Funny town meeting history is the Rule

April 09, 2014
LANCASTER— On Friday evening at the town hall, humorist and author Rebecca Rule provided an interesting overview of New Hampshire's town meeting history. The fun event was part of Lancaster's year-long celebration of its 250th Anniversary.

Weeks Memorial Library Director Barbara Robarts introduced Rule. The evening's event, Robarts said, is just one of the many programs slated for this year. "We're trying to do something special each and every month," she concluded.

Rule's overview of the state's town meeting history is based on her book, "Moved and Seconded." She said the topic is her favorite subject to discuss across the state.

Town meeting often occurs on a Tuesday night in March. Some towns hold their meeting on a Saturday during the month, Rule said.

With humor central to Rule's style, she summed up the iconic status of town meeting by declaring, "Town meeting is like a rat terrier. They're awful, but we love them."

Researching the book a few years ago, Rule uncovered many moments where town meeting blended the serious with the humorous. When debating the merits of a new art teacher in Raymond, for example, Rule recounted how one voter spoke in opposition to funding the position. He believed the town had never, and would never, have a Picasso. Another resident replied how the town could never expect to create a Picasso without having an art teacher.

Rule also talked about the different personalities who attend town meeting. Know-it-alls have a tendency to speak on every topic, for example, she said. Then there are those who are busy knitting during most of the discussion, raising a hand to vote when necessary. Because of their reserved demeanor, Rule suggested, "If a knitter raises her hand to speak, you better listen."

Additional humor came at the expense of a Vermonter who came over the see Rule's presentation. After noting the man's presence, Rule asked him, "Did you bring your passport?"

New Hampshire towns showed their devotion to the Union cause during town meetings in the Civil War era, Rule found. She noted how some municipalities appropriated their own funds to support soldiers beyond the salaries provided by the government.

Rule's presentation noted the dignity of the entire process, where the people are so obviously their own rulers. With more than three centuries of town meeting behind them, Rule said state residents can be commended for their devotion to democracy. She believes "an amazing amount of pride comes with that."

One aspect of town meeting that is special, Rule noted, is how the most humble resident stands with all the rest. "Town meeting is a great equalizer," Rule said, because each person has the same vote, and can provide thoughts on any topic before the legislative body. "If you raise your hand at town meeting," she added, "you get to talk, whether your neighbors want to hear you or not."

Essentially, Rule suggested, town meeting is where a town's residents "settle to the business of governing themselves." She concluded, "Collectively, together, we are much smarter than we are individually."

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