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A Lesson In Civics—but not what they teach in school
That splendid flower of New England— the town meeting—wilts under the scrutiny of a native son
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The democratic tradition—or so I am told—is nowhere more splendidly exemplified than in the small New England town. There the candidates are neighbors of the voters, and the presumption of those who grew up elsewhere is that, on the first Monday in March, the honest New Englanders soberly assess the known faults and virtues of these neighbors and invariably elect the most upright of men to be selectmen and highway surveyors and keepers of the pound.
As for the New England town meeting, every U.N. delegate from the Near East is sentimental about it, and Americans from Davenport, Iowa, sigh with nostalgic fondness: “Ah, if the Russians could only attend a town meeting in Massachusetts!”
Well, I feel a certain nostalgia myself for election day in old New England, and each year when March comes in like a windy candidate for the sewer commission, I too sigh for the town meeting. But what I am sighing for is something we had better not let the Russians know about at all.
Specifically, I am thinking of 1925, when I was thirteen years old. In the wake of a municipal election and the most wondrous town meeting that ever was, my father found himself one of two chairmen of selectmen in Milford, Massachusetts—though the town by-laws made it clear that there could be only one chairman. We had two chiefs of police that year, too. Chief of Police O’Brien occupied the station. On the other hand, the cops took their orders from Moloney. It was very exciting. I nearly flunked Latin that year.
The big issue of the election was who would get a job out of it. I’m sorry to disappoint the nonresident lovers of quaint old New England, but (hat’s the way it was. There were 14,000 people in Milford, and to serve them, the public paymaster had to shell out to a formidable number of road menders, firemen, school janitors, cops, meat inspectors, snow shovelers, substitute teachers, special constables, inspectors of wires, tree surgeons, gravediggers, librarians’ assistants, and gypsy-moth controllers. Clearly, if your backward nephew had a chance at a job pouring tar into cracks in the road, you were going to vote for the man who would invest him with the overalls of that office.
My modest connection with the political campaign started in January, when first my Uncle Freddie, then various other men, singly and in committees, called at my house to urge my father to run for selectman on the Good Government ticket.
The Good Government party—called, inevitably, the Goo-goos—was the creation of my uncle, who for a couple of years had been trying to assemble a slate strong enough to beat the Citizens’ Caucus party, otherwise known to us Goo-goos as The Machine.
As far as I could make out from eavesdropping on my father’s callers, the trouble with The Machine was that it didn’t run Italians for selectmen. At that time, the population of Milford embraced a roughly equal number of Italians, Irish, and old-line Yankees. Once upon a time the Irish had struggled against the Yankees for political representation; now, through The Machine, they had achieved practically all the political representation the town had to offer, and it was the Italians’ turn to knock on the door of Town Hall. This, said my lather’s callers, was the year when they might make it, because The Machine had not been able to take care of every Irishman in town, and the ones who hadn’t got jobs were pretty sore about it. But along with two other candidates for the board of selectmen, the Goo-goos would need a strong Italian candidate, and one and all were agreed that my father was the man of the hour.
At first my father was coy. But he was an immigrant who could remember that when he was twelve years old and newly arrived on these shores, people used to hitch up their buggies every Sunday and drive past his house to gaze at an “Eyetalian” family as they might gaze at animals in a zoo. Now they wanted him to run for selectman, and it was very gratifying. He began to think of a selectman as being after all a kind of mayor. He began to think of Town Hall as City Hall. He said, “Don’t worry,” when my mother told him she wouldn’t speak to him if he ran for office, but there was a faraway look in his eye. Through the years since then, I have always understood the presidential itch.
Finally he said he would run. My mother went right on speaking to him and conking for him and loving him. I think she did stop speaking to certain women associated with the Citizens’ Caucus party, though.
The Machine and the Goo-goos announced their candidates at about the same time. The Machine’s candidates for selectmen were one Yankee, a man named Spindel, and two Irishmen: Messrs. Higgiston and Fitzsimmons. Our side had what my uncle called a “balanced slate”: my father to represent Italy, Thomas Malloy to represent Eire, and an elderly man named Damon to represent America.