The history and timing of annual town meetings in Maine dates back to an agrarian society, Weld Selectman Thomas Skolfield tells voters at the 2019 meeting. Livermore Falls Advertiser file photo

With many towns postponing or changing the format of the annual town meeting because of the coronavirus pandemic, a look back at the March tradition is traced to an agrarian society.

The meeting originated when Maine was a district of Massachusetts, according to Wikipedia.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was authorized by royal charter, issued by Charles I in 1629, which provided for a colony-wide legislature, according to HeinOnline, a commercial database specializing in law and government and recognized and used by the U.S. Department of Interior. The charter made no provision however, for cities, towns, counties and other political subdivisions of the colony. The site noted that the charter created a membership corporation consisting of 26 named persons and all subsequently admitted “freemen.”

Article 74 of the 1641 Body of Liberties stated, “The freemen of every Towne or Towneship, shall have full power to choose yearly or for lesse time out of themselves a convenient number of fitt men to order the planting or prudentiall occasions of that Town, according to Instructions given them in writeing, Provided nothing be done by them contrary to the publique laws and orders of the Countrie,” the site noted.

By 1635, the General Court had enacted an order authorizing and regulating the town meeting form of government, the site noted. The form that developed by 1641 was similar to its present form and applied to all Massachusetts municipalities.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony’s original charter was revoked and replaced by the Province Charter of 1691, according to HeinOnline. It further noted, “The following year, the General Court enacted legislation further detailing the town meeting-selectmen system, which: [C]onfirmed the ancient town boundaries substantiated, with few exceptions, the traditional forms of government, and gave detailed orders concerning many municipal functions. It provided that town meetings be held annually in the month of March.”

With “freemen” having the power to order plantings, it made sense for town meetings to be held in March before those plantings would occur.

A slightly different timeline for the March town meeting requirement was also found.

According to Maine An Encyclopedia, “Many aspects of town government still practiced today are the products of 17th and 18th century colonial laws. Early town charters required that constables and road surveyors (now road commissioners) be chosen; later town clerks were mandatory to maintain the official records and “select persons” were authorized. In 1691 the Massachusetts General Court (colonial legislature) ordered that all town meetings be held in March. Moderators were required in 1715.”

When Maine entered the Union in 1820 there were 240 incorporated towns in the state, according to the Maine Municipal Association. Today there are nearly 500 municipalities, the association noted.

On June 9, 1713, Berwick became Maine’s ninth town, according to the New England Historical Society. It noted Berwick got its start in 1630 and was the first settlement in Maine to survive, holding its first town meeting in the meeting house built in 1706. As such, the society indicates Berwick has the longest history of holding town meetings in Maine since the older towns no longer hold town meetings.

“When, in some obscure country town, the farmers come together to a special town-meeting, to express their opinion on some subject which is vexing the land, that, I think, is the true Congress, and the most respectable one that is ever assembled in the United States,” author Henry David Thoreau said in 1854 in a speech titled “Slavery in Massachusetts.”


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