images over to the Jackson Community Center, taking “the Loop”, a 1 ½  mile long sidewalk that encircles the town. We’ll start out from my inn, walking through the covered bridge and work our way around the village green. You can see our tall, white church steeple in the background. We pass by the new library, (the old one, a charmer – having become too small) – on the way to our destination, the Jackson Community Center. Up until a few years ago, Town Meeting was always held at the Town Hall. On years when controversial items were on the Agenda, people burst the seams of this little structure, lining up all the way out the door into the parking lot … myself among them.  All three of these buildings (old Library, new library, Town Hall and Community Center) have been the hotbed focus of discussions at town meetings in years past. When our oldest resident died at age 102 a few years ago, she left money to build this new Community Center … but with the best location for it being the site of our oldest town structure, a beautiful post and beam barn, some tough decisions had to be made. The historical society finally agreed to have it taken down and preserved, using its posts and beams for the structure of the new library. These are the sorts of important decisions that get made by each of us at Town Meeting, after arduous, hot-and-heavy debates.  So Farmgirls … let’s ‘Go to Meetin’!’ 


We’ll continue our walk past the Town Offices, Police Station, some interesting local businesses, the Grammar School and Post Office, and we are now nearly there.  Cars are EVERYWHERE … parked wherever they can find a space. Town Meeting is about to begin.


We’ve arrived as the refreshment hour is winding down.  There is a flurry of clean-up in the kitchen, while someone brings in one last tray of brownies and sets up extra chairs around the perimeter of the room. It is going to be a full house, and by the start of the meeting there is ‘Standing Room Only’. Our local policemen are in full force; Karl, Sean and Doug all lending a touch of authority and decorum to the evening, a uniformed, visible reminder to ‘mind our P’s and Q’s’. At 7 pm sharp, the gavel hits the table and the Meeting has begun.
The evening starts off with everyone standing and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a chorus of God Bless America. Someone in the audience hits a high harmony at the end, and clapping ensues. This hymn always gives me goosebumps, maybe because our family had an old 45 rpm recording of it, sung by my grandmother.  She had copies made for her twin sons, my dad and my Uncle Bruce, when they enlisted in the Army during WWII.  Her voice quavered as she sang; I’ve always loved it. Next, a moment of silence is observed to remember those who have departed from our numbers during the past year. After a prayer in which God is lovingly and unashamedly invoked, it ends with a resounding AMEN.  Police Chief Meyers reminds everyone that tonight many issues will be discussed , some of them highly charged topics, and we must conduct ourselves with professionalism, dignity and respect. That said, we then get down to brass tacks. First on the agenda is approving the budget.

We are a small town, but our annual budget takes up more than 18 pages in the 90 page Annual Report, a spiral-bound booklet given to each resident on every aspect of running our town. In it, each and every detail may be questioned, debated, discussed and voted on in the course of the evening – some of it rather fiercely.  But when it finally comes time for the vote, the budget passes unanimously. A minor miracle!

The hotly debated issue this year involved whether or not ‘to repeal the town selectmen’s process for the enforcement of state building codes until a time that the required provisions of law enforcement are adopted by our legislative body’.  At first glance that seems like a no-brainer, but it has so many convoluted complications and complexities that everyone, even the Town Attorney, feels that much of it is subject to various and sundry conflicting interpretations of the law. I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ novel Bleak House, where a case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce has been so hotly debated for generations that no one remembers the actual facts. This case may be a close cousin; the citizens discuss the facts with circular reasoning to get to the pith of the situation until I am totally confused.  I am not alone it seems, but after more than an hour of discussion, Article 5 is approved.

