[The following is a draft excerpt taken from a chapter on the late Maine writer, John Gould, from Moxie Matters: Life’s Beginnings in a Small Maine Town (RiverVision Press, 2008), the upcoming new book by Maine author, Jim Baumer.]
It’s fitting that John Gould’s first book would be about a venerable Yankee institution—the annual town meeting. This system of governance first originated during the period when Maine was a district of Massachusetts. Many communities operate under the town meeting form of government or a modified version of it. In Maine, the annual town meeting is traditionally held in March, or “mud season” as it was once known.
Prior to the book’s publication, there hadn’t been a book entirely devoted to the idiosyncrasies of the New England town meeting. Certainly, there had been accounts of meetings, in various locations, most notably in various town histories.
New England Town Meeting: Safeguard of Democracy came out in 1940, during “town meeting time,” as the opening page indicates. In the book, Gould chronicles the goings-and-comings of town meeting day in five communities—Freeport, Durham, Harpswell, Topsham, and Brunswick.Almost seventy years ago, town meeting took up the entire day and involved the whole family. The day started, just after chores and in some communities, the moderator was chosen the morning of (Gould notes in some instances, “as early as six-thirty) the meeting.
Gould brought the sensibilities of a newspaperman to his task of capturing the regional flavor of the five towns and their various meetings. In fact, it was an undertaking that he did for the Lewiston Journal Magazine, two years prior that convinced him that a book length treatment was warranted.The order of the day, in the early 40s had balloting occurring in the morning, then dinner was served, followed by appropriations in the afternoon, supper at six and the day culminated with the Town Meeting dance, in the evening.Towns in New England differ from municipalities anywhere else in the country. This is because, according to Gould, “citizens are supreme in all matters entrusted to them by the general laws, and so long as matters run smoothly they are answerable to no higher authority than themselves.”
In each community still utilizing a town meeting form of government, the Board of Selectmen is in charge. This originated from the days when a group of leading men of the town were “selected” to handle the business and matters of town governance.
The bible of the annual town meeting is the town report, which is compiled from the Selectmen’s reports. Gould wrote that “the basis of competent Town Meeting action is a thorough knowledge of Town Report and New Englanders practically memorize it.”
Much of Gould’s first book, one of many to come, is apt to be viewed today as merely a nostalgia piece. That would be a mistake. By capturing the events and the import that the day represented to communities in the state, the book will serve as a yellowing snapshot from the past, to future historians, of the what and how of democracy, long after most of its vestiges have disappeared.
Gould’s book is a literary still-life, much like a Rockwell paintings. Like The Four Freedoms, and in particular Freedom of Speech, Gould’s pen, like Rockwell’s paintbrush, captures people being good. Additionally, the abundant photos, of men, women and even children that are included in New England Town Meeting create the perfect compliment to Gould’s simple rendering of town meeting. When I first glanced at the photos in the book, Rockwell immediately sprang to mind. This was because Gould’s subjects, like Rockwell’s man, standing at town meeting, perfectly represent their subject matter. Rockwell’s nod to free speech is captured in his subject. The man, standing before his peers, is obviously from Yankee working stock, as his attire indicates. Clad in a flannel shirt, worn under his tattered jacket, annual report folded and sticking out of his pocket, he is standing up, is ready to make his point, while his neighbors and others that know him, anxiously await. Anyone who ever stood up at town meeting, in front of God and his fellow townsfolk, heart pounding, identifies experientially with the painting. Having attended my share of town meetings, during nearly 20 years in Durham, Gould’s rendering of the day resonated with me.
Reading Gould’s accounts of the farmers, “hurrying their chores,” voters “dribbling in” all morning to vote and recognizing that when he writes that “by Noon the Town will be assembled,” in 1940, he was being literal—citizens took their duties seriously. Setting the course of the town for another year was much more important than trips to the mall, snowmobiling up north, or sleeping until noon. And once again, this isn’t nostalgia, as the sociological research backs up these accounts, as Americans were engaged with town meeting in a way that has disappeared, even in those communities where this form of government is still utilized, at least in form, if not necessarily practice.
In our harried world, where technology reigns supreme, it probably sounds like madness to think about giving up an entire day to transact democracy in it most sufficient form. The format of governance that Gould captures, particularly as he writes about taking a minute or two to cast one’s ballot and then, having “no further duty until afternoon,” leaving “the shank of the morning for talk,” must seem foreign to all but a few today, who rarely even know their neighbors. The thought of interacting on issues related to how tax dollars will be spent should seem appealing, particularly given the furor about taxes exhibited by most in our state. On further consideration, sophisticated types in the 21st century much prefer the superiority of anonymous comments and internet chatter, rather than engaging in a face-to-face with fellow citizens. It’s much easier to malign and excoriate when there’s no risk involved.