Reading 300 Years of Minutes

PLYMOUTH–Laurence Pizer, town clerk, wears the look of a man who has just been interrupted from a good book and has noticed suddenly the glare of bright sunlight. Behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, Mr. Pizer’s eyes tend to squint as he consider questions, though more often than not the squinting comes just before a wry smile.

Mr. Pizer seems to like what he does, which is, in part, to keep track of things: births and deaths, marriages, registered voters, how many people attend town meetings… As steward of Plymouth’s town records, he is also in charge of some of the earliest documents of town government in New England. He seems to like that part of the job especially.

A trained historian (he has a Masters Degree from the University of Iowa), Mr. Pizer has been using his spare time in recent years to read the minutes of all Plymouth town meetings, starting from the beginning. The earliest minutes to a “town’s meeting” in Plymouth date to 1637. In his reading, he’s up to the year 1710.

In the vault behind the counter in the town clerk’s office, Mr. Pizer opens a bound volume of minutes. The yellowed pages of English-made rag-linen paper are preserved in special plastic sleeves. Mr. Pizer spots the signature of Thomas Faunce. “He’s one of my great heroes,” he says. Faunce became town clerk in the 1670s, and stayed on through the following decades. “I haven’t come to his ending his clerkhood, but I think it’s around 1720,” Mr. Pizer says.

The shelves in the town clerk’s vault are packed with boxes marked Official Ballots: Deliver at Once, and volumes of birth and death records, and cemetery deeds and computer diskettes tied with rubber bands. In one corner, Mr. Pizer keeps the work of another distinguished Plymouth citizen of whom he is fond: William T. Davis, a banker who took the trouble in the late 1800s to print in three volumes the minutes of town meetings from 1637 to 1783. This saves Mr. Pizer the trouble of having to decipher the handwriting of his earliest predecessors, though he knows such travails lie ahead: the minutes from 1783 to 1866 exist only in script.

Mr. Pizer, who grew up in Winthrop but has lived in Plymouth for 17 years, takes the historian’s perspective when considering the role of the town meeting in the life of the town. “As far as disagreements, the subjects haven’t changed much over the last 300 years,” he says. “It’s just not all that different.” Mr. Pizer notes that on spending questions there were those who argued the town could not afford greater expenditures and those who urged the town to make investments for the future good.

Meet the Author

Dave Denison

Founding Editor, CommonWealth magazine
In the earliest years of town meetings, Pilgrim settlers put an emphasis on consensus and saw a divided meeting as a dangerous thing. But what Mr. Pizer has noticed in reading through the first 73 years of minutes is how consensus began to break down and “how things became personal.” He tells of one debate over whether to build a bridge over the Jones River (in present-day Kingston). Though it was the custom to phrase arguments in terms of the good of the community, the Jones River bridge debate brought out those who argued for or against in terms of what was “really important to me, as opposed to the community,” Mr. Pizer says.

Town leaders worried about low attendance at the town meetings in the 1600s.

Though people sometimes seem to think attendance problems at today’s town meetings are a sign of changing times, Mr. Pizer suggests it has been a problem from the first. It was in Plymouth that a Board of Selectmen was first created, so as to take more immediate responsibility for town affairs, in the absence of well-attended town meetings, Mr. Pizer recounts. The earliest minutes show a concern that not enough residents were attending the meetings and that responsibility for town affairs fell on a small group of people, he says. “They put it nicely, but they were basically talking about whether people were going to care enough about the community to show up at town meeting.”