Stearns (1879) [2/8]

The anniversary we are now met to celebrate is the anniversary of a town, an institution quite peculiar to New England. What are called towns exist elsewhere, but they are a different thing, both in organization and in privileges and duties. In the South, except in Louisiana, the county takes the place of the town, and in the Middle States the town acts under the authority of the county. The same, substantially, is true of the towns or townships of the West. But in New England the town is a complete body politic, having its own organization, its own officers, its own functionaries, and its own administration. [*1] “It is,” says an able writer (S. A. Galpin, LL.D., in the United States Political Atlas), “the political unit, a municipal corporation, with full corporate rights and powers, and responsible solely to the legislature.” [*2] It is in accordance with this theory that the first Constitution of our own State, having been framed by a convention of delegates from the towns, was submitted to the towns for their approval, in order to its final adoption, and that, till recently, the towns were the direct source of representation in the lower house of the Legislature.

This distribution of the whole country into towns secured, at an early day, the emphatic approval of that very acute republican statesman, Thomas Jefferson, the third in the line of our Presidents. He speaks of them as “the vital principle of our government,” and says, “they have approved themselves the wisest inventions ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation.” [*3] “These little republics,” he says, “are the main strength of the great ones. We owe to them the vigor given to our Revolution in its commencement in the Eastern States, and by them the Eastern States were enabled to

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repeal the Embargo in opposition to the Middle, Southern, and Western States and their long and lubberly division, which can never be assembled.” [*4][*5]

It also attracted the attention and secured the warm approbation of that eminent French statesman, De Tocqueville, who visited this country many years ago, for the express purpose of studying its institutions, and wrote one of the ablest books on the subject that has ever been written. What attracted him most was the well-regulated, independent sovereignty of the people. “In the United States,'” he says, “it is believed, and with truth, that patriotism is a kind of devotion, which is strengthened by ritual observance. In this manner the activity of the township [he means the town] is continually perceptible. The native of New England is attached to his township, because it is free. He practises the art of government in the small sphere within his reach, he accustoms himself to those forms which alone insure the steady progress of liberty; he imbibes their spirit, and collects clear, practical notions on the nature of its duties and the extent of its rights.” [*6] “England once governed the mass of the colonies, but the people was always sovereign in the towns.” [*6]

A very fine résumé of their actual influence is to be found in a very able essay, read before the Massachusetts Historical Society, and published in pamphlet form, some years ago, by Hon. Joel Parker, of Cambridge, Mass. “It is,” he says, “through the action of the town incorporations that the Puritan principles have been sustained, the New England character formed, the industry and economy of the people promoted, the education of the whole population provided for, and perhaps the independence of the country secured. I am sure I do not exaggerate their importance, when I say that they have been the arterial system of New England, through which has circulated the life-blood which

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has invigorated, sustained, and strengthened her, making her expand in her religions, social, educational, and political institutions and character.” [*7]

It was near the opening of a most momentous period in the history of our country that what is now the town of Bedford was introduced into the sisterhood of towns, and became clothed with their important functions and prerogatives. The earliest trace I have been able to find of a movement towards that result is in the “History of Concord, Bedford, and the Adjoining Towns,” by Lemuel Shattuck, of Concord. (Page 255.)

“The inhabitants of Winthrop’s Farms,” he says, “which were included in this territory,” that is, the Bedford territory, “petitioned the General Court, in 1725, to be erected into a separate parish or town. An order of notice passed upon this petition, but being opposed by Billerica, it was unsuccessful.” [*8] From the Billerica records, it appears that a petition to the same effect came before that town again on the 14th of May, 1728, which after two adjournments and as many long debates, was decided in the negative. Some concessions, however, were made to the petitioners in respect to taxes, and a committee was appointed “to give in reasons.”

Again the case came up in the General Court of the Province, June 19, 1728, on a petition of Edward Watkins, John Wilson, and a considerable number of others, setting forth the great difficulties to which they were subjected, by reason of their distance from the meeting-house, in the towns of Concord and Billerica, and therefore praying that they may be set off as a separate township.

This petition was read, and referred to the next session, and the petitioners were directed to serve the towns of Billerica and Lexington with copies of it, that they might show cause why it should not be granted.

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Then again, on July 18, 1728, a petition came in, of “divers inhabitants of Concord, Billerica, and Lexington, to be made a precinct, as entered June 18, 1728.” This petition was read in council, the record says, together with the circular of Billerica, and referred to a committee, previously appointed with reference to Billerica lands, with directions to go on the ground, carefully investigate the whole matter, “notifying the town of Billerica of their coming, hear all parties, and report at the next full session, whether they judge it reasonable that the petitioners should be set off and constituted a separate township or precinct,” the charges of the committee to be borne by the petitioners of the town of Billerica.

The committee took about five months, and then, Dec. 20, 1728, brought in a full report, the conclusion of which is, “that the committee are humbly of opinion that the lands petitioned for, as well by the Billerica petitioners as by those of Concord, and by a vote of the town of Concord set off to and joined with the petitioners of Billerica, are well accommodated for that purpose. That, therefore, the said lands, with the inhabitants thereon, be set off and erected into a distinct township,” with bounds which they then go on to describe. These are substantially, I believe, with one or two exceptions, the same boundaries which the town has to this day.

In council, this was read and accepted, and petitioners had “leave to bring in a bill accordingly to the House of Representatives.” Billerica now yielded gracefully, “voted that they would act something referring to the petitioners,” choose a committee of eleven men to “manage the affair, and agree upon the boundaries, etc.”

Billerica was “very reluctant,” it is said. We are not told why. An old chronicler has quaintly said, “A rib was taken off from Billerica to make Bedford.” [*9] Old Father Adam,

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likely enough, was reluctant when he had to part with his rib. It is to be hoped, however, that neither of them was sorry when they saw what was made out of it.

Meanwhile the petitioners from Concord had taken care to forestall all opposition on that side by obtaining the full consent of their fellow-townsmen. As the petition is long, I give only an abstract of it. It is addressed “To the Gentlemen, the Selectmen of the town of Concord, in lawful meeting assembled,” and sets forth that they, in conjunction with the southerly part of Billerica, having found themselves under the necessity of maintaining separate worship during the past winter, “by reason of their distance from the place of worship in their respective towns, have agreed to ask of them a dismission, that they may be formed into a distinct township or district, if the General Court shall see fit so to constitute them. They find it extremely difficult to travel so far with their families, and are tempted to say of the Sabbath, ‘What a weariness is it!'” [*10]

They go on to disclaim all disaffection to the pastor or the church, their only desire is to be eased of their burden, “that the word of God may be nigh us, in our homes and in our hearts, that we and our little ones may serve the Lord.” [*11]

To this Concord give her consent, and now, the obstacles being all removed, their request was granted. It stands upon the State records as follows: —


for Erecting a New Town, within the County of Middlesex, by the Name of Bedford.

Whereas, The inhabitants of the northeasterly part of Concord, and the southeasterly part of Billerica, labor under great difficulties in their attendance on the public worship of God, and, thereupon, have addressed this Court that the land on the northeasterly part of Concord and the southerly part of Billerica, lying together, and whereon they dwell, may be erected into a township, and that they may be set off a

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distinct and separate town, vested with all the rights and privileges of a town;

Be it therefore enacted, by the Lieutenant Governor, Council, and Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That the northeasterly part of Concord, etc., be and hereby is, set off and instituted a separate township, by the name of Bedford.

Then follows a description of the boundaries, and the Act concludes: —

And that the inhabitants of the said lands be, and hereby are, vested with powers, privileges, and immunities, that the inhabitants of any of the towns of this Province, are or ought to be vested with. Provided, That the said town of Bedford do, within the space of three years from the publication of this act, erect, build, and finish a suitable House for the Public Worship of God, and procure and settle a Learned and Orthodox minister of good conversation, and make provision for his comfortable and honorable support, and likewise provide a school, to instruct their youth in Writing and Reading.

The above bears a date in the margin: Sept. 23, 1729. [^3]

Three days later, by an Act of the General Court, Jonathan Bacon, “a principal inhabitant of the town of Bedford,” was empowered and directed to “assemble the freeholders and other inhabitants of the town, as soon as may be, to elect and choose officers,” to stand during the remainder of the official year. This he did, as he certifies, and convened them accordingly at the meeting-house, Sept. 26, 1729, and thus the first set of town officers were chosen. [^4] Jonathan Bacon was the first moderator, Samuel Fitch the first town clerk, and John Fassett the first town treasurer. The other offices filled were substantially the same as now. They had not yet got so far as to appoint school committees, assessors, or tax-gatherers, though the office of tithing-man was not overlooked.

Thus was the good ship “Town of Bedford” fairly launched and on her voyage. Let us see what her progress has been.

To give a degree of method to our inquiries, I shall speak

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of her in what we may regard as the three principal functions of a town, as originally constituted in New England, viz., in her relations, 1. To the body politic of which she is a unit; 2. To the church and the interests of religion, which stand out so prominent among the reasons for her incorporation; and 3. To the general welfare and improvement of her own citizens, and of the community with which she is connected.

Of course, in so wide a field, and with so narrow a space of time as I have now before me, I can but select salient points, and treat of them in the most cursory manner.



  1. a date in the margin:
    ∨ date in the margin,
  2. 1729 ∨ 1779


  1. “functionaries”: officials
  2. cf. Galpin’s “The minor political divisions” (1874)
    in Walker’s Statistical atlas of the United States (II: p 11)
  3. cf. Jefferson’s “Letter to Samuel Kercheval” (12 July 1816),
    as excerpted in Galpin’s “The minor political divisions” (1874)
    in Walker’s Statistical atlas of the United States (II: p 11)
  4. “lubberly”: clumsy
  5. cf. Jefferson’s “Letter to John Tyler” (26 May 1810),
    as excerpted in Galpin’s “The minor political divisions” (1874)
    in Walker’s Statistical atlas of the United States (II: p 11)
  6. cf. Tocqueville’s Democracy in America: Vol I (1835) pp 84-86
  7. cf. Parker’s “The origin, organization, and influence of the towns” (1867) pp 5-6
  8. cf. Shattuck’s History of the town of Concord (1835) p 255
    NB: Henry A. Hazen suggests that Shattuck is mistaken.
    cf. Hazen’s History of Billerica (1883) p 218 (footnote)
  9. No earlier mention of this adage seems extant in print.
    (The saying was evidently already proverbial in 1879.)
  10. cf. KJV’s Malachi 1:13
  11. cf. KJV’s Deut. 30:14; Romans 10:8

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