The Mirage of Democracy: The Town Meeting in America

Special Report: Participating in the United States: Town Meetings
By Michael Zuckerman

In American mythology, the town meetings of colonial New England are the storied source of the nation’s democracy. But early New Englanders allowed the vast majority of their adult males to vote only because they had no other way to secure social order. Without a king, court, country lords, archbishop, or any other traditional authority, their rude frontier communities could only be ruled by public opinion. Town meetings were occasions to consolidate a popular will that could coerce the recalcitrant. They governed by common consent, but they were not democratic in any modern sense. They disallowed legitimate difference and dissent, disdained majority rule, and dreaded conflict. They were predicated on a homogeneity and a conformity that we would today find suffocating.


  • authority
  • community
  • consent
  • democracy
  • homogeneity
  • majority rule
  • public opinion
  • social context
  • town meeting
  • voting
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