This and the other boxes in this article are adapted from Albion’s Seed.
A distinctive pattern of participation in town meetings developed at an early date in Massachusetts. It low levels of turnout—normally in the range of 10 to 30 percent of adult males. But when controversial questions came up, participation sometimes approached 100 percent.
This pattern of very low participation, punctuated by sudden surges of very high turnout, has been characteristic of New England town government for three centuries—and very different…from voting patterns in other regions.
New England town governments tended to become very active in the life of their communities. The inhabitants voted to tax themselves heavily by comparison with the other parts of British America. On a per capita basis, levels of spending by local government in Massachusetts were two to four times higher than in many other colonies, though much below the cost of government in Europe. These relative patterns have also persisted.
Town meeting government in early New England was not really democratic in our majoritarian sense. The object was not rule by majority, but by consensus. The purpose of a town meeting was to achieve that consensual goal by discussion, persuasion and mutual adjustment of differences. The number of votes were rarely counted, but merely recorded as the “will of the town.” This system was unique to New England, and nearly universal within it. It was the combined product of East Anglian experiences, Puritan ideas, and the American environment.