A TOWN MEETING is an annual assembly where the citizens of that town elect officials, vote on a budget for the upcoming year, and take up any other matters that may come before the town. Details may vary from town to town and state to state, but typically a minimum of thirty days before the town meeting, town officials announce the date, time, and location of the meeting as well as the issues that will be addressed. Participation and voting are open to all residents of the town who are legal voters. A moderator is elected to run the town meeting, and the usual business consists of hearing and approving reports from various town officials, electing or reelecting new officials, and approving a budget.
This description makes the work of the town meeting sound prosaic and routine. This is a reasonable conclusion to draw. Sometimes there are divisive issues and heated debate, but a town meeting functions very much like any other deliberative body. The work of the town meeting is important on a local level but rarely exciting. What has made the town meeting compelling to generations of observers comes not in the work it does but in who does the work. Virtually every other deliberative body uses elected representatives selected by voters, but the town meeting is a legislative body open to any legal voter within the jurisdiction. At a town meeting, each citizen represents him or herself, and thus the town meeting functions as direct democracy. The town meeting does away with the abstractions inherent in almost any other form of democracy.
In states that employ town meetings, investment in the notion of the town meeting as an ideal form of democracy runs deep. The Vermont secretary of state’s website contains a variety of resources to help towns run their meetings. It includes the following greeting: “Town meeting happens every year on the first Tuesday in March. A form of government that exists nowhere else in the world outside of New England, town meeting involves direct citizen lawmaking—true government by the governed. We should feel lucky to live in a place with this unique kind of local government, and community, and we should all do our best to take part.” As the secretary of state’s comment points out, one of the peculiarities of the town meeting is that it is a form of government almost entirely limited to smaller communities in New England.
Even so, this notion that the town meeting as a form of government is somehow truer than other forms is present in this state official’s welcome as well as in scholarship on the town meeting. Frank Bryan’s 2010 monograph on the New England town meeting is called “Real Democracy.” Bryan writes as a political scientist but also reveals a significant personal investment in the New England town meeting. Bryan’s introduction offers a chorus of voices praising this political form, from Timothy Dwight to Alexis de Tocqueville to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Charles Kuralt. And the inclusion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent his exile from the Soviet Union in the small Vermont town of Cavendish, gives a sense of both the range and the limits of the observers who have recorded their regard for the town meeting as practiced in America. In her account of the town meeting ideal and its impact on the nineteenth-century novelist and lawyer Albion Tourgée, Sandra Gustafson describes a character’s observation in Bricks Without Straw, one of Tourgée’s Reconstruction novels: “The presence and absence of the town-meeting . . . in the North and the South constituted a difference not less vital than that of slavery itself.” Gustafson points out that John Dewey also deemed the New England style of town meeting a fundamental component of U.S. democracy.
Among these august comments about the town meeting, Tocqueville’s observations carry the extra weight of appearing in a classic book on the subject of democracy itself. In this context, it is worth pausing to recall that before democracy was something the United States embraced to the degree that it now occasionally feels obliged to “spread democracy” by force to other nations, democracy was an ideal many leaders regarded with a great deal more ambivalence. The 1669 Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina drafted by John Locke states “that we may avoid a numerous democracy” as one of its reasons for existing. In his less well-known response to Abigail Adams’s famous “Remember the Ladies” letter, John Adams responds, “As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where . . . I begin to think the Ministry as deep as they are wicked. After stirring up Tories, Landjobbers, Trimmers, Bigots, Canadians, Indians, Negroes, Hanoverians, Hessians, Russians, Irish Roman Catholicks, Scotch Renegadoes, at last they have stimulated the[m] to demand new Priviledges and threaten to rebell.” Adams’s response blends affectionate whimsy with entrenched misogyny, but in his concern about a surplus of democracy, he expresses anxiety that any number of people groups unlike himself are demanding the privilege of self-representation.
Adams’s response does suggest one of the persistent limitations of the town meeting as an idealized political form—it has flourished in places that are both rural and overwhelmingly white. In his 1940 celebration of the town meeting, John Gould could write, “Probably the greatest hindrance in New England to continued success with Town Meeting is the influx of strangers—which works in two ways. Many mill towns have received outlanders who speak different languages—and whose nationality and make-up is immediately at odds with Town Meeting traditions. French-Canadians, for example, are fine people—but in politics they organize almost solidly. Organization and Town Meeting are, politically, North and South.”
