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  • Democracy and Discussion:Albion Tourgée on Race and the Town Meeting Ideal1
  • Sandra M. Gustafson (bio)

The New England town meeting has historically been celebrated as both an effective model of self-governance and a school for broader forms of citizenship extending to state, national, and even global levels. In their ideal form, town meetings are schools of democratic citizenship that help foster the cognitive and expressive skills required for coalition building and problem solving. They give participants a sense that they can have an impact on the public domain and contribute to the experience of communal life. The philosopher and progressive educator John Dewey, himself a product of a New England township, summed up a long tradition of reflection about the significance of the town meeting for American democracy in his book The Public and Its Problems (1927). According to Dewey, "American democratic polity was developed out of genuine community life, that is, association in local and small centres where industry was mainly agricultural and where production was carried on mainly with hand tools. It took form when English political habits and legal institutions worked under pioneer conditions."2 Dewey described the national state as, in effect, the sum of these decentralized institutions, and he proceeded to consider the stresses on this notion of democratic public life that had developed as a consequence of territorial expansion, industrialization, population growth, and new technologies. The Public and Its Problems focuses on matters of scale and, in a more muted way, on the challenges posed by the increased ethnic and religious diversity brought about by waves of immigration after the American Civil War. Dewey's vision was not unique. Similar views of democracy and its basis in civil society informed the Chautauqua movement and were disseminated in the New England Magazine.

Dewey and his contemporaries chose to skirt the relationship between racial diversity and the town meeting ideal, but they need not have: there is a history to the idea that the town meeting could be used to dismantle the legacy of slavery and create a racially integrated society. A leading proponent of this view was Albion Tourgée, a Radical Republican and Civil War veteran, man of letters, and influential civil [End Page 389] rights lawyer. Tourgée came from the Western Reserve in Ohio, a region settled in large part by New England migrants. After the war he moved to North Carolina, seeking to "aid in transmuting an oligarchy based on race and caste into a democratic republic."3 He was a carpetbagger, that is, a type of Northerner disdained by many white Southerners as an agent of a hostile regime. In North Carolina—a state long run by a white planter oligarchy—he farmed and practiced law, founded a school, and helped his African American neighbors acquire land and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

In 1868, Tourgée played a leading role in the state constitutional convention, where he advocated for the creation of self-governing townships. He believed that the racial and class inequities of the South would only be resolved through the exercise of democratic self-rule rooted in the town meeting. His hopes were dashed when the Reconstruction era came to an end, having reached its dismal conclusion following a wave of white supremacist reaction exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan. The North Carolina township system was dismantled and oligarchy was restored, with the governor and state legislature taking responsibility for all official appointments. Tourgée left the South forever in 1879. His political aspirations had been upended, his life had been threatened, his personal finances were in a shambles, and his lofty goals had crumbled.4

A few months later he published A Fool's Errand (1879), his first Reconstruction novel, which drew comparisons to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and achieved similarly explosive sales and international circulation. Based on his experiences as a white Northerner in the Reconstruction-era South, A Fool's Errand highlights white efforts to transform the legacy of slavery. It ends with a plea for a national system of education: "Let the Nation educate the colored man and the poor-white man because the Nation...