Also approved is an article that appropriates money to have selectmen’s meetings broadcast live over the internet and be downloadable, rather than paying to have it aired on cable. Open communication is key here in Jackson. We also have a town eNews service started by local citizens and run entirely on a volunteer basis. It consists of email notices that go out daily or on an as-needed basis, informing us of what is going on in all aspects of town life.
After 3 ½ hours, town business wraps up for another year. As heated as it sometimes gets, it is still very efficient and grass-roots. Every penny spent is examined, then approved or rejected. I am reminded how effective this would be on a wider level.  What if our elected representatives down in Washington knew that ‘We, The People’ would be scrutinizing our tax dollar expenditures?  Things like their salaries, vacations, travel and meal expenditures, and endless handouts and bailouts  would require some accountability to those of us footing the bill. In reading old minutes of town meetings, there were always welfare issues to consider. Mostly, people just helped their neighbors when times got tough, knowing that some day the tables might be turned and they themselves might be in need of a temporary helping hand until they could get back on their feet.  The Golden Rule is a good law to live by ... and it works!   For more chronic issues of homelessness and poverty, however, towns ‘adopted’ individuals or families, who were put up in the homes of local volunteers. Basic costs for their upkeep were appropriated by the citizens at Town Meeting. In this situation, no one ‘took advantage’ or tried to milk the system because the system was YOU or YOUR NEIGHBORS … everyone was held accountable. Somehow in the ‘big picture’ our society got away from accountability. But the pendulum swings … and this might be just the form of government we need today in our local, state and federal governments, don’t you think?  I believe that the basic concepts of Town Meetings would make sense in the sinking ship that is our modern society.

Until next time, Mountain Bounty, Mountain Blessings from Cathi
The Mountain Farmgirl





By: Nancy
On: 03/30/2012 18:46:33
Cathi, what a candid snapshot of this time-honored tradition! It's so nice to hear of a community working together.

By: Luanne
On: 04/02/2012 12:10:56
Loved the article about town meeting. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, Town Meeting Day was a big event, just as it still is in Jackson. I still remember my first town meeting when I was old enough to vote - it felt like such an honor to sit in the real voting section and be counted.I now live in PA, and truly miss our old fashioned down home Town Meetin's!
By: Anne Meurer
On: 04/02/2012 13:27:52
Hi Cathi -- Just reading your town meeting notes --Takes me WAY back (I'm 84) to Falmouth on Cape Cod, during the 30's and 40's, when my dad was town moderator. The old card table was set up in the living room, and all of the pre-published articles to be considered were cut out from the Enterprise. Then pasted individually on index cards, for him to use during the meeting. I remember my mother and father talking later about the scraps and resolutions of the meeting. Dad somehow managed to keep things from getting out of hand completely. When he died, many folks mentioned his long service to the town. Thanks for taking me back.

The rest is "whisper" for you. Love your blog, and the great pix of Jackson. Every summer my dad drove us (my mother and brother and me) from Falmouth to Ticonderoga to visit our grandparents. My favorite parts of the trip were hopefully getting to drive through a covered bridge, driving the mountain roads of NH, twisting along side of creeks and trees, and sometimes the one-car ferry ride across Lake Champlain. Great memories. The best to you and thanks for your column. Anne
By: Russ Raines
On: 04/04/2012 12:08:45
One could only dream of a place like that. It is hard to imagine that it still exists today. I am from Cordele, Ga and as a child (66 now) we never locked the doors of our house even when we went on vacations for 2 weeks. Every single time you passed a car both cars waved at one another no matter how many cars were in the other lane. Life was so simple back then. I wonder what will happen to our country when all the baby boomers die out. How sad a thought of when there is no one to remember those wonderfull simpler times.

Leave a comment

Commenting is restricted to registered users only. Please register or login now to submit a comment.

Cathi Belcher

Cathi Belcher,
an old-fashioned farmgirl with a pioneer spirit, lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. As a “lifelong learner” in the “Live-Free-or-Die” state, she fiercely values self-reliance, independence, freedom, and fresh mountain air. Married to her childhood sweetheart of 40+ years (a few of them “uphill climbs”), she’s had plenty of time to reinvent herself. From museum curator, restaurant owner, homeschool mom/conference speaker, to post-and-beam house builder and entrepreneur, she’s also a multi-media artist, with an obsession for off-grid living and alternative housing. Cathi owns and operates a 32-room mountain lodge. Her specialty has evolved to include “hermit hospitality” at her rustic cabin in the mountains, where she offers weekend workshops of special interest to women.

“Mountains speak to my soul, and farming is an important part of my heritage. I want to pass on my love of these things to others through my writing. Living in the mountains has its own particular challenges, but I delight in turning them into opportunities from which we can all learn and grow.”

Column content copyright © 2010– Cathi Belcher. All rights reserved.

Mountain Bounty

“Keep close to Nature’s heart ... and break clear away once in awhile to climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods, to wash your spirit clean.”
– John Muir