Commentary: Reviving Grassroots Democracy (March, 2016)

by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

Alert viewers of WCAX may have noticed a March 4 segment calling attention to my completion of fifty years’ service as Kirby Town Moderator. Please allow me to use those four minutes of media fame as a springboard for defending the merits of Vermont’s tradition of town meeting government.

Early settlers from Massachusetts and Connecticut brought town meeting to the New Hampshire Grants before they created the Republic of Vermont in 1777. Unlike in most of the rest of the country, in Vermont – never a royal colony – the towns came together and created the state.

Both Federalist John Adams and Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson believed that Town Meeting ought to be the foundation of any democratic republic.  When asked the reason for the political strength of New England, Adams replied “town, school, congregation, and militia”, the institutions of civil society at the local level.

Jefferson, who as a Virginian had little knowledge of the workings of grassroots democracy, nonetheless identified it as essential to liberty and self government. In 1816 he wrote “where every man  is a sharer in the direction of his ward-republic [town], or of some of the higher ones, and feels that he is a participant in the government of affairs, not merely at election one day in the year, but every day; when there shall not be a man in the state who will not be a member of some one of its councils, great or small, he will let his heart be torn out of his body sooner than his power be wrested from him by a Caesar or a Bonaparte.”

For decades Adams’ practical analysis and Jefferson’s shining vision elevated the status of town meeting democracy. But by the turn of the 20th century its luster had begun to fade.  A major cause was the leakage of small town people to the larger towns and cities. Another was the appearance of public concerns that could not easily be dealt with by a thousand citizens in a forty square mile “republic”.

Frank Bryan, of Newbury, capped his long career as UVM professor of political science by publishing his monumental work, Real Democracy in 2004. In it he recounts how the centralist thinkers of the Progressive Era scorned grassroots democracy of all sorts. What did those yokels know? Public decisions should be turned over to the wise, educated, and public spirited, whose far seeing leadership would make government at all levels more efficient in carrying out ever more activities determined by the best and the brightest to be for the good of the people.

The result of this advanced thinking was the relentless movement toward consolidation. The Progressives’ only grudging concession to democracy was allowing the erstwhile citizens to vote every year or so on whether the experts had performed acceptably.

In Vermont In the 1960s, a new generation of Progressives, exemplified by Gov. Philip Hoff (1963-68), ended equal town representation in the House, removed welfare (‘poor relief”) from the towns to Waterbury, imposed state land use controls, and set in motion a burgeoning state education bureaucracy that has worked ceaselessly for consolidation of public schools into large unified districts (finally triumphant in Act 46.)

This is not to say that all this centralization was abhorrent. But in “concentrating all cares into one body”, as Jefferson put it, we are steadily reducing the scope of local civic responsibility. Before long the Australian ballot will reduce town meeting democracy to a remnant, surviving small town public schools will be managed – and many closed – by distant unified districts organized like waste management districts, and town duties will shrink down to maintaining town roads, keeping up the cemetery, and issuing zoning permits and dog licenses.

Whether or not this will result in a gain for society is debatable, but there can be no doubt but that the arena of citizenship will shrink, and the thousand year spirit of town meeting democracy will become a matter only for curious historians.

For 49 years since my first election as Moderator, I have penned a few thoughts on the inside cover of the Kirby town report. Many of those have been tributes to or eulogies of my fellow citizens, but one in particular, from the 1971 report, has long been my favorite.

After offering the Jefferson quote cited above, I wrote “Our job must be to strengthen and preserve town government, thus keeping as many of the functions of government as possible close to the people themselves. This can be a nuisance at times, and it is easy to become frustrated and want to give it all up. But we should keep in mind that town government, like life itself, is one of the things that, once given up, we will never be able to recover.”

Those who believe in the importance of a vibrant community-based democracy of self-governing citizens, coming together to make public decisions about their future, need to create new forms of that venerable institution to better meet modern requirements. That is the theme of Bryan and McClaughry, The Vermont Papers: Recreating Democracy on a Human Scale (1989), available at your local library or online

– John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (



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