What the 17th-Century Ideal of a ‘Commons’ Means in the 21st Century

Is there even such a thing anymore as a completely public space?

Gray's general store in Little Compton, Rhode Island
Gray’s general store, located in Little Compton, Rhode Island, was built the year before George Washington was sworn in as the nation's first president. Shown here in 2017, the store closed in 2012 after the owner died. Courtesy of Stephan Savoia/Associated Press.

“The commons” is a concept, an ideal. The commons are property we all share, property that’s owned not by any one person or group, but that’s held, well, in common. It also has a distinct history, back to early American towns having an actual commons, an undivided piece of land owned jointly by all the residents of a town. It was a place where all could graze their cattle, bury their dead, meet for church, and make community decisions.

Today, the concept of the commons is under threat in a country that has become more focused on individual rights than on collective ones. We hear more about the “tragedy of the commons”—the economist’s phrase for what happens to jointly held resources like clean water or air when everyone acts in their own self-interest—than about the value of the commons.

To understand the long history of the commons in American life, I went looking for it. Little Compton, Rhode Island, where I live, has an actual, physical commons. The town green is officially “the Commons.”

Little Compton was originally part of the Plymouth Colony, which designed towns to include a space for the government and church in the center of things, embracing the idea of the commons both as civic space and as a way of governing.

When Little Compton was laid out in the late 17th century, each purchase from the Sakonnet people was divided among the 29 “First Proprietors,” men from Plymouth Colony who had been promised land on the frontier. An additional equal section was set aside for “Minister,” land to be rented or sold to support the church.

And then a plot of land in the center of town, about 20 acres, was set aside for the church and for government offices, a common burial ground, a pound for wandering animals, and space for the drilling of militia.

This plot was called the Commons from the start. In 1694 the town erected a building to be used as a combined town hall and church, tavern and poor house. Among the early decisions at the town hall: the laying out of roads, apportioning the town’s allotment of salt, and the division of the town’s woods

Ideas about community and what was properly owned in common changed dramatically over the following decades. In 1724 a new church, separate from the Town Hall, was built on the Commons, the beginning of the separation of church and state.

By the end of the 19th century, these official structures were joined by new types of semipublic buildings, fraternal organizations for narrower slices of community. The Grange was a gathering place for farmers, providing education and lobbying for their interests. The Odd Fellows Hall offered fellowship and opportunities for community service. The government expanded too: The poor house had moved, but now there was a school and a hearse house, for the shared, town-owned hearse. There were two churches, a Methodist church joining the Congregational one. There were also more spaces that were privately owned but publicly accessible, including a general store and shops. The federal government was represented by a post office, established in 1834. Its official address was “Commons, Rhode Island.” It was still a commons, but one that had been subdivided in new ways.

I visit the Commons fairly frequently, both public and private sides, to buy a dump permit from the town hall, attend an event at the Community Center (in the old Grange Hall), visit the library, or eat at Commons Lunch. When last I visited, I took a good look at just what was common—what was still public—about the Commons today. What does commons mean, in our era of privatization?

There’s still much about the Commons that is held in common. The property is still owned by the town, except for the plot where the church stands, which is now owned by the church. There are government institutions: the town hall, school, and post office. Much of the land is occupied by the town burying ground, which also includes the town’s war memorials. All of this reflects, in a modern way, that sense of shared purpose that goes back to the Plymouth Colony.

Where that starts to change is in the new additions to the public domain. The Commons has been extended to include a large area for public recreation, including a soccer field, tennis courts, and playgrounds. These are on town-owned land and are maintained by the town government. But, as with so many recent public amenities, these facilities are actually public-private partnerships, dependent on donated funds and volunteer labor for construction.

The town library, on the other side of the Commons, is another example of this public-private duality. It’s actually the Brownell Library, bequeathed to the “people of Little Compton” by Pardon Brownell, a “generous citizen, whose ancestral roots are deeply fastened in the community,” in 1921. (The existing town library was combined with it 40 years later.) The Brownell Trust maintains the building; taxpayers fund staffing, books, and supplies; and a separate nonprofit group supports programs.

This public-private framework means that decisions about community are made by segments of the community, those who care most, or have the time or funds to support their interests, and not by the town as a whole. Many of the organizations that support community life are nonprofits. They might receive a small amount of government support, but also do a great deal of private fundraising.

The Village Improvement Society, just off the Commons, was founded in 1914 by Georgiana Bowen Withington, a wealthy summer resident, to help the town “develop along the lines so carefully drawn by the wise first settlers.” It was not to be a charity, but “an effort to stimulate the people to get for themselves the good things of life,” established by “leading citizens” but open to all. The Community Center, established in 1993 to provide “educational, social, and cultural programming for the enrichment of the community,” fundraises to support after-school activities, a summer camp, and other programs. There’s a Senior Citizens Center, sharing the building with the Grange.

Does the Commons still serve as a commons? I think it does. It’s still the place for official government work: elections, town meetings, and committee meetings. It’s where citizens go to interact with town offices, or attend the annual town meeting. It’s the place for other kinds of community, too, both the kind supported by nonprofits and those that form at restaurants and coffee shops. It also serves as the location for grassroots politics: the Sakonnet Peace Alliance has held vigils in “peaceful witness against war and violence” at the Commons every Sunday since 2003.

My visits to the Commons, and to other public spaces here, including beaches and parks, made the town feel like it was home in a way it hadn’t before. Learning the history of those places helped me understand something important about what it means to belong.

But the visits also made me worry about the changing meaning of commons, privatization, and the lack of transparency in decision-making, as well as the lack of government support for places so important to creating community. That old burying ground on the Commons, once the sturdy embodiment of our collective ideals, now feels as fragile as the concept itself.

Steven Lubar is a professor of American studies at Brown University, a member of the Board of Directors of the Little Compton Historical Society, and co-editor of the recently published Little Compton: A Changing Landscape.

This essay is part of What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Arizona State University, produced by Zócalo Public Square.

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