A time for reflection

The day after a hard-fought local election is as good a time as ever to step back and reflect on the bigger picture by asking ourselves this one question: What do we want Westport to be like in 25 or 50 years or even a century from now?

This campaign has proven once again that our "grassroots" democracy works.

So how should we plan for the future? There is a way to shed some light on this. The great French writer, Alexis deTocqueville, commenting on the future of America in the 1870s in his seminal work, Democracy in America, stated: "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness." His book is as relevant now as when it was first published in the mid-19th century.

Likening America to a human being, deTocqueville wrote: "The states which now compose the American Union all have institutions with the same external aspect. Political and administrative life is concentrated in three active centers, which could be compared to the various nervous centers that control the emotions of the human body."

Then, most significantly, he wrote: "The township [italics mine] is the first in order, then the county, and last the state."

He continued: "It is not by chance that I consider the township first. The township is the only association so well rooted in nature that wherever men assemble it forms itself. The strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they put it within the people's reach; they teach people to appreciate its peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it."

Ever since I moved to Westport some 41 years ago, I have come to appreciate what the term "grassroots democracy" really means. As deTocqueville puts it: "In the township, as everywhere else, the people are the source of power, but nowhere else do they exercise their power so directly."

I have been an admirer of deTocqueville's ever since I took a course in sociology at college in New Hampshire in which his book was required reading. My notes, now turned yellow, from that time, recorded my obvious bias towards New England.

As deTocqueville put it: "The New Englander is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he has an interest in it because he shares in its management; he loves it because he has no reason to complain of his lot; he invests his ambition and his future in it; in the restricted sphere within his scope, he learns to rule society; he gets to know those formalities, and becoming imbued with their spirit, develops a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and in the end accumulates clear, practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights."

Let's take a closer look at deTocqueville's premise, "When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness." This is another way of saying, of course, that the past is the prelude to the future. With that in mind, here's a brief look at our past and the precious lessons we learned from it to carry forward:

At the very outset, we learned that you have to fight to gain and maintain independence. It does not just happen. The seeds of Westport were planted in 1648 when five farmers from Fairfield, led by John Green [thus Green's Farms], broke away from their native town because they wanted to farm more land. They settled on the banks of Long Island Sound, each owning 20 fertile acres of land along the coast from the Indians of Machamux, who occupied the area around what is now Beachside Avenue.

The residents of Green's Farms broke away from the West Parish of Fairfield and established their own Congregational Society of Green's Farms. Fairfield objected, but the residents nonetheless went ahead and formed the Green's Farms Congregational Church in June of 1711. The church set into motion an educational system when they erected the first schoolhouse at that time. Education was a constant source of controversy -- a harbinger of many such disputes to come. Still, we learned early on the importance of a first-rate educational system.

In the post-Revolutionary War period we learned how to set up business and commerce as the basis of a thriving economy -- the farm-based economy began to combine with a bustling new shipping industry that would soon carry their produce to all parts of the world.

In 1835, businessman Daniel Nash led a group of 145 residents to Hartford to formally petition the General Assembly requesting the formation of a new town. This continued fight for independence resulted in a town charter on May 28, 1835, setting the general boundaries of Westport's 22.4 square miles, which have remained ever since.

In the decades since, Westport adapted to emerging changes that made it part of a larger region and county. The railroad, the trolley, the telephone, the automobile -- all of the modern conveniences were quickly adopted by Westport townspeople, eager for innovation, creativity and a better life. In a phrase, we learned not only how to embrace change, but to become a leader in private and public life throughout the nation.

The 20th century, of course, saw the community become a colony for artists, writers, advertising people -- the collective response to World War II and the housing boom that followed it. We became another suburban town, but with one major difference between ourselves and others in New England: we were the first to welcome diverse populations, to break down the walls of anti-Semitism, to benefit from our Italian, German and Irish descendents who came here in the 1870s. And we were the first to try and integrate our town school rooms by busing kids in from Bridgeport.

We learned to rely on the strength of many people living under the same town government. We were the first town in New England to purchase a private country club and convert it for the use of all townspeople. We leaned the value of placing public good over private gain. We built a library that has become a cultural center. We have our own arts center, modest as it is. We have a strong a vibrant Family Y. We have a record number of clubs organizations, and educational programs for lifelong learning.

All this and more we have accomplished in the past as fundamental values to cherish as we move into the future.

Woody Klein's "Out of the Woods" column appears regularly in the Westport News. He is author of Westport, Connecticut, The Story of a New England Town's Rise to Prominence, sponsored by the Westport Historical Society.