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Amherst’s founding principles

This Sunday at 1p.m. there will be a parade starting at Amherst College and ending at the Haigis Mall, on the University of Massachusetts campus. The parade will run through the center of Amherst.  The purpose is to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the city that hosts our University. Through our involvement with the University, as residents of Amherst, we might endeavor to learn about the history of the people among whom we live.

According to “The Handbook of Amherst, Massachusetts” published in 1894 by Frederick Hitchcock, the migration of settlers to the various parts of western Massachusetts was largely motivated by “divergent theories of government.” This is to say that it was not for economic need or economic exploitation that our ancestors moved, but they were motivated by fundamental principles of government and theories concerning the nature of liberty and freedom.

The settlers of our particular area first travelled from eastern Massachusetts to Hartford, Conn., then traveled up the Connecticut River towards our portion of the Commonwealth. According to the same handbook, the friends of Rev. John Hooker, a prominent church leader at the time, were motivated to move up from Hartford to attain a larger degree of personal liberty. Rev. Hooker’s first public lecture at Hartford is often cited as laying the foundation for the truths enshrined in both our Massachusetts and Federal Constitutions.

In his first lecture, Rev. Hooker expounded the foundation of government upon Deuteronomy 1:13, which according to modern translations is rendered, “Choose for your tribes wise, understanding and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.” Moses refers back to an earlier event where he delegates some of his authority to judge the people to “wise, understanding and experienced men,” whom the people themselves will choose.

Upon this basis, Rev. Hooker derived three principles directly from the law of God. They can be summarized as follows. The people have the right to choose their own leaders; the people must choose their leaders based on the law of God and not their own fancies; and the people have a right to limit the scope of the power delegated to these leaders. He went on to provide reasons for these principles. First that authority is only legitimate when it is through the free consent of the people themselves. Secondly, the ability to give their free consent results in an increased likelihood that they would submit to this authority.

It is not difficult to see where we find the basis of representative democracy, federalism and local control in teachings of our forefathers. The surprise is that educated men would conclude these truths from the Bible. After all, who would have thought such a thing? In America generally, and certainly in Massachusetts, we still hold to these principles very strongly, perhaps with the exception of Rev. Hooker’s second principle. This is an essential ideal that should be discussed more often. Upon which criteria do we choose our political leaders?

This is critically important because without some form of shared ideals, we end up placing ourselves in a precarious position as a community and a nation. Tolerance of deviant behaviors is appropriate insofar as it permits people to live in harmony and peace, but when it challenges the very foundations of society, these behaviors should be exposed as immoral and contrary to God’s law. It will lead us to the same place where things had gotten out of hand in Israel. Judges 17:6 teaches , “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Under modern sensibilities, we may feel that the ideal is that each person should be able to do what is right in his own view and that truth is up to each individual beholder. This is not the case. We already know that we have certain shared values that people are expected to uphold in community, and certain behaviors are simply deemed inappropriate in public or private.

Therefore the debate really rests within which philosophy we shall acquire our principles. The risk in all man-made philosophical and legal systems is that they are not eternal. People can challenge, modify or even breakaway from the main tenets, and there is nothing to deny that these positions are legitimate and sincere. On the Bible is a strong foundation of law, since on its basis there exists a fixed understanding of reality, received from God, where we can find assurance of our human rights.

The selection of our political leaders, therefore, ought to be rooted in Rev. John Hooker’s second principle. The eighteenth article of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution reaffirms this position, which begins by stating, “A frequent recurrence to the fundamental principles of the constitution and a constant adherence to those of piety, justice, moderation, temperance, industry and frugality, are absolutely necessary to preserve the advantages of liberty and to maