(Host) Commentator Peter Mallary reflects on the tradition of Town Meeting and it’s relevance today.
(Mallary) It’s the first Tuesday in March. One of my favorite days of the year – that hint of spring as we gather around the ballot box. The gentle drip,drip,drip of direct democracy warms me to the core. And this year the exercise has been further spiced by that quadrennial presidential conversation, a chat which has lost some of its pop for Vermonters in recent weeks.
But it is still Town Meeting Day. That alone is cause for celebration.
Last year I moved from moderator of the Newbury meeting to a backbench – after 16 years away – in Fairlee. How did it go? Okay. Many old friends and lots of new faces. It was a wonderful vantage point from which to observe the different ways towns function – or occasionally dys-function. Each has a discernible flavor, a unique texture. Fairlee had a very efficient meeting last year. I always view this with mixed feelings. So I went up to Bradford. My office is located in the Old Academy where Town Meeting happens. They were having a gratifyingly yeasty meeting which lasted deep into the afternoon. Great stuff.
But this year I got to thinking about Town Meeting in a broader way. What does this annual excercise signify in an ever more complicated world, a world perched on the edge of conflict, a conflict very different from those of the past? In a search for context I dipped into Charles Cummings “The Vermonter,” the magazine published out of White River during the first half of the 20th century. In the issue of January 1937, Esther B. Stebbins wrote a piece about Town Meeting which really resonated.
“March Meeting is the most democratic institution on God’s earth,” Stebbins wrote. “In these days of dictatorships and near what-not, the naive independence and sturdy courage of speech of New England villagers is as refreshing as it is reassuring. To them Town Meeting is a serious – often a fighting matter – but it is also a pleasant social duty. Much of what goes on may be a tempest in a teapot, but of many such tempests is Democracy made.”
She goes on to describe a meeting which would – in most of its particulars – be entirely recognizable to us in 2004. “Certainly,” Stebbins concludes, “until the town meeting is squelched, there will be freedom in the United States.”
Now I am not exactly sure what Esther B. Stebbins meant by “near what-not” but I feel certain we are living with some similar condition today. So I hope you had the chance to get out to Town Meeting this morning – the annual opportunity to see your community in conversation, that “sincere attempt” as Stebbins put it back in 1937 “to pull out the dead wood and get off to a fresh start.” It makes you proud to be a Vermonter. It makes you proud to be an American. That’s a tonic we can all use a generous swig of just now.
This is Peter Mallary.
Peter Mallary is a writer and the publisher of Behind the Times, a monthly newspaper in Bradford.