Deliberative Democracy in the Context of Town Meetings in Seventeenth-Century New England

Special Report: Participating in the United States: Town Meetings
By David D. Hall

From Alexis de Tocqueville onward, the seventeenth-century New England town has been associated with political and social practices that nurtured the making of a “democratic” society. Is this a myth or a reality? And where does the religion of the English people who founded the New England colonies figure in this story? A close examination of town and church records—which Tocqueville was unable to accomplish—reveals a powerful commitment to the core values of transparency, equity (fairness and justice), and broad participation. The “congregational” system of church government transferred authority from any centralized hierarchy to the laymen of each local congregation. Similarly, the central governments in the colonies gave generous allocations of land to groups of immigrants, empowering them to set up self-governing towns. A crucial question for these towns was deciding how to distribute this land; another was who could share in the decision-making. No formal or explicit “democratic” ideology accompanied the making of this civic culture, but in the context of the seventeenth century, the outcome was something unusually akin to a democratic society.


  • town meeting
  • congregationalism
  • participation
  • equity
  • democracy
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