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In the Saxon period of English history, the freemen were grouped into little bodies of ten
Origin. householders each, called tithings; and these were again united into organizations called hundreds. The next larger group was the county. These smaller divisions were for the more perfect administration of justice, each body being responsible for its members. If a person had committed a crime, his tithing was bound to produce him to the court; or, failing to do so, was required to pay a specified sum of money. The effect of this system was to throw the burden of local administration directly upon the people of the district. Each body had interests peculiar to itself; and, to promote these, there must be free discussion and choice of individuals to represent them. After the introduction of the feudal system, these smaller institutions fell into disuse ; but, in the towns, the idea of local self-government was retained, and was brought to this country by the early settlers of New England.
The people, settling together in different localities, formed distinct communities, called plan
Plantations. tations, and, from the beginning, were in
the habit of meeting to consider matters of common interest. Very early, the magistrates came to recognize these communities as such, defined carefully the boundaries of land which each should occupy, and, to each community occupying such portion of territory, gave a name. The court, from time to time, gave permission to form new settlements, fixing the boundaries, and giving a name.
The charter gave all power of government to the Growth of General Court; but that body early gave Powers. its sanction to a practice which had grown up in the towns, of managing their own local affairs through men chosen for this purpose, called selectmen. From time to time, the towns were empowered to choose other municipal officers, and gradually came to have those powers and duties which are now defined by the general statutes; but the supreme jurisdiction remained with the General Court, which has always considered the towns as corporations, and prescribed the mode in which they should perform their functions. It is through the town governments that the State brings its authority directly to bear upon the people. Its taxes are received by the town collector, its writs of election and of judicial process served by town constables, and its school-laws executed by town committeemen. This township system was essentially the same in all
the New England colonies. Its influence Influence.
has been great. The grouping of the people in towns afforded opportunity for frequent intercourse and exchange of opinion. It made it possible to support regular services of public worship, and to establish and maintain public schools. The frequent
meetings of the freemen of the towns gave to all an opportunity to become acquainted with the conduct of public affairs, and cultivated a spirit of independence in thought and action. In them every man, without distinction, was free to make the best use of all his talents; and so they were the schools in which the men were trained who were foremost in discussing the great questions that preceded the Revolution. At the same time, the whole body of the people were prepared to judge and act upon these subjects when the occasion came. Similar influences have been exerted by these organizations to the present time.
A town is a body corporate, occupying a definite portion of territory, and exercising local jurisdiction under the control of the State.
As has been said, the powers of a town are defined by general statutes. They are as follows:
Powers. to sue and be sued; to hold and dispose of real and personal property for the public use of the inhabitants; to make such contracts and orders as are necessary for the exercise of their corporate powers ; to make such by-laws as are necessary for managing their affairs, and for preserving peace and good order; to raise money by taxation.
Money may be raised by taxation for the following purposes : for the support of town schools,
Purposes for for the care of the poor, for highways, which Money for burial grounds, for maintaining a fire may be Rais department, for destroying noxious animals, for preparing town histories, for public libraries, for planting shade-trees, for the detection of offenders, for soldiers’ monuments, for repairing and decorating soldiers' graves, for aiding disabled soldiers and sailors and the families of the slain, for all other necessary charges.
Every town is required by law to hold an annual
meeting in February, March, or April. Town Meetings.
84. At this time, the officers are chosen, and the annual appropriations made. Other meetings may be held at such times as the selectmen may order.
Every town meeting is held under a warWarrant.
rant signed by the selectmen, directed to a constable, requiring him to notify the legal voters of the town to meet at a specified place and time, to act upon matters specified in the warrant. The constable, having received the warrant, serves it as the by-laws of the town direct, usually by posting attested copies of it in several public places, at least seven days before the date of the meeting. The constable returns the warrant to the town-clerk, indorsing upon it the fact that he has served it properly. This warrant, with the officer's return, is read at the opening of the meeting, and forms the legal basis of all the town's action. No action is legal upon subjects not specified in the warrant. Each meeting is called to order by the townclerk, who reads the warrant, and presides during the choice of a moderator. This officer is chosen by ballot, and acts during the meeting and its several adjournments, as the presiding officer.
TOWN OFFICERS. In every town, a clerk is chosen by ballot, and forth
with sworn by the moderator or a justice Clerk.
of the peace. The clerk is required to record all votes passed at the meetings of the town; to administer the requisite oaths to the other officers, and to keep a record of the same ; to record the facts respecting births, marriages, and deaths in the town; to record descriptions of the location of highways: to record the number of votes, and the names of persons voted for at elections of State and county officers, and to make the necessary returns; to issue licenses for dogs; to deliver registers to the school committee; to issue certificates of intentions of marriage.
Every town elects three, five, seven, or nine Selectmen by ballot. These officers have the
Selectmen. general charge of the business of the town; and their duties are many and varied. Some of the more important are the following: they call town meetings ; preside, instead of a moderator, at meetings for election of national and State officers, and receive and count the votes ; act as a board of health when there is none; appoint men to fill certain minor town offices; lay out town ways ; represent the town in its relations to the county and the State, and in suits at law ; grant licenses; have charge of the jury-box and drawing jurors; and act as assessors of taxes, and overseers of the poor, if other persons are not specially chosen for the purpose.
Towns may elect three or more Assessors of taxes, and, if deemed expedient, three or more assistant assessors. These officers are required to take an oath to perform their duty impartially. The statutes prescribe minutely what property is liable to taxation, and the mode of apportionment.
Every male inhabitant of the Commonwealth above the age of twenty years is liable to a polltax, which by law cannot exceed two dollars.