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A Lesson In Civics—but not what they teach in school

May 2024
14min read

That splendid flower of New England— the town meeting—wilts under the scrutiny of a native son

The democratic tradition—or so I am told—is nowhere more splendidly exemplified than in the small New England town. There the candidates are neighbors of the voters, and the presumption of those who grew up elsewhere is that, on the first Monday in March, the honest New Englanders soberly assess the known faults and virtues of these neighbors and invariably elect the most upright of men to be selectmen and highway surveyors and keepers of the pound.


As for the New England town meeting, every U.N. delegate from the Near East is sentimental about it, and Americans from Davenport, Iowa, sigh with nostalgic fondness: “Ah, if the Russians could only attend a town meeting in Massachusetts!”

Well, I feel a certain nostalgia myself for election day in old New England, and each year when March comes in like a windy candidate for the sewer commission, I too sigh for the town meeting. But what I am sighing for is something we had better not let the Russians know about at all.

Specifically, I am thinking of 1925, when I was thirteen years old. In the wake of a municipal election and the most wondrous town meeting that ever was, my father found himself one of two chairmen of selectmen in Milford, Massachusetts—though the town by-laws made it clear that there could be only one chairman. We had two chiefs of police that year, too. Chief of Police O’Brien occupied the station. On the other hand, the cops took their orders from Moloney. It was very exciting. I nearly flunked Latin that year.

The big issue of the election was who would get a job out of it. I’m sorry to disappoint the nonresident lovers of quaint old New England, but (hat’s the way it was. There were 14,000 people in Milford, and to serve them, the public paymaster had to shell out to a formidable number of road menders, firemen, school janitors, cops, meat inspectors, snow shovelers, substitute teachers, special constables, inspectors of wires, tree surgeons, gravediggers, librarians’ assistants, and gypsy-moth controllers. Clearly, if your backward nephew had a chance at a job pouring tar into cracks in the road, you were going to vote for the man who would invest him with the overalls of that office.

My modest connection with the political campaign started in January, when first my Uncle Freddie, then various other men, singly and in committees, called at my house to urge my father to run for selectman on the Good Government ticket.

The Good Government party—called, inevitably, the Goo-goos—was the creation of my uncle, who for a couple of years had been trying to assemble a slate strong enough to beat the Citizens’ Caucus party, otherwise known to us Goo-goos as The Machine.

As far as I could make out from eavesdropping on my father’s callers, the trouble with The Machine was that it didn’t run Italians for selectmen. At that time, the population of Milford embraced a roughly equal number of Italians, Irish, and old-line Yankees. Once upon a time the Irish had struggled against the Yankees for political representation; now, through The Machine, they had achieved practically all the political representation the town had to offer, and it was the Italians’ turn to knock on the door of Town Hall. This, said my lather’s callers, was the year when they might make it, because The Machine had not been able to take care of every Irishman in town, and the ones who hadn’t got jobs were pretty sore about it. But along with two other candidates for the board of selectmen, the Goo-goos would need a strong Italian candidate, and one and all were agreed that my father was the man of the hour.

At first my father was coy. But he was an immigrant who could remember that when he was twelve years old and newly arrived on these shores, people used to hitch up their buggies every Sunday and drive past his house to gaze at an “Eyetalian” family as they might gaze at animals in a zoo. Now they wanted him to run for selectman, and it was very gratifying. He began to think of a selectman as being after all a kind of mayor. He began to think of Town Hall as City Hall. He said, “Don’t worry,” when my mother told him she wouldn’t speak to him if he ran for office, but there was a faraway look in his eye. Through the years since then, I have always understood the presidential itch.

Finally he said he would run. My mother went right on speaking to him and conking for him and loving him. I think she did stop speaking to certain women associated with the Citizens’ Caucus party, though.

The Machine and the Goo-goos announced their candidates at about the same time. The Machine’s candidates for selectmen were one Yankee, a man named Spindel, and two Irishmen: Messrs. Higgiston and Fitzsimmons. Our side had what my uncle called a “balanced slate”: my father to represent Italy, Thomas Malloy to represent Eire, and an elderly man named Damon to represent America.

Of course I had right along been in favor of my father’s getting into politics, and now, in my way, I got into it myself, i typed my father’s speeches and newspaper advertisements; i cheerfully ran errands; and I not only attended the Goo-goo rallies in club rooms and Ore stations, but I spied on the opposition at their rallies, too. From my father i learned the word “nepotism”; he was against it. I learned that one’s opponents never had an honorable reason for running for office: candidates for trustee of the public cemetery wanted to appoint themselves giavediggers, and candidates for assessor wanted to start a lucrative insurance business. At the rallies I learned that the principal orator should be, not the candidate, but a lawyer, who after all could tear his spurious passions to smaller tatters than could the less practiced office-seekers. I learned that each side must refer to the opponents’ lawyer-orator as “the power behind the throne.” There seemed to be a rule about this. The power behind the Goo-goo throne was my Uncle Freddie, and my, didn’t he catch it from the other side! At an opposition rally, i heard an ex-police chief named Murphy declare, “I point the finger of scorn at Alfred Cenedella”—and an opposition advertisement in the Milford Daily News read in part as follows: At a rally last night, the air was permeated with vilification and abuse of the town and its people. In referring to Mr. Fitzsimmons’ community service—in decorating and paying tribute at the graves of the deceased members of the G.A.R.—the brother of one of the candidates and the chief beneficiary of the “spoils system” [Uncle Freddie!] sacrilegiously called Mr. Fitzsimmons “the graveyard candidate.” To stoop to this low level and verbally debauch such a sacred national observance as Memorial Day is unparalleled in the history of politics.

When the incumbent selectmen—Citizens’ Caucus men, all of them—announced the list of election tellers, there was an indignant outcry from our side. Scarcely any Goo-goos at all had been appointed, and Uncle Freddie made oratorical capital of this. By now I thought I was pretty wise in the ways of politics, and I regarded this matter of the tellers as just a talking point. I got wiser after the election.

Finally election day arrived.

I started early in the morning working as courier between the spotters and the checkers. Our election headquarters were in an office in the Town Hall, and it was my duty to run from these headquarters through the corridor, out the side door, around the building, in the front door, and into the election room where two spotters were writing down the names of the voters as they arrived. I would take the list of names from them, run all the way back to headquarters, and hand it to the checkers—women who checked the names off a voting list. Then I’d do it all over again. No one ever tackled any job with more vigor. The morning vote was slow, but I was in there pitching every minute. As the newness of my duties wore off, I no longer asked the spotters for their sheets of paper: I yanked them from their hands and was gone. Once I returned to headquarters with papers I had snatched from the spotters only to have the checkers complain that there were no names at all on the papers. “Slow down, kid,” one checker said, but I was halfway down the corridor.

At noon my mother phoned to say that I must come home for lunch and then go to school. High school freshmen in Milford—I was one then—had to attend school in the afternoon, because the high school building was overcrowded. As a matter of fact, while the school situation never did generate as much excitement in the campaign as the issue of whether the chief of police should be a man named O’Brien or a man named Moloney, it did get frequent mention. Everybody except a few Yankees who had no children agreed that the situation was intolerable. Both political parties declared that we should build a new school. And so we did, eleven years later.

I went home to lunch, took my schoolbooks, left the house, and went straight back to the Town Hall and my courier duties.

I continued working until eight o’clock, when the polls closed. Then my father (I suspect my mother had whispered to him) told me I had to go home. I went, because he drove me. Upstairs in the bathroom, I delivered a political speech, ending with a shadowboxing uppercut to Higgiston’s chin. Then I went to bed.

In the morning when I went down to breakfast, my mother and father were already at the kitchen table, and listening to my father, I thought he had not been elected. In his vocabulary there were no genuine swear words, such as I could have taught him, but there was a word that was close to swearing: “gorramm.” He used that word a lot at breakfast. Each time my mother said, “Philip!” rather automatically.

“Last year the gorramm votes were all counted by two-thirty,” he said. “This year the tellers started six hours earlier—six whole gorramm hours, and still they didn’t finish until three o’clock. What were they doing for six and a half extra gorramm hours?”

“Philip!” said my mother.

But who was elected? ” I asked.

It seemed that Higgiston of the Citizens’ Caucus party had been high man and my father second. For third place on the board of selectmen, Fitzsimmons of the Citizens’ Caucus had beaten my father’s running mate, Malloy, by three votes. We Goo-goos had already demanded a recount.

“I’ve told them we shouldn’t organize the new board until after the recount,” my father went on, “and I’ve told them we should have the recount before town meeting, but will the gorrammedy fools listen to me?”

