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THE GERMANIC ORIGIN
NEW ENGLAND TOWNS.
THE reproduction of the town and parish systems of Old England under colonial conditions in America is one of the most curious and suggestive phenomena of American history. The process was so quiet, so unobtrusive, so gradual, so like the growth of vegetation in spring time-in short, so natural, that it seems to have escaped the notice of many historians of the larger colonial life. They have dealt with questions of church and state, with patents and charters, Pilgrims and Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, wars, witches, colonial unions and struggles for national independence, but the origin and growth of that smaller communal life within the colonies has been somewhat neglected. And yet these little communes were the germs of our state and national life. They gave the colonies all the strength which they ever enjoyed. It was the towns, parishes and counties that furnished life-blood for church and state, for school and college, for war and peace. In New England especially, towns were the primordial cells of the body politic. In all the colonies, civic communities were the organic tissues, without which the colonial body would have been but a lifeless mass.
At the opening meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which met in Boston August 26, 1880, Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, in his inaugural address, paid the following tribute to the towns of New England: "Your Excellency, Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,
without intending to depart from the proprieties of the occasion, it may be proper to say that those of us who come from beyond the Hudson can but feel that in entering New England we reach the birthplace of American institutions. To some of us it is the land of our fathers, and we cannot approach the precincts of their departed presence without the sentiment of filial veneration. Here they laid broad and deep the foundations of American freedom, without which American science would have been an infant in leading-strings to-day. Here was developed the township, with its local selfgovernment, the basis and central element of our political system. Upon the township was formed the county, composed of several towns similarly organized; the State composed of several counties, and, finally, the United States, composed of several states; each organization a body politic, with definite governing powers in a subordinate series. But the greatest of all, in intrinsic importance, was the township, because it was and is the unit of organization, and embodies the great principle of local self-government. It is at once the greatest and the most important of American institutions, because it determines the character of the State and National Government. It is also historically significant because it shows that American Democracy may justly claim to be the daughter of that Athenian Democracy which generated and produced the most signal outburst of genius and intellect in the entire history of the human race. Nor is this presage of the future without its own significance. What was achieved for philosophy and art under the free institutions of Athens may yet be achieved for science in the evolution of the same forces in America."*
Mr. Morgan's recognition of the historic significance of New England towns, in their relation to science and national growth, addressed as this recognition was to the chief magistrate of Massachusetts, recalled to mind the words of Gov
* Report in Boston Journal, August 26, 1880.
ernor Long himself in an oration delivered in June, 1877, on the occasion of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the town of Hanover, Massachusetts. His words give an inner view of the life and character of New England towns, a subject which Mr. Morgan viewed chiefly in its external relation to history and science. "I believe in our towns," said Mr. Long. "I believe in their decency and simple ways. I believe in their politics, in their form and administration of government, in their school and church influences, in their democratic society, in their temperance organizations, in their neighborly charities, in their proud lineage and history, and in the opportunities they offer. I know that our fathers who founded them and put their money and labor, and their hopes into the institutions and character of these towns, did not mean they should decay; that they should be abandoned, that any native born in them should turn his back upon them, or be prouder of a home elsewhere than in them. Their worth is not more in the things that are seen, than in the things that are not seen; not more in the farm and shop and academy and railroad, that in the mellow, pious, soft, refining influences of character which pervades them like an atmosphere, and exhibits to you in humble cottages men and women plain in manner and dress, but of rare intelligence and refinement; men who think and read and are scholars and gentlemen, however humble their occupation; women who are poets and sisters of charity; where else do you find the like?”*
It would be easy to multiply eulogies of New England towns, but difficult to voice more clearly their intrinsic worth. and far-reaching historic significance than have the men whose words have been quoted. Seen from within, these New England towns and villages are as full to-day of youthful freshness, quiet beauty, and energetic life as the demes of Grecian Attika, in the spring-time of the world; seen from without
* Report in Old Colony Memorial, Plymouth, Mass., June 21, 1877.
as an organic, deeply rooted, wide-expanding growth, New England's local institutions are like the tree Igdrasil, of Scandinavian mythology, for the principle of local self-government which they embody, takes hold upon all the past and upholds the future in its spreading branches.
The importance of towns in the social and political structure of New England has been recognized in passing by discerning travelers like Lafayette and Tocqueville, and, indeed, by certain New England publicists and historians; but most of these notices have been extremely cursory and more or less inaccurate. There is also a vast number of local histories, but they generally avoid the one important question, the genesis of the town as an institution. Most writers, especially local historians, assume that New England towns are either the offspring of Puritan virtue and of the Congregational church, or else that they are the product of this rocky soil, which is supposed to produce free institutions spontaneously, as it does the arbutus and the oak, or fair women and brave men. But the science of Biology no longer favors the theory of spontaneous generation. Wherever organic life occurs there must have been some seed for that life. History should not be content with describing effects when it can explain causes. It is just as improbable that free local institutions should spring up without a germ along American shores as that English wheat should have grown here without planting. Town institutions were propagated in New England by old English and Germanic ideas, brought over by Pilgrims and Puritans, and as ready to take root in the free soil of America as would Egyptian grain which had been drying in a mummy-case for thousands of years.
The town and village life of New England is as truly the reproduction of Old English types as those again are reproductions of the village community system of the ancient Germans. Investigators into American Institutional History will turn as naturally to the mother country as the historians of England turn toward their older home beyond the German
Ocean. "For the fatherland of the English race," says Green in his History of the English People, "we must look far away from England itself. In the fifth century after the birth of Christ the one country which we know to have borne the name of Angeln or England lay within the district which is now called Sleswick, a district in the heart of the peninsula that parts the Baltic from the Northern seas. Its pleasant pastures, its black-timbered homesteads, its prim little townships looking down on inlets of purple water, were then but a wild waste of heather and sand, girt along the coast with a sunless woodland, broken here and there by meadows that crept down to the marshes and the sea. Of the temper and life of the folk in this older England we know little. But from the glimpses that we catch of it when conquest had brought them to the shores of Britain their political and social organization must have been that of the German race to which they belonged. In their villages lay ready formed the social and political life which is round us in England to-day. A belt of forest or waste parted each from its fellow villages, and within this boundary or mark the township,' as the village was then called from the 'tun' or rough fence and trench that served as its simple fortification, formed a complete and independent body, though linked by ties which were strengthening every day to the townships about it and the tribe of which it formed a part. . . .
"The woodland and pasture-land of an English village were still undivided, and every free villager had the right of turning into it his cattle and swine. The meadow-land lay in like manner open and undivided from hay-harvest to spring. It was only when grass began to grow afresh that the common meadow was fenced off into grass-fields, one for each household in the village; and when hay-harvest was
*According to the laws of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, the boundaries of Massachusetts Towns were to be "a greate heape of stones, or a trench, of six foote long & two foote broade."-Mass. Col. Rec., ii, 210.