Law-making by assembled adult males dates to the age of Pericles in Greece in the fifth century B.C., but there is no evidence that the New England open town meeting, as an egalitarian institution, has a direct lineage to classical Greek democracy (see Chapter 2). The only other currently assembled voters’ law-making body is the Swiss Landsgemeinde in the half-cantons of Appenzell Inner-Rhoden and Outer-Rhoden, Nidwalden, Obwalden, and the canton of Glarus, where the traditional annual open-air meeting of voters is held to decide issues. 1 These half-cantons and the canton of Glarus have populations ranging from 14,500 in Appenzell Inner-Rhoden to 53,400 in Appenzell Outer-Rhoden. 2
In common with the classical Athenian ecclesia and the Swiss Landsgemeinde, the New England open town meeting is a de facto representative body because the majority of the eligible voters do not participate in the meeting except in small towns. New England open town meeting voters who do not attend, in effect, have elected the self-selected participants to represent the interests of all town residents. The absentee problem is not a new one in New England towns. The Boston records early in the nineteenth century referred to ‘‘thinly attended’’ town meetings and noted:
it is very seldom, that men of the best intelligence and most capable of conducting publick business will leave their important private concerns to attend affairs in which they have only a general interest; it therefore unavoidably happens that the affairs of a large town are conducted by a very small number of persons, who represent and act for the whole, but who are not chosen by them, who do not possess their confidence and act under no or a very slight responsibility. 3
Law-making by voters in the United States is not restricted to the New England town meeting. Unassembled voters can employ the referendum to approve
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Publication information: Book title: The New England Town Meeting:Democracy in Action. Contributors: Joseph F. Zimmerman - Author. Publisher: Praeger. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 1.
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