The Order of Business

We do not have detailed minutes of that first meeting at Henry Wagner’s “house,” on April 9, 1838. The Hunterdon Gazette merely published the names of those elected to office, and three items of business: roads, keeping the poor, and a dog tax.

I have often wondered how these early town meetings were managed. They must have been different from the meetings held today. There is a clue in a report of 1825 issued by Amwell Township (which then included Delaware Township). It set forth some rules on how their meetings were to be conducted, and I think it most likely that subsequent meetings in most towns followed the same procedure. 1

At the Amwell meeting of 1825, it was determined that all future town meetings were to begin between 9 and 10 o’clock in the morning, at which time a moderator and town clerk were to be chosen by voice vote (“vive voce”), presumbaly by all who were in attendance. The article did not say how people knew who was volunteering for those positions, but I expect political parties had lined up candidates before-hand and gotten the word out. In 1838, The Moderator for Delaware Township was John Barber Esq., who already had a long history of serving as Moderator for Amwell Township meetings, and the Town Clerk was A. B. Chamberlin.

The next order of business was to decide on the number of “constables, overseers of the poor and other officers to be chosen” at the meeting. Then, at 10 o’clock, the voting began, by ballot. The Moderator acted as judge of the election, and the town clerk kept the record. Voting was to continue until 3:00 p.m. All the officers were voted on except the Moderator and Clerk, who had already been chosen, and the Overseers of Roads, who had to wait until the elections were finished and all other officers had been selected.

These ballots I mentioned were not for individual candidates, but for whole tickets of candidates. “Every person entitled to vote may vote one ticket, on which shall be written the names of a suitable number of candidates, to fill the several offices respectively.” And “any ticket containing the names of a greater number of candidates for any office than there are officers of that description to be chosen, shall be rejected.”

There are two ways this might have been done. First, individual voters might have written down the names of all the people they were voting for on a piece of paper and handed it in. Alternatively, the political parties could have gotten into the act, and printed up their own tickets, which they could have handed out to party members on election day. The dominant political parties at the time were the National Republicans, supporting John Quincy Adams, and the Democratic Republicans, supporting Andrew Jackson. Political parties always plan ahead of time, so, even though the number of positions to be voted on was not definitely known until after 10 a.m. on the day of election, they probably printed up ballots ahead of time with their favorite candidates listed for each office. In fact, in 1828, the Gazette published a list of candidates for various offices in Amwell Township. Many of them got elected, but not all of them. In the case of Moderator, neither of the candidates were chosen.

It is likely that only the most committed partisans showed up for the 9 o’clock meeting to chose the Moderator and Town Clerk. For the rest of the day, Skunktown must have been a busy place. Annual Meeting day was a social event in the 19th century. By lunch time (it was called dinner back then), voters (men) and their families were coming into town to get some refreshment from Henry Wagner and his wife Catharine, while they decided who to vote for. American elections had long been considered good opportunities for imbibing local brew, and I think we can have confidence that such was the case on that April day in Skunktown.

The County Election, 1852 by George Caleb Bingham

The County Election, 1852, by George Caleb Bingham

The best illustration I’ve seen of voting in 19th-century America—The County Election, 1852. by George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879), at the Saint Louis Art Museum. Click on the picture to see all the wonderful detail.

Once the voting was over, at 3:00 p.m., the Town Clerk counted the votes and the Moderator announced the winners. In Hunterdon County, the Moderator was usually not elected to the Township Committee, and the person chosen as Town Clerk never was. There were some exceptions to this rule. John Barber served as Moderator of Amwell Township’s annual meeting starting in 1831. From 1833 to 1837 he also served on the Township Committee. In 1839 and 1840, Benjamin Horn served as Delaware Township’s Moderator and also on the Township Committee. But in 1842 and 43, Moderator William Wilson declined to serve on the Committee. It all depended on the personality of the Moderator.

With the voting over, the Overseers of Roads were chosen by means of a pre-selection process. It was not all that easy to find people willing to be Overseers. In fact, it was so difficult that Amwell Township set up a procedure for naming them. It involved a meeting of those who paid road tax in each district, at 3:00 p.m. on the Saturday afternoon preceding the next town meeting. They were to vote on a person to be overseer of each road district for the coming year, to make a certificate of the vote signed by three of those present and deliver it to the Moderator before the annual meeting. Their choice would be confirmed at the annual meeting, but if they could not decide on an overseer, one would be named at that meeting.

So those were the rules. It sounds a little chaotic and disorganized, but it seems to have worked well enough for the times.

Township Officers after 1838

The tradition of serving in office for many years began with the first members of Delaware Township’s government. The minutes for the second meeting in 1839 are missing, but from Snell’s History of Hunterdon and Somerset Counties (p. 374) we learn that the Township Committee consisted of Benjamin Horn, Nicholas B. Higgins, John S. Wilson, Adam Williamson, and Asher Lambert. James J. Fisher and James Snyder continued as Chosen Freeholders. A. B. Chamberlin served as town clerk from 1838 to 1844, and Mahlon Smith as Collector 1838-40.

The minutes for the Town Meeting of April 13, 1840 are filed at the Hunterdon County Clerk’s Office. It was held at the house (now the Township Hall) of Isaiah Moore, innkeeper of Sergeantsville, formerly the house of Henry Wagner. The Town Committee was Benjamin Horn (also Moderator), Adam Williamson, John S. Wilson, Asher Lambert, Jonas Sutton. The Town Clerk was Amplius B. Chamberlin; Assessor was William Sergeant; Collector, Mahlon Smith (also overseer of roads); Constable, William Rake; and Judge of Election, John S. Wilson.

The Commissioners of Appeals in 1840 were Benjamin Horn, Jacob F. Buchanan and Mahlon Smith. Chosen Freeholders were James Snyder and Abraham Conover. Surveyors of Highways were John Lambert and John Salter. The School Committee was John Salter and John Lambert, and the Poundkeeper was Isaiah H. Moore.

Many of these names continue to appear as officeholders of one kind or another through many years, demonstrating that once someone competent is elected to office, voters tend to return him (and eventually her) over and over again. Everyone recognizes that the work is necessary, but few are willing to volunteer for it. Whether or not we agree with every decision they make, members of the Township Committee and other township boards and committees should be appreciated for the time they take to make our town a better place.

  1. Hunterdon Gazette and Farmers’ Weekly Advertiser, April 14, 1825.