The terminology used in these 18th century manuscripts will be familiar to any contemporary participant in Hingham’s Town Meeting: “Mr. Moderator,” the first opens, “As I requested the article in the warrant we are now upon to be inserted, [I] suppose it is expected I should shew for what reason it is inserted . . . .” We do not know who is addressing Town Meeting or who made these notes, but we understand immediately what’s happening.
The speaker explains that he enjoys the use of 27 acres of land at “Great Lotts,” half “tillage and mowing land” and half pasture, “to no part of either of which can I carry any manure or bring off any produce or drive my oxen or cows but upon sufferance.” The problem, as he describes it, is that when the town laid out the “Great Lotts” and “Squirrel Hill Lott” one hundred years previously, the intention had been to lay out a road running between Goles Lane and Broad Cove Street, to allow access to the lots. (Broad Cove Street is now called Lincoln Street and Goles Lane, also formerly called the Turnpike, is now Beal Street. The Great Lots were survivals of the practice, in the earliest days of settlement, of assigning settlers planting lots and pasture at a far remove from the thickly-settled residential center of town.)
A town committee was appointed, the speaker claims, to lay out this road, and ¾ of its roughly one-mile route was fenced. The task was not completed, however, and recently Thomas Hersey had built a stone wall where the road ran across his property. For the speaker, the stakes were high: “if I cannot get to my Land [I] shall be reduced to the hard necessity of keep[ing] two cows & driving my oxen to the worlds end & keep[ing] a horse the greater part of the summer at the barn.”
It demonstrates just how old our town is that this 18th century Hingham farmer was basing his argument on what he claimed were the Town’s mid-17th century actions. Remarkably, he appears to have had documentary evidence to support his contention. A second set of notes in the same handwriting, perhaps of a second application to the Town, opens:
Mr. Moderator. What I propose by Laying before the Town the record that has now been read is to shew the sentiments of the Town respecting a highway from Goles Lane to Broad Cove Street 100 years ago, which the Inhabitants have passed & repassed since time immemorial but is now entirely stopped up by Mr. Thomas Hersey . . . .
Hingham’s town seal pays tribute to the four pillars upon which the town was founded and grew: Church, School, Train-Band (the militia), and Town-Meeting. These two manuscripts remind us of the central role played by Town Meeting, which, as the legislative branch of our municipal government, has offered individual citizens a direct voice in municipal government for close to four centuries.