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THE ORIGIN, ORGANIZATION, AND INFLUENCE OF THE TOWNS OF NEW ENGLAND.
[“The following paper was read at the meeting in December last; but, owing to the absence of the writer from the State when the Proceedings of that meeting were passing through the press, the printing of the paper was deferred.”—Proceedings for 1866–7.]
IT is interesting and instructive to contemplate the progress of the settlement of the different portions of the country; to note the differences which existed between the mode of settlement adopted in New England and in other districts; to inquire how the townships of New England came into existence, and perceive how largely they must have contributed to the success of the settlements; but, above all, to mark their influence, mainly exerted through their subsequent incorporation as towns, upon the social, political, moral, and religious character of the inhabitants. It will increase our veneration for our fathers, it will refresh our own patriotism. The great principle upon which the settlement of New England had its inception, and which led to the establishment of the colony at Plymouth, was the desire of the Pilgrim Fathers to enjoy unmolested their religious opinions. There were two other principles upon which the settlement was projected, or which were soon after recognized, and which, in their tendency to promote the prosperity of the enterprise, were secondary only to that of religious liberty: one, that the right of government should be secured to them by charters, conferring upon them powers for that purpose; the other, that the adventurers were severally to possess small freeholds in their own right.* There were perhaps several reasons why the emigrants, in the first instance, were desirous of acquiring only a moderate portion of the territory. They could take possession of but a small strip of land on the seaboard, the necessity of mutual protection against Indian hostility obliging them to live in communities. They desired to encourage the emigration of all those who, like themselves, were suffering for conscience' sake. They had in view trade, rather than agriculture. And it may be added, that the religious and political principles of many of them alike forbade an attempt at the acquisition of feudal rights or manorial relations. There were doubtless, also, several reasons why, in their grants and charters, they should have insisted upon the insertion of such articles as would enable them to make laws and ordinances for their own government, and provision for their own welfare. The necessity of a civil government of some kind was apparent. The impossibility that any government, administered by the Mother Country alone, should be adequate to their wants, must have been equally so. And, above all, the determination of the emigrants to be secure in their religious privileges, which security they well knew could not be attained except by the power of making their own regulations, was alone a sufficient reason. In considering, therefore, the early history of New England, and tracing its prosperity through the hardships and toil and suffering and dangers which were endured by the early settlers, while great credit is due to the religious principle which actuated most of them, and too much praise can hardly be bestowed upon it, we should not overlook the other agencies to which I have thus referred; to wit, corporate municipal powers, and the subdivision of the land into small freeholds; which, if they grew out of, and were originally but consequences of the religious sentiment, yet became of themselves powerful means in the promotion of the settlement and prosperity of the country. Fervent as was the piety, and persistent as was the energy, of many of the early settlers, the religious principle could not have been maintained, impressing its character upon the opinions, manners, and habits of the people, had it not been for these other agencies. Had there been, in the early settlement of the country, colonial governors, appointed by the crown to enforce laws made by the Mother Country only, without a power of self-government, the ranks of the emigrants could not have been filled. And, had the country been granted in large tracts to single proprietors, who thereupon attempted to settle them as leaseholds, by a tenantry paying rents of money, grain, &c., the settlements of New England could have never proceeded with the rapidity and success which have characterized them. Manors have existed in a portion of the colony of New York. And the grants of land by the owner of the manor (“the Patroon”), reserving an annual rent, have been the source of incalculable evils, morally and politically, in these districts. But the form of self-government provided for in the charters and patents was not alone sufficient for the purpose. All these elements, to wit, religious liberty, self-government, and freehold titles, have had their full influence and operation more effectually through the organization of towns, than in any other mode. It is through the action of these town incorporations that the Puritan principles have been sustained, the New-England character formed, the industry and economy of the people promoted, the education of the whole population provided for, and perhaps the independence of the country secured. I am sure that I do not exaggerate their importance, when I say that they have been the arterial system of New England, through which has circulated the life-blood which has invigorated, sustained, and strengthened her; making her expand in her religious, social, educational, benevolent, and political institutions and character. The subject of the present paper is the origin of these town corporations, the mode of their organization, their utility as manifested by the division of the lands within their limits, the rights and privileges which they possessed and secured, their duties and liabilities, and the influence they have exerted, not only upon the social and religious character of the people embraced within their respective limits, but the vast effect they have had upon the political destinies of New England, and of the whole country. Before proceeding to show the manner in which these towns originated, it may be well, for the information of any one not conversant with the subject, to say, that in the early history and records of New England, while the term plantation was often used to designate the whole colony, whether of Plymouth or Massachusetts, the terms plantation and town were used indifferently, to represent a settlement of persons in the neighborhood of each other, forming a cluster of habitations, the inhabitants voluntarily associating themselves together for the performance of certain common duties, and the enjoyment of common privileges and social intercourse; although persons living at some distance, and comparatively isolated, might be thus associated with those more compactly settled, and thus belong to the plantation or town. When adjacent lands were afterwards granted to them or others, so that the territory was sufficiently large, the limits of the plantation or town were established, and it was afterwards known as a township, or town. Purchases of territory were sometimes made from the Indians, and allowed by the General