Town Meeting

Practicing Democracy in Rural New England
Explores the history and practice of an uncommon but enduring form of American self-government


At Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln described government by the people as "the great task remaining before us." Many citizens of modern America, frustrated and disheartened, are tempted to despair of realizing that ideal. Yet, it is a project still alive in parts of New England.

This book traces the origins of town-meeting democracy in Ashfield, a community of just under 2,000 people in the foothills of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Donald Robinson begins by recounting several crises at the town's founding in the eighteenth century that helped to shape its character. He shows how the town has changed since then and examines how democratic self-government functions in the modern context.

The picture is not pretty. Self-government carries no guarantees, and Ashfield is no utopia. Human failings are abundantly on display. Leaders mislead. Citizens don't pay attention and they forget hard-earned lessons.

But in this candid account of the operation of democracy in one New England town, Robinson demonstrates that for better and for worse, Ashfield governs itself democratically. Citizens control the actions of their government. Not everyone participates, but all may, and everyone who lives in the town must accept and obey what town meeting decides.