Michael Zuckerman is Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, and he is the author of Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (1970) and the editor of Friends and Neighbors: Group Life in America’s First Plural Society (1982).
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 great majority of their adult males to vote only because they had no other way to secure social order. Without 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 modem sense. They disallowed legitimate difference and dissent, disdained majority rule, and dreaded conflict. They were predicated on a homogeneity and a conformity that we today would find suffocating.