Mudgett: Town Meeting Tradition

Mar 2, 2015

Every year the Vermont press run the Town Meeting Day stories: reports in which community tradition and the democratic process are juxtaposed against the obligations of modern life and the efficiency of Australian ballot. The tone is one of loss - Town Meeting Day in danger of dying off, Vermont fighting to hold on: It’s all highly self-reflective and anxious.

But for most of Vermont’s history, townspeople like farm laborer Erastus Williams attended town meeting without worrying too much about what it all meant. On March 6, 1832 Williams recorded the words “Town Meeting” in his diary to document his participation. Such brevity was typical of nineteenth-century diaries, though Williams elaborated two years later when he decided to skip town meeting, felt guilty about it, but reasoned, “I guess they will do their business just as well without me, and I guess too, that they would…if 6 or 8 others stay at home.”

Now, I faithfully attend my town meeting, so I’m amused to think the “6 or 8 others” Williams was talking about are the people who take multiple turns speaking, slow things down, and sometimes make a fuss – though for me town meeting is boring without those people. Sure, you move quickly through the articles, but there’s too much consensus, too much procedural smoothness.

100 years after Williams skipped his town meeting, government photographer Marion Post Wolcott had new, twentieth-century reasons to photograph town meeting in Woodstock. Americans had survived the Depression, were soon to enter a new world war, and were hungry for images of human perseverance, for the quiet integrity of the individual as seen through the lens of participatory democracy. Her photographs, like Norman Rockwell’s iconic portrayal of the freedom of speech at town meeting, both filled a need and popularized particular ideas about what town meeting meant. At the end of World War II, the U.S. Army was so impressed by Vermont’s rural decision-making process that it produced a short film titled A Town Solves a Problem, aimed at instilling democracy in war-torn Europe through a storyline about Vermonters who assemble at town meeting to decide how to provide hot lunch for the town’s students.

Sure, mid-twentieth-century Vermonters could still be annoyed with their neighbors - might still believe that town meeting would run more smoothly if “6 or 8” townspeople stayed home - but that sentiment tended to get buried under earnest rhetoric about the exceptionalism of Vermont traditions. Americans had turned their gaze inward on town meeting itself, and Vermonters have been anxiously focused on the health of their cherished gathering ever since.