I didn’t understand what town meeting had to do with it, so my father explained. The town meeting was to be held on Friday (it was now Tuesday) and two of the articles on the town warrant concerned putting the police department on civil service. If the citizens acted favorably on these articles, the policemen already holding jobs would go on civil service without examination, and they would have lifetime jobs. This included the chief of police, who was to be appointed by the new board of selectmen. At the insistence of Higgiston and Fitzsimmons, the board was to meet that very afternoon.

“And they’ll appoint Moloney, and they’ll hold up the recount until after town meeting and they’ll try to jam civil service through, and if Malloy gets in on the recount instead of Fitzsimmons—”

In short it was a gorramm mess.

My father was right. When the selectmen met that afternoon, Higgiston and Fitzsimmons, over my father’s objections, appointed Moloney chief of police, as well as a long list of other people to such offices as lockup-keeper, field driver, fence viewer, burial agent, public weigher, and weigher of coal. My father joined the others in only one ballot: he voted for Higgiston to be chairman of selectmen. He regretted it later.

The recount was set for Saturday morning—the day following the town meeting. One thing could be said for this decision—it made each person in town know what he wanted. If you were a Citizens’ Caucus man (and thus in favor of Moloney for chief of police), you wanted the civil service articles in the town warrant to pass on Friday night. If you were a Good Government man (and thus in favor of O’Brien), you wanted to keep these articles from coming up until after the recount on Saturday; failing that you wanted the articles defeated.

There was some talk in our home about whether I should attend the town meeting. I argued that for several years our teachers had been telling us what a fine lesson in civics a town meeting was. My father asked wryly whether they were saying so this year. I was able to answer yes, that one teacher was taking a whole class to the meeting. My father said he hoped all those minors would vote against civil service. I said, well, could I go? My mother said I could if I’d promise to leave at ten o’clock. I said of course I would. My father winked at me.

On Friday night I went early to town meeting and got a seat in the front row of the balcony. The town officials got there early, too, and so did the relatives of Moloney and O’Brien, and various politicians from surrounding towns who had the professional’s academic interest in what was going to happen. There were lots of high school upperclassmen, too—and of course there were voters, though six hundred of these had to be turned away from Town Hall. By the time the meeting started there were three persons for every two seats, and the aisles were jammed.

And yet, for the first few hours the town meeting was disappointingly calm. There were no fist fights until we reached Article 13, and we didn’t have to call in the state troopers until Article 14.

Article 13 concerned putting the police force, exclusive of the chief, on civil service without examination. Before Town Clerk Sullivan (Citizens’ Caucus) had finished reading the article, men were popping up all over the hall, shouting “Mr. Moderator!” The moderator, a man named McLoughlin (Citizens’ Caucus), recognized a man named McMahon (Citizens’ Caucus), who moved to accept the article. Someone else moved an amendment to postpone action until after all other articles in the warrant had been disposed of. The moderator made this Good Government man put his motion in writing.

There was a great debate then, often with three or four of the debaters shouting at once. My uncle spoke. A Citizens’ Caucus man answered him. I couldn’t hear either of them, but I cheered my uncle and booed his adversary. No one told me to shut up because everyone around me was cheering and booing too. Finally there were some shouts, and the moderator announced that the motion to postpone action was defeated. Men screamed their doubt of this. Men shouted that they hadn’t known a vote was to be taken. A couple of men were struggling with each other in one of the side aisles. The moderator allowed a standing vote and appointed four or five men as tellers. I booed. Men stood, then sat, then stood again. The tellers announced that the motion to postpone was defeated.

So the question reverted to the original motion to accept the article. There was more debate, which I missed because I was watching a fight among the standees behind me. When I turned around, the town was voting on whether to use the check list. The tellers announced that the town rejected this. Several men moved to adjourn and were declared out of order. The moderator put McMahon’s motion to accept Article 13 to a vote, and the tellers announced the result: The police were on civil service.

After that it got exciting.

There was a sort of snake dance of voters, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him, knifing through the swarms of people in the aisles. I found out afterward that these men were trying to get to the stage to announce that they doubted the vote, but the crowd was too thick—and anyhow the town clerk was reading. No one could hear him, but he must have been reading Article 14, which asked that the police chief also be put on civil service without examination.

Men were standing up yelling, “I move that we adjourn!” Others were standing up yelling, “Sit down!” The scuffling in the side aisle was getting vicious now. The space in front of the stage was filled with gesticulating, red-faced men, among them my father and my uncle. The moderator attacked his desk with the gavel. I was beating the railing in front of me and alternately shouting “Boo!” and “Hooray!” I saw a woman in the packed aisle beneath me crying.

