The Town Meeting Ideal and Race in America


This essay explores the development of the New England town meeting ideal in connection with matters of race and considers the place of that ideal in post-slavery America. In particular, the essay focuses on how the black abolitionists David Walker and Maria Stewart used the jeremiad to expand the deliberative rhetoric associated with the town meeting, and it considers Albion Tourgée’s efforts to implement the town meeting system in the post-bellum South. The essay further considers the place of the lyceum system and the Chautauqua phenomenon, and it addresses how John Dewey’s efforts to reinvent the town meeting for a much larger and more diverse nation bore fruit in media forums described as town meetings. Eventually, the town meeting was reinvented yet again as a national political venue that could be used to address persistent racial tensions. The essay closes with a discussion of how the American university could help close the gap between the town meeting-style forum as a place for discussion and the historical town meeting’s value as a site of consequential decision-making.


Chautaqua, Albion Tourgée, Reconstruction, Abolitionism, Race, Town meeting

How to Cite

Gustafson S., (2019) “The Town Meeting Ideal and Race in America”, Journal of Public Deliberation 15(2). doi:







Sandra M. Gustafson (University of Notre Dame)





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