In strongest contrast to the rush of modern American life is the peace of the oldtime New England village. In its perfection, unsullied by modern industrial life, it is about the most beautiful thing New England has to present. A century ago President Dwight of Yale wrote: “A succession of New England villages, composed of neat houses, surrounding neat school houses and churches, adorned with gardens, meadows, and orchards, and exhibiting the universally easy circumstances of the inhabitants, is, at least in my opinion, one of the most delightful prospects which this world can afford.”
The New England village with unaccountable spontaneity achieves a unique charm unlike anything to be seen in other parts. They have always something in common, and yet the types are most diverse. They take form naturally from the topography,nestling in a valley, or standing placidly on a plain, or boldly on a breezy hilltop, or cuddling about the margin of a salt-water cove.
The late Frederick Law Olmsted ascribed their beauty to the fact that there was “one consistent expression of character, and that character, simple, unsophisticated, respectable. What was the ancient beauty of an American village, with its bare, bleak, cheap utilitarian structures, its cramped dooryards, its meagre and common ornaments, its fences and straight-lacedness?” The answer Mr. Olmsted finds in the perfect adaptation to conditions such as was exhibited by the Clipper Ship. “By far the highest and choicest beauty,” says Mr. Olmsted, “is that of inherent and comprehensive character and qualities, and whatever of decoration hides this, or withholds attention from it, however beautiful in itself, is in itself a blemish.”
The earliest New England towns did not grow from villages, but began definitely as trade centers with urban intentions. Both town and village in some instances came into being at the start, the town indeed taking precedence. Salem had its Salem Village, the scene of the witchcraft, now known as the town of Danvers. Lynn had its Lynn Village, now Lynnfield. Charlestown Village is now Woburn. All these villages were some miles from the parent town, but included in the township. The name “village” was also applied to the chief center of population. In rural communities they still speak of `going to the village.’ The name survives as a permanent designation in the case of Brookline Village, which originally was known as Muddy River Hamlet.
The seaport towns in the early days served their immediate hinter-land. The sea was the source of wealth, and every seaport had its fisheries and a share in the West India trade. It was due to the limitations of land transportation that Salem, Newburyport, Ports-mouth, and Portland long remained nearly equal in population and trade; and well into the nineteenth century the three largest towns of Massachusetts were Boston, Salem, and Nantucket. The latter, remote on its island, was as urban in type as Salem.
New England villages were generally laid out on a definite plan at the time of their first settlement. The Connecticut valley type had as a distinctive feature a broad, central street. Deerfield is a surpassingly fine example of the one-street type of village. Some-times in Connecticut towns this street was so broad as to be the town common. This is true also of Lynn, where the ancient common is simply a broad, main thoroughfare with a central space of grass and trees between the two roadways. But every town had its village common or green, which in later development has become the civic center. Lexington with its ancient village green is an excellent example. The Green early became the center of community life. Here one of the first duties of the authorities was always to erect a whipping post. Later came the meeting house, the jail, and the school house, and the ordinary, or inn. Here the townsmen gathered in meeting house or town hall to discuss public matters and exercise the right to vote. Here the train band and militia were drilled, the regulation days being festive occasions drawing people together for gossip and trade.
The early Colonial meeting house facing the village green was well named. It was not merely a place of worship. It was the communal meeting place, the Court of Justice, the civic center. Here at least annually met all the citizens, rich and poor, to discuss questions of town administration and to elect the numerous town officers.
The town clerk in New England was a village worthy of an importance not quite understood in the other States. The pound-keeper protected the townsmen’s fields from stray cattle. The chimney-viewer was the primitive fire-marshal, for chimneys catching fire were likely to ignite the thatch of adjacent houses. To look after other important interests, there were fence-viewers, deer-reeves, and hog-reeves. Where the town meeting has survived in modern days, it is not unusual as the annual joke to elect to this latter office some officious citizen. The town bull, too, was not the least valued of the community’s institutions.
The early New England town was not a mere place of abode nor a collection of ordinances. The freemen, each with his obligation to the community, to his church, formed in truth a community with a communal sense and something of the spirit of communism.
The average citizen came in contact with scarcely any portion of the government machinery outside the town and its officers. He was born to citizenship or achieved it by paying taxes. The town registered his birth, his marriage, and his death. Residence in the town and admission to the community were rigidly and jealously guarded. Dorchester in 1634 enacted that “no man within the Plantation shall sell his house or lott to any man without the Plantation, whome they shall dislike off.”
Not only did the freeman have his home lot, but the valuable right of commonage. Woodlands and pasture were owned in common. Boston Common was a public cow pasture well into the nineteenth century. In Dorchester, the ancient Calf Pasture is still public land and known by its original name. The Stone Horse Pasture, Lynn Woods, recalls where the stallions were kept apart.
The New England town was neither purely a civic organization nor wholly an ecclesiastical unit. It had elements of both. The Puritans and Pilgrims came from England, not to found a democracy nor to establish a state where there should be freedom of worship, but to establish a community which should coincide with their own religious tenets. Both the Bay Colony and Connecticut were religious hierarchies.
American democracy has, however, grown from the humble beginning of the New England town meeting. Mr. Bryce has aptly termed the town meeting, “the school as well as source of democracy.” He points out that the English settlers were largely towns-folk, accustomed in England to municipal life and vestry meeting.
Thomas Jefferson, though he disliked New England, admired its fundamental institution and wished to see its like in Virginia. He wrote: “Townships in New England are the vital principles of their Governments and have proved themselves the widest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.”
De Tocqueville wrote in 1835: “The average state of the town-ships of New England is in general a happy one. No trace exists of a distinction of rank. The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free; its affairs insure his attachment to its interest. He takes a part in every occurrence in the place. He practices the art of government in the small within his reach.”
In the larger towns today, the difficulty of getting all the voters together for the consideration of public business makes the system unwieldy. For this reason the elections are usually held in the several villages, made precincts for the purpose, while town business is transacted in town meeting as before. Boston remained a town until it became nearly as large as its famous and wealthy suburb of Brookline is today. The latter, though distinctly an urban community, still clings with pride to its town meeting.
The town system is similar throughout the northern New England States. In Connecticut the towns are even more important as political units. In the election of representatives to the legislature they all stand on a parity, a small town of a few hundred inhabitants having the same representation as the largest cities. Connecticut villages and cities are also incorporated boroughs within the townships. The city of Hartford for instance is within the Hartford township.
But the community unit, the township, that gave New England democracy has never become an institution in other sections, where the county, lacking the same intimate identity between the social and political, is the unit of government. Hence the New England town meeting as a social institution remains unique, its only modern parallel the correspondingly pure democracy of the Swiss Cantons.