Immediate and direct democracy is untenable in governmental units above a certain small size, and many New England towns have literally outgrown the town meeting. Given the kind of population densities present where a town meeting is a workable form of government, landownership is almost a de facto prerequisite for participating in a town meeting. It is complex to answer how and why the town meeting took hold in the northeast but was not something New England emigrants often brought with them to new settlements as a form of government. But its roots are in the disparate models of settler colonialism deployed in different colonies and extending to the vagaries of internal U.S. migration. Indeed, there is some irony that the aesthetics of the town meeting have been appropriated in so many contexts, while the town meeting itself is a political institution that does not seem to travel well outside of rural New England.
Tocqueville was fascinated by the town meeting as he encountered it in the United States and was surprised not to find it further disseminated. It might be overstating the case to say that it took a French aristocrat to give American democracy a good name, but Tocqueville’s Democracy in America does serve as a useful monument for U.S. writers who want to celebrate the United States and its institutions. As subsequent observers have pointed out, Tocqueville does make a point of celebrating the town, and particularly the town meeting, as constituted in New England. Tocqueville details at some length why he begins his survey of U.S. government institutions at the local, rather than national, level: “It is not without intention that I begin this subject with the township. The village or township is the only association which is so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.”
The larger arc of Tocqueville’s project in Democracy in America is beyond our scope, but he does identify the town as its essential unit. In particular, he explains, “municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty.” For Tocqueville, the very act of participating in a town meeting teaches Americans how to be citizens of a democracy. Given the esteem that many generations of observers have held for Tocqueville, his valorization of the town meeting fulfills itself, to an extent. He does focus on the direct nature of the proceedings as crucial: “In New England the majority act by representatives in conducting the general business of the state. It is necessary that it should be so. But in the townships, where the legislative and administrative action of the government is nearer to the governed, the system of representation is not adopted. There is no municipal council; but the body of voters, after having chosen its magistrates, directs them in.” Tocqueville concludes his survey of New England town government with:
The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free: his co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interests, the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions. He takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms without which liberty can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights
Considering that Tocqueville construes the town meeting as one of the forces that makes American democracy exceptional, it is not surprising that some of Tocqueville’s later readers hold this work in very high esteem. As Harvey Mansfield and Delba Winthrop write in the introduction to their 2000 translation of Democracy in America, it is “at once the best book ever written on democracy, and the best book ever written on America . . . If the twentieth century has been an American century, it is because the work of America—not altogether unsuccessful—has been to keep democracy strong where it is alive, and to promote it where it is weak or nonexistent.” There are other ways one might choose to characterize the relation of democracy and America in the twentieth century. But this fond recollection of Tocqueville’s observations puts the trio of democracy, America, and Tocqueville in a sort of mutual admiration society, and the town meeting emerges as a powerful talisman of this mutual admiration. In Donald Robinson’s recent monograph Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England, he takes Tocqueville’s unfinished business as its warrant: “From his sources in Boston, Tocqueville had gotten the impression that the practices he found in New England had migrated westward, as pioneers from New England moved to the frontier. Alas, by the time he reached Cincinnati a month later, he began to realize that was not true. . . . Now he wished he had studied more carefully the principles, forms, and methods of action” he had found in the towns of New England. That is exactly my goal in the pages that follow.
Robinson is not alone in seeing Tocqueville as a guiding light for American democracy. As Donald Pease details in The New American Exceptionalism, Tocqueville becomes something like the brand name for American democracy among certain commentators. In a 1998 piece in The New Republic titled “Tocqueville and the Mullah,” the journal responded to a CNN interview where Iranian president Mohammad Khatami invoked a number of cherished icons of American political life to suggest that, perhaps, the United States and Iran were not so different. The response of The New Republic seems to suggest that the Iranian president should take Tocqueville’s name out of his mouth. More generally, though, Pease points out, “From the time of its initial publication in 1835, Democracy in America supplied the concepts, generalizations, and categories out of which U.S. citizens were encouraged to experience and make sense of U.S. democracy.” (100) As such, Tocqueville’s valorization of the town meeting works beyond reasonable expectations as an endorsement that generations of scholars take very seriously.
