Although the smallest region geographically and one not blessed with large expanses of rich farmland or a mild climate, New England played a dominant role in American development. From the 17th century until well into the 19th, New England was the country's cultural and economic center.
The earliest European settlers of New England were conservative English Protestants, many of whom came in search of religious freedom. They gave the region its distinctive political format—the town meeting (an outgrowth of meetings held by church elders) in which citizens gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Even though only men who owned property could vote, town meetings afforded New Englanders an unusually high level of participation in government. Such meetings still function in many New England communities today, although of course they now include women.