Town Government

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TOWN GOVERNMENT or township government is the lowest level of general-purpose local government in the northeastern and midwestern states. Generally the jurisdiction of towns or townships extends only to areas outside of incorporated cities. Towns were the principal units of local government in colonial New England, providing schools, poor relief, roads, and other necessary services. The town meeting, an assembly of all enfranchised townspeople, was the primary decision-making body, but over the course of the colonial period the elected selectmen seemed to grow increasingly important in determining town policy. Towns or townships also existed in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, though in these middle colonies counties played a greater role in local government than in New England. The southern colonies did not develop townships. This basic geographic pattern persisted throughout the following centuries. In the northernmost states towns were most significant. In the middle swath of states they existed but were less important, and they were foreign to the southern half of the nation.

During the nineteenth century the trans-Appalachian states stretching from Ohio to the Dakotas adopted township government. In each of these states township officials were responsible for roads, cemeteries, and poor relief. Moreover they ensured that farmers maintained their fences and impounded stray livestock. States could assign other tasks to townships as well. In Ohio township clerks were authorized to record livestock brands, and Kansas lawmakers empowered townships to eliminate prairie dogs. In New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska the chief township officer was the supervisor, and the country governing boards were composed of the supervisors from each township. The township supervisor was therefore both a township and a county official.

By the first half of the twentieth century many observers believed the town or township was obsolete. In New England the town meeting seemed ill suited to the larger towns with thousands of voters. Many indifferent townspeople failed to exercise their right to participate, abdicating decision making to the random few hundred people who attended the meetings. In 1915, in response to this situation, Brookline, Massachusetts, adopted the representative town meeting. All town voters could attend these meetings and express their views, but only elected representatives could vote on the issues. By the last decade of the twentieth century forty-two Massachusetts towns, seven Connecticut towns, and one Vermont community had adopted the representative town meeting. To preserve a semblance of broad-based democracy, these assemblies usually included over two hundred voting representatives.

Another alternative to the town meeting was the town council. This was a small legislative body comparable to a city council, and it often hired a town manager with duties corresponding to those of a city manager. In other words, under the town council plan a town was governed like a city but retained the title of town. In 1945 Bloomfield became the first Connecticut community to opt for this plan, and in 1971 Agawam was the first Massachusetts town to embrace council rule. By the 1990s twenty-nine Massachusetts towns operated under the council plan. In a majority of New England towns the traditional town meeting survived, though only a minority of voters attended. Lauded as bastions of direct democracy, town meetings actually appeared to be prime examples of democratic apathy.

Meanwhile, most students of local government were growing increasingly critical of township rule outside of New England. They condemned the townships as obsolete remnants of a horse-and-buggy era and urged abolition of these unnecessary units. Responding to this academic assault, township officials mobilized, organizing state associations that promoted townships as paragons of grassroots democracy. In some states lawmakers reduced the authority of townships. In 1929 Iowa's legislature deprived townships of their responsibility for local roads, and in the early 1930s Indiana shifted all authority over local roads and drainage ditches to its counties. Most of the midwestern states, however, authorized new responsibilities, such as zoning and fire protection. By the close of the twentieth century towns or townships in a number of states could exercise virtually the full range of powers of an incorporated city.

Despite pronouncements that town or township governments were outmoded in an increasingly metropolitan world, they proved especially important in states with large suburban populations. In both New York and Michigan, for example, the town was the chief unit of local government for a rapidly rising number of suburbanites. Whereas in 1960 only 36 percent of New Yorkers lived in towns, by 1990 this figure was up to 47 percent. In Michigan the share of the state's population living in townships and dependent on their services as opposed to those of cities rose from 42 percent in 1990 to 48 percent in 2000. Rather than passing from the scene or surviving as obsolete relics, the New England town and townships elsewhere in the Northeast and Midwest adapted to the political realities of the twentieth century and remained vital elements of local government.


Hendrickson, J. P. "Grass-roots Government: South Dakota's Enduring Townships." South Dakota History 24, no. 1 (1994): 19–42.

Sly, John Fairfield. Town Government in Massachusetts (1620–1930). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.

Zimmerman, Joseph F. The Massachusetts Town Meeting: A Tenacious Institution. Albany: State University of New York at Albany, 1967.

Jon C.Teaford

See alsoCounty Government ; Local Government .