In the mid-twentieth century, the notion of the town meeting as a fundamental expression of U.S. democracy got a boost from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Norman Rockwell. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech is popularly known as the Four Freedoms speech. Less than a year before the United States would enter World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt confronted the looming threats facing the world and reaffirmed a commitment to four freedoms available to all the citizens of the world. As he detailed:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings, which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
In 1943, the Saturday Evening Post commissioned Norman Rockwell to illustrate these freedoms in four paintings, which would then be accompanied by four essays from different authors. Freedom of Speech appeared on February 20, 1943, portraying a scene from a New England town meeting and accompanied by an essay by Booth Tarkington. In this painting, Rockwell illustrates Roosevelt’s idea of global freedom through a small assemblage of white U.S. citizens. Some Rockwell scholars, however, have observed tension in the painting. The figure standing to speak is wearing clothes that mark him as working class, and he is surrounded by men in suits and ties. It is possible to read the image as another instance of the narcissism of small differences of whiteness, but it does form an iconic image that connects the New England town meeting to a U.S. president’s vision of worldwide freedoms. Soon after, these images were enlisted to promote the sale of war bonds. The deployment of the Rockwell posters as part of a national war bond campaign put forth the argument that the New England town meeting represented and embodied the national interest. If World War II was a war to save democracy, then these posters nationalized a very particular form of this democracy to generate financial support for this war. In 1993, the United States Postal Service used images from the Four Freedoms series for a set of four postage stamps. Indeed, the iconic nature of Rockwell’s painting has a curiously recursive character. In a 2017 article on the current state of the town meeting in the Vermont alt-weekly Seven Days, the lede was: “Town meeting in Kirby resembles an animated version of a Norman Rockwell painting. About 80 residents—of the town’s total population of 493—sat side-by-side Tuesday in wooden pews and on metal folding chairs as Republican former state legislator John McClaughry presided over his 51st consecutive Kirby town meeting.”
The Saturday Evening Post was not the only organ of U.S. conventional wisdom making an ideological investment in the town meeting during World War II. In 1945, Time ran a feature titled “Town Meeting Time” that opened like this: “It was fine town-meeting weather. The roads were passable. Spring was on its way. The good citizens of New Hampshire met, as they have every spring for 150 years or more, to elect the township officers, approve or amend the budgets, define the general policy of 224 towns for the coming year. It was the purest and the oldest manifestation of democracy in the U.S.” In the Cold War era, this national interest of the New England town meeting continued, as Newsweek checked in on the recent round of town meetings in the April 4, 1966, issue. In an article titled “New England: Basic Democracy,” the magazine shared highlights of deliberations in New London, New Hampshire, and in Harwich and Marblehead, Massachusetts, concluding with a quotation from the Massachusetts assistant attorney general charged with overseeing town meeting law: “The town meeting has endured because it is a very good form of government.” National Geographic featured scenes from New England town meetings from 1968 in Dresden, Maine, 1974 in Burke, Vermont, and 1992 from the town of Gostnold on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts. The 1974 scene from Vermont is especially compelling. In the original article, an image is captioned, “Under a canvas sky, the Burke town meeting pledges allegiance before getting down to business. In speak-your-mind democracy, all can have their say, and most do.”
If these accounts render the persistent ideological and affective investment in the town meeting as a hallmark of American democracy in aestheticized form, it is worth clarifying some of the salient features of the town meeting, especially because these are the aspects that tend to vanish as we shift to the town hall meeting. Participants at a town meeting deliberate over questions that that body has jurisdiction over, including which officials to elect, how much to budget for roads, and a host of other local political questions. But the important point is that the power and authority for the decision remain with the people present in the room when the town meeting happens. One useful way to differentiate between a town meeting and town hall meetings in their various forms is to consider the parliamentary structure of a town meeting. A town meeting is a proceeding governed by a form of parliamentary procedure, such as the practices codified in Robert’s Rules of Order. Parliamentary procedure as a form makes sense for a deliberating body that has jurisdiction as well as the power to tax and spend. At the same time, parliamentary procedure does not make much sense for a town hall meeting, which is either a time for people to air their grievances or a unilateral announcement from an institution to an assembly of people.
The underlying principle of parliamentary procedure is to facilitate a process that respects the rights of both the majority and the minority, ensuring that debate over the matter at hand proceeds in an orderly fashion. The basis of this procedure comes in the form of the motion, where a member of the assembly proposes an action for the assembly to debate. The motion is made and then is either seconded or not. If it is seconded, the motion is up for debate. There is then a period of debate when the chair recognizes members of the assembly who indicate they wish to speak by raising their hands. A member of the assembly can then move to table or call the motion to a vote. If the member has called for the latter, the assembly votes if they wish to vote on the present motion or to continue debate. When the assembly votes to vote on the motion, a voice vote, show of hands, or paper ballot can be used to tally the votes. Not every meeting governed by the rules of parliamentary procedure, more commonly referred to as “Robert’s Rules of Order,” has full jurisdictional power over every issue it takes up. Faculty meetings, for instance, are usually governed by some form of Robert’s Rules, and these bodies often deliberate questions that are ultimately the province of a dean or provost to decide. However, the absence of parliamentary procedure for a so-called town hall meeting does suggest that the body of people assembled does not have jurisdictional power. When, for instance, congresspeople return to their home districts to hold “town hall meetings” with constituents, it is impossible to imagine an incumbent senator taking motions from an audience packed with disgruntled constituents.
When thinking about these various permutations of the town hall meeting, it is helpful to recall the temporality of deliberative rhetoric, which is concerned with things in the future, as opposed to forensic rhetoric, which makes claims about things in the past. A town meeting addresses the future—budget, elections, and maintenance. Conversely, a town hall meeting can be forensic in nature, as leaders of a collegiate or corporate community respond to an event of concern to that population. A corporate or collegiate town hall meeting that addresses things in the future, while articulating a course of action that has already been determined, complicates this taxonomy of the deliberative and forensic. This may explain why these events are popular with political, corporate, and collegiate leaders. Simply by virtue of the name, town hall meetings about things that have happened in the past or have already been decided for the future offer attendees an illusion of deliberative power that they do not, in fact, have.
Alongside the fundamental abstraction of using the language of “town hall meetings,” the physical structures of town halls also play a role in the abstraction of a town meeting or town hall meeting. Town meetings usually, but not always, take place in buildings called “town halls.” Town hall structures are public buildings that have other uses the 364 days of the year when they are not used for town meetings. The physical space of the town hall can host any number of events: public lectures, AA meetings, Jazzercise classes, auctions for the volunteer fire department, and so on. The pattern of abstraction works something like this: there are public gatherings that happen in town halls that are not town meetings culminating in elections and a budget. These meetings are sometimes called “town hall meetings” for the logical reason that they take place at a town hall. This is a tautology, but any gathering that takes place in a town hall has something of the flavor of a town meeting about it, which helps explain their appeal to campaigning and elected officials. A rally for a presidential candidate is one thing, but a town hall meeting with the same candidate often produces stronger feelings of engagement for attendees. At the next stage of abstraction, gatherings can take place in town halls even though they are not town meetings, just like town halls can be held in spaces that are not physical town halls. Patrick Wolfe famously defines settler colonialism as a structure, not an event. This distinction is useful for thinking about town halls, a phrase that names both structures and events. As such, “town hall” exists in contemporary culture as a signifier that floats untethered from both the structure of the town hall and the function of the town meeting. It can be deployed to name almost any kind of gathering whose organizers want to give an audience the feeling of meaningful participation. Thus, at one end of this series of abstractions, there are moments like, “Escape to Margaritaville mastermind Jimmy Buffett and Hamilton impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda have teamed up for an Escape to Margaritaville town hall conversation that will begin airing today on Sirius/XM.” Needless to say, Margaritaville is not a democracy.
Only a fool would attempt to register to vote in the Margaritaville elections. Yet the phrase “town hall conversation” is symptomatic of the work of the town hall meeting, which is to offer conversation in place of a sovereign, deliberative, democratic process that culminates in a vote. Conversation is important, but as John Pat Leary has detailed, “conversation” becomes a way to describe how institutions manage relations with their constituents in a way that divests constituents of power. In what follows, we will trace the various forms these managed conversations can take and consider what impact these burgeoning abstractions of the democratic process might have on democracy itself.