Place  /  Explainer

“The Town Was Us”

How the New England town became the mythical landscape of American democracy.
The Springfield News Company/Places

Unlike other theoretical principles of democracy — for instance, representative assemblies, checks and balances, or constitutional rights — the town’s relationship to political theory was unique in that it referred to a place as much as to an institution, or, more specifically, to the unification of geography and polity. In its original sense, the town was a settlement unit adapted for the ecological and economic conditions of small-scale colonial agriculture in the New England environment. But upon this material geography, the town stacked layers of legal and associative power; it was a jurisdiction as well as a social bloc. It therefore expressed an attitude often assumed but rarely made explicit in theories of democracy: the self in self-government is constituted geographically.

The town in the early American republic was seen by thinkers such as Jefferson and de Tocqueville as part of the dawning democratic experiment. But by the later 19th century, as industrial expansion and waves of migration roiled the structures of American social and political life, the town came to express a two-faced orientation towards history, conjoining an imagined idealization of the past with normative templates for dealing with the crises of modernity. Different interpretations of this history were invoked by different political movements. For some racial purists and cultural conservatives, the town offered a retrograde vision of exclusionary harmony. For others, such as socialists who believed in re-establishing the primacy of political power over economic life, the self-governed town seemed like the seedbed of a radical tradition in American history, an alternative to frontier exploitation and cowboy capitalism.

An 1875 lecture by Arnold Green, a lawyer in Providence, Rhode Island, called the township “New England’s gift to the nation.” Celebrating the town’s role in promoting democratic habits, Green argued that the settlers who established this version of local incorporation had drawn on ancient ideas about civic participation; the town settlers, he said, had “wrought these ideas into their young societies and used them in colonial organization as unconsciously as they used their language.” 6 George Perkins Marsh, the polymath who would later become one of the first American environmentalists with his studies of deforestation, wrote in 1843 that “the true ends of society and human government” had been “first and most perfectly realized by the communities of New England.”

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