Front Page Titles (by Subject) Town Powers in New England - Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Town Powers in New England - Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition, vol. 1 
Democracy in America: Historical-Critical Edition of De la démocratie en Amérique, ed. Eduardo Nolla, translated from the French by James T. Schleifer. A Bilingual French-English editions, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2010). Vol. 1.
About Liberty Fund:
This bilingual edition of Tocqueville’s work contains a new English translation of the French critical edition published in 1990. The copyright to the French version is held by J. Vrin and it is not available online. The copyright to the English translation, the translator’s note, and index is held by Liberty Fund.
Fair use statement:
Town Powers in New England
The people, source of all powers in the town as elsewhere.—There they deal with principal matters by themselves.—No town council.—The largest part of town authority concentrated in the hands of the selectmen.—How the selectmen function.—General assembly of the inhabitants of the town (Town Meeting).—Enumeration of all the town officers.—Offices mandatory and paid.
In the town as everywhere else, the people are the source of social powers, but nowhere else do they exercise their power more directly. In America, the people are a master who has to be pleased to the greatest possible degree.
In New England, the majority acts through representatives when the general affairs of the state must be dealt with. This was necessary; but in the town, where legislative and governmental action is closer to the governed, the law of representation is not accepted.h There is no town council; the body of voters, after naming their magistrates, directs them in everything that is not the pure and simple execution of the laws of the state.2
This state of things is so contrary to our ideas, and so opposed to our habits, that it is necessary to provide a few examples here for it to be well understood.
Public offices are extremely numerous and highly divided in the town, as we will see below. The largest part of administrative powers is concentrated, however, in the hands of a small number of individuals elected annually who are called selectmen.3
The general laws of the state have imposed a certain number of obligations on the selectmen. To fulfill them they do not need the authorization of those under their jurisdiction, and they cannot avoid their obligations without engaging their personal responsibility. State law charges them, for example, with drawing up the electoral lists in their town; if they fail to do so, they make themselves guilty of a misdemeanor. But in all things that are left to the direction of the town authority, the selectmen are the executors of the popular will, as with us the mayor is the executor of the deliberations of the town council. Most often they act on their private responsibility and, in actual practice, only carry out the implications of principles previously set down by the majority. But if they want to introduce any change whatsoever in the established order, if they desire to pursue a new undertaking, they must return to the source of their power. Suppose that it is a question of establishing a school: the selectmen convoke on a given day, in a place specified in advance, the whole body of voters; there, they set forth the need that is felt; they show the means to satisfy it, the money that must be spent, the location that should be chosen. The assembly, consulted on all those points, adopts the principle, determines the location, votes the tax and puts the execution of its will into the hands of the selectmen.
Only the selectmen have the right to call the town meeting, but they can be made to do so. If ten property owners conceive a new project and want to submit it for approval by the town, they call for a general convocation of the inhabitants; the selectmen are obliged to agree to the call and only retain the right to preside over the meeting.4
Without a doubt, these political mores, these social customs are very far from us. At this moment I want neither to judge them nor to show the hidden causes that produce and animate them; I am limiting myself to presenting them.
The selectmen are elected annually in the month of April or May. At the same time the town meeting chooses a host of other town magistrates,5 appointed for certain important administrative tasks.k Some, known as assessors, must determine the tax; others, known as collectors, must collect it. One officer, called the constable, is charged with keeping the peace, supervising public places and assuring the physical execution of the laws. Another, named the town clerk, records all deliberations; he keeps minutes of the acts of the civil registry. A treasurer keeps the town funds. Add to these officers an overseer of the poor, whose duty, very difficult to fulfill, is to enforce the laws relative to the poor; school commissioners, who direct public education; road surveyors, who are responsible for all the routine tasks relating to the roadways, large and small; and you will have the list of the principal agents of town administration. But the division of offices does not stop there. You still find, among the town officers,6 parish commissioners who must regulate church expenses;m inspectors of various kinds, some charged with directing the efforts of citizens in case of fire; others, with overseeing the harvest; these, with temporarily relieving difficulties that can arise from fencing; those, with supervising wood allotments or with inspecting weights and measures.
In all, principal offices in the town number nineteen. Each inhabitant is obligated, under penalty of a fine, to accept these different offices; but also most of these offices are paid,n so that poor citizens can devote their time to them without suffering a loss. The American system, moreover, does not give any fixed salary to officers. In general, each act of their administration has a value, and they are remunerated only in proportion to what they have done.o
[h. ] For Tocqueville, the lack of representation is the principal characteristic of the town; he gives the town a role similar to that of the small republic in the thought of Rousseau. If here he asserts that the lack of representation is a characteristic of the town across the Atlantic, in the Ancien Régime et la Révolution (OC, II, 1, pp. 119-20), he will admit that in the parish of the old regime he found the lack of political representation and other traits that he had formerly judged as belonging only to North America.
[3. ] Three are elected in the smallest towns; nine, in the largest. See The Town Officer, p. 186. Also see the principal laws of Massachusetts relative to the selectmen:
Law of 20 February 1786, vol. I, p. 219;—24 February 1796, vol. I, p. 488;—7 March 1801, vol. II, p. 45;—16 June 1795, vol. I, p. 473;—12 March 1808, vol. II, p. 186;—28 February 1787, vol. I, p. 302;—22 June 1797, vol. I, p. 539.
[4. ] See Laws of Massachusetts, vol. I, p. 250; law of 23 March 1786.
[k. ] In the margin: “≠What makes town spirit powerful./
“Independence of the town.
“Importance of the town.
“Constant political life.
“Division of town powers.≠”
[6. ] All these magistrates actually exist in practice.
To know the details of the duties of all of these town magistrates, see the book entitled Town Officer, by Isaac Goodwin, Worcester 1829; and the collection of the general laws of Massachusetts in 3 vols., Boston, 1823.
[m. ] Tocqueville learned from Goodwin that in the United States the town inhabitants were obliged to contribute to the support of a Protestant minister. This seems to him nearly the sign of a State religion, and he says so to Sparks. Apparently in agreement, Sparks answers him: “It is one of those cases in which early prejudice, habit, and accidental causes, may pervert the sense of a majority and operate against the equal rights of the whole” (H.= B. Adams, Jared Sparks and Alexis de Tocqueville, p. 25).
[n. ] The manuscript says: “paid, little it is true, but enough, however, so that poor citizens . . .”
[o. ] I found myself in a Boston salon behind two respectable gentlemen who appeared to treat an important subject with interest:
“How much will that gain you much [sic]?” said one.
“It’s a fairly good business,” answered the other, “about one hundred dollars is given for each.”
“As you say,” replied the first, “that truly is a good business.”
Now, it concerned nothing less than two pirates who were to be hanged the next day. One of these speakers, who was the City Marshal, was obliged by his position to be present at the execution and to see that everything was done according to order. The law allocated to him for his right to be present one hundred dollars for each one hanged; and he spoke of these two condemned men like a pair of cattle that he had to sell the next day at the market.
Told by the consul (alphabetic notebook B, YTC, BIIa, and Voyage,OC, V, 1, p. 241).