Bedford Explained: Bedford’s Annual Town Meeting

Bedford Meeting House in 1729

The Massachusetts Great and General Court incorporated our town of Bedford on September 23, 1729. Three days later, the Court sent word to Jonathan Bacon, owner of the mill on the Shawsheen River and a leader in the new town, directing him to assemble the first Bedford town meeting.

There were a lot of things to decide. Through the summer, the people from southern Billerica and northeastern Concord had come together to construct themselves a meetinghouse: the building that would serve them as the place of worship and the place of government in Bedford.

On October 6, 1729, they sat down inside it (yes, unfortunately, at the time “they” meant free, white, male, property owners) and began to shape this Town of ours, together.

First, they elected a moderator for the meeting – Jonathan Bacon. Then they elected the rest of the officers, beginning with selectmen and constables, but not omitting a long list of others including tithingmen*, hog reeves, and fence viewers. 

Later, warrant articles brought questions of perfecting (sic) the meetinghouse, hiring a minister, and procuring all the materials and skills needed to begin Bedford, Massachusetts. 

We know this because the original Town Meeting minutes are preserved securely in the Town Vault, and the Bedford Library owns a microfilmed copy.

Reading right through the minutes would take weeks and decoding the old handwriting and spelling would make one dizzy. But reading bit by bit, as they were written, I’ve found myself taking a virtual seat in the meetinghouse and observing the historical “minds of the Town” as they deliberated the issues that were vital at the time of each meeting:

“Shall the roads be repaired?” “Shall a moving school be held?” “Shall the hogs run loose?” “Should the minister’s salary include firewood?” “Should the Town pay 25 minutemen a shilling a week to train?” “Will the Town accept a Resolution decrying slavery?” “Will the Town be wet or dry in the coming year?”

Browsing old warrant articles is interesting. Some of them are really quaint. But today’a Annual Town Meeting is not quaint. It is a rulebook with up-to-the-minute changes. It is our contract with each other, specifying what we believe a democratic, just, prosperous, best-of-all-possible Bedfords must look like today.

Mercifully, it is not necessary for you to read eighteenth-century script or work a microfilm machine to attend Bedford Town Meeting.  It is even held during pandemics. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021—the gates to Sabourin Field open at 8 am, and the meeting begins at 9. See you there!

* The Tithingman

New England Historical Society The Puritan Tithingman
The Puritan Tithingman

*The tithingman had several duties, one of which was to go around the meetinghouse during the sermons and wake people who had fallen asleep.

He had a long pole with a silver knob on one end and a feather or a squirrel’s tale at the other. 

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