I never did see the state troopers come in. But suddenly they were there, shouldering their way through the aisles, using their hands, pushing people, shouting at people. One trooper with a stick broke up the fight in the side aisle, and the noise subsided somewhat. There was a motion to adjourn and I could see, though I could not hear, the moderator putting it to a vote. When he declared that the motion was lost, the wrangling broke out again, and the troopers had to move with renewed vigor through the crowd for another half hour or more. Finally, the moderator could be heard once more, and lo! he was announcing that sometime amid the confusion a voice vote had adopted the article. My father doubted it. He was cheered and hissed. The moderator asked his tellers to count the votes.

I don’t know how the tellers determined who was standing up to vote—or which way—as distinguished from those who were standing up to fight or those who were standing up because there was no place to sit down. But they did count the votes, and they announced that Moloney was now on civil service.

There was more uproar. The Good Government adherents were doubting the vote, and the Citizens’ Caucus adherents were—now—moving for adjournment. The state troopers were cheerfully shoving people toward the exits. Several people near me said, “It’s all over,” and I found myself part of a general push toward the out-of-doors.

Well, at least the town of Milford knew where it stood: it had a certain board of selectmen, a certain chairman of that board, and a certain chief of police, who was now protected by civil service.

This era of stability lasted twelve hours.

At the end of that period the recount had been taken, and it developed that on election day, in counting the last few hundred votes, the weary tellers had made a great number of mistakes, all of them favorable to the candidates of the Citizens’ Caucus party. The recount put Fitzsimmons (Citizens’ Caucus) out, and Malloy (Goo-goo) in. The new board of selectmen—the new new board—met immediately.

Malloy nominated my father for chairman of the board. My father seconded the nomination. Higgiston objected, saying that he had already been elected chairman by the votes of himself and my father, who were still members of the board. My father said he wouldn’t have voted for Higgiston if the true result of the municipal election had been known at the time the vote was taken. The vote was illegal, he said, so it had to be taken over again by the legally elected board, and he was hereby voting for himself as chairman. Malloy jumped on the Cenedella bandwagon. Higgiston voted for Higgiston, and claimed that he was still chairman.

Malloy then moved that Ernie O’Brien be appointed chief of police. Higgiston said Moloney had been made chief on Tuesday. My father said it wasn’t Tuesday any longer, and that since Fitzsimmons, whose vote had put Moloney in, had not really been elected selectman, his vote was not legal. Higgiston said that Moloney had been the chief of police on Friday night when that neighborly democratic institution, the New England town meeting, had voted him the protection of civil service. My father said that Moloney could not have been police chief since the vote of a man not legally elected had given him the office, and that anyhow, the vote at town meeting had been illegal since it had been doubted by more than seven voters, and the moderator had done nothing about that. So my father and Malloy voted O’Brien in as police chief, with Higgiston voting for Moloney and maintaining that vote or no vote, Moloney was chief.

So the town had two chairmen of selectmen and two chiefs of police. Somehow—I never found out how—O’Brien got hold of the keys to the chief’s office in Town Hall and set up shop there. Moloney moved in next door, into the office of the overseers of the poor.

Well, that was the situation in Milford in 1925, and it went on for months before the supreme court of Massachusetts decided that it was the first chairman (Higgiston) and the first chief of police (Moloney) who were legal, even though the electing board was partly illegal. The state legislature, dissatisfied with the court’s decision, insured against future confusion by changing the law the way the Good Government group thought it should be changed. But that didn’t help my father, who was no longer chairman.

To a thirteen-year-old boy it was not the court decision that was disenchanting—or my father’s sudden slip from power. It was the fact that for my elders, stopping on the Main Street sidewalk to pass the time of day with members of the opposition, the political battle seemed just a pleasant memory, like the memory of last football season. I didn’t think that was right. I thought people should crusade against evil three hundred and sixty-five days a year.

I remember very well what my father said the day he came home to announce that it was all over, that the court had dismissed the Good Government party’s claims, a decision which in effect bound the town to appointments made by vote of an official who had never really been elected.

I burned with the injustice of this, but my father just smiled.

“Well,” he said, “it’s been a lot of fun.”

That’s what I learned in Massachusetts in 1925. Politicians in a democracy have too much fun. They don’t seem to think that evil is really evil at all, except at election time.

I don’t think it would be good to let that get around.

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