Ipswich MA Agawam Tercentenary plaqueStories

Early Ipswich, “A paradise for politicians”

Thomas Franklin Water gave us in Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Volume I, a history of the early formation of the government of the Town of Ipswich.


Tercentenary sign near the South Green

“It was an easy matter, we imagine, for the little handful of original settlers to talk over their affairs and agree on measures of public policy. They might have gathered in a body and selected a spot for their meeting house, located the earliest roads and apportioned themselves home lots and tillage lands. The simplest form of pure democracy was adequate to all their needs; but, as their number increased, some system of representative government was found necessary.

The leaders of the settlement in Ipswich quickly doled out the lots of land and created laws regarding the land and the responsibilities of the town's people.
The Puritan leaders of the new settlement in Ipswich had to quickly assign lots of land, and formulate laws regarding the responsibilities of the town’s people to the land and each other.

The first public official appointed was the Clerk. As the Town Record begins with November, 1634, the Recorder or Clerk had been chosen before that date. The “lot-layers” also appear at this time, a Committee to which was referred the delicate task of assigning lands. The grants, however, were determined in open meeting, and the function of the lot-layers was merely to determine locations, and fix “by metes and bounds” the lot apportioned.

“The seven men” are first mentioned under the date of Feb. 20, 1636-7, but they are alluded to in such an incidental way, that it would seem that they were already an established feature of town polity. This first board of government consisted of Mr. John Winthrop, Mr. Bradstreet, Mr. Denison, Goodman Perkins, Goodman Scott, John Gage and Mr. Wade, and they were chosen to order business for the next three months. Mr. Denison was chosen to keep the Town Book, enter the Town orders, and “set a copy of them up in ye meeting house.” He was to keep a record of land grants as well, and a fee of sixpence for every entry was granted him.

John Winthrop Jr.
John Winthrop Jr.

But the sturdy democracy seems to have been suspicious of detriment to its own power and dignity, accruing from the new officials, and forthwith it proceeded to hedge in their authority by ordering that “they shall have no power to grant any land in that which is commonly reputed and accounted the Cow Pasture, nor above twenty acres in any other place.” The older board of lot-layers was made to feel its subservience to the popular will, by the addition of Mr. Appleton, Serg. Howlett, John Perkins and Thomas Scott to assist them in laying out the large grants made to “Mr. Dudley, Mr. Bradstreet and Mr. Saltonstall” before the 14th of May 1637.

“The seven men” seem to have become “the eleven men” in January 1637-8, but in 1639, “the seven men” reappear, and in Feb. 1640-1, their term of office is specified as six months. Mr. Hubbard, Capt. Denison, Whipple, Goodman Giddings, Mark Symonds, John Perkins, and Mr. William Payne were then chosen “for the Town’s business for six months, provided that they give noe lands, nor meddle with dividing or stinting the Commons.” Thus the lengthening of the term of service was balanced by curtailing their authority in regard to lands. In 1642, further “direction to simplify the Town business” was desired, and a committee consisting of the two magistrates, the elders, Mr. Giles Firman and George Giddings was appointed “to prepare for the next meeting of the freemen, what they shall think meet for yearly maintenance and for the way of raising of it.”

The “Robert Lord house” on High Street in Ipswich

In Feb. 1643-4,Robert Lord was chosen by the Town, “from this time forward to be present at every general meeting of the Town, and of the freemen and of the seven men, and to record in a book what is committed to him by the Moderator of every such meeting, and to tend in some convenient time before the end of the meeting to read over what is written, and he is to have two third parts of the fines for not appearing at meetings, for this service.” He was termed Recorder, but the duties of his office were very similar to those of the Town Clerk of later days. Glimpses are had here of the rigor with which the body of voters directed its own action. In 1648, in general Town meeting, it was ordered that all the inhabitants of the Town. that shall be absent from the yearly meeting, or any other whereof they have lawful warning, shall forfeit a shilling. Robert Lord earned his two-thirds no doubt for doing his duties including ringing the bell, calling the roll, and collecting the forfeit, but twelve freemen were soon called upon to pay a fine of 12 schillings apiece for absence.

The Fence Viewer
The Fence Viewer

In 1643, the tenure of office was extended to a year, and in 1650, the seven men were called by the familiar name of selectmen. In that year, the elective officials were Selectmen, two Constables, four Surveyors, and a Committee of Five “to make the elders’ rates,” or in plainer language, to apportion the tax for the support of the ministry.

The most notable thing of all, yet surely the most natural thing of all, is that the New England settlers of the 17th Century, largely reproduced English institutions in an older shape than they knew in the England of the Seventeenth Century. They gave a new life to many things, which in their older home had well nigh died out. The necessary smallness of scale in the original settlements was the root of the whole matter. It, so to speak, drove them back for several centuries. It caused them to reproduce in not a few points, not the England of their own day, but the England of a far earlier time.

The Hog Reeve

Thus the government of the town was systematized gradually. Every industry seems to have been supervised by some public functionary and the climax of petty officialdom might well have been reached in 1797, when the list of officers chosen at the Town meeting included Selectmen, Overseers, Town Clerk and Treasurer, Tithing-men, Road Surveyors, Fish Committee, Clerk of the Market, Fence Viewers, Haywards, Surveyors of Lumber, Cullers of Fish, Sealers of Leather, Hog-reeves, Gangers of Cask, Sealers of Weights, Measurers of Grain, Corders of Wood, Firewards, Packer of Pork, and Cullers of Brick.

Surely the thirst for public office, which afflicts every American citizen, was easily gratified. The Ipswich of the late 18th Century must have been a paradise for politicians.”



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