Featured image: Ipswich woodcut, 1838 attributed to S. E. Brown.
Thomas Franklin Waters recorded the early history of Town Meeting in his book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The first Ipswich public official appointed was the Clerk, Robert Lord, chosen in February 1643-4, “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.” The Town Record contains entries dating to November, 1634
In 1648, in general Town meeting, it was ordered that all the inhabitants of the Town must attend the yearly meeting, and than any who are absent the meeting, “or any other whereof they have lawful warning, shall forfeit a shilling. The recorder, Robert Lord, was “to have a third parts of the fines for not appearing at meetings, for this service.”
The selectmen, first referred to as “The seven men” are first mentioned in the Town Record on Feb. 20, 1636-7, and consisted of Mr. John Winthrop, Mr. Bradstreet, Mr. Denison, Goodman Perkins, Goodman Scott, John Gage and Mr. Wade. 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.
The original Ipswich Town House was near First Church on Meeting House Green rivaling the church in prominence, located near where the Methodist Church now stands. It housed the town offices and court from 1704 – 1854. In 1843 the Unitarian Church dissolved and sold their sanctuary on South Main Street to the Town, which converted that building into what is now known as the Old Town Hall. The earlier Town House was moved to Depot Square to become the Damon Building. The building burned to the ground, and the replacement Damon Building burned twice! The present Ipswich Town Hall is located in the former Ipswich High School building on Green Street.
Town Meeting and Local Government
by Town Moderator Tom Murphy
Town meeting has been a cardinal element of local government in New England about four hundred years. In Massachusetts they started in the early 1600s and were formally recognized until 1641. No doubt meetings were pretty rocky during the Puritan era. Things got so raucous that the Legislature finally had to impose rules governing all town meetings. This year is the 300th anniversary of a law that put in place some important rules which, with slight modifications, are still on the books.
Chapter 244 of the Acts of 1715 provided that “no matter or thing whatsoever shall be voted or determined, but what is inserted in the warrant for calling said meeting”
Today we call this the “scope of the article” or “four corners” rule. The same law said that “when it so happens that any matter remains doubtful after a vote, the moderator is hereby directed and required that the same shall be decided by the poll if seven or more desire it.”
“The disorderly carriage of some persons in the meetings….the affairs and business thereof is very much retarded and obstructed…at every such meeting a moderator shall be first chosen by a majority of votes, who shall thereby be empowered to manage and regulate the business of that meeting.”
All three of these conditions, slightly tweaked, are inscribed in Chapter 39 of the Massachusetts General Laws. Yet, as much as things changed, things sometimes stayed the same:
“We find that the system of keeping the accounts of the town in the several departments is not such as is commendable for accuracy or dispatch, which may be accounted for in part, as the town is unwilling to pay the Selectman, Assessors and Overseers a sufficient salary for the service which they are called upon to perform…” Respectfully submitted, A.D. Wait, Joseph Farley, Geo. R. Lord, Auditors Ipswich, March 1, 1867
“In performing the duty assigned us, we were embarrassed by the fact that the Town’s accounts were not balanced last year, nor indeed have they been for several years. As now kept they cannot be balanced, and be thus verified by any method known to us, and we have not attempted to do it.” *Preamble to Report on town’s Financial Condition; George Haskell, Aaron F. Brown, A.D. Wait, Auditors Ipswich, February 1, 1875