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SELECTMEN were elected in town meetings to administer local government in many New England communities from the 1630s to the present. Specific responsibilities differed from one place to another and changed over time, but in general in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, selectmen were responsible for local licensing, the town watch, and poor relief. In less hospitable communities, this would also include "warning out" "sick, weary and hungry souls who tramped the roads into the town." Numbers of selectmen in a given town ranged from three to nine. They differ from modern town council members, in that New England's selectmen have always exercised executive as well as legislative responsibilities.

Selectmen are still alive and well in some New England communities. For example, during the 1990s, in the nation's wealthiest community, Greenwich, Connecticut, the town's selectmen (and women) have been on the job preventing outsiders from using town beaches. Employing complicated legal stratagems to evade the littoral rights of all Americans, they succeeded until 2001 in keeping undesired classes from their sea front.


Nash, Gary B. The Urban Crucible: The Northern Seaports and the Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Carl E.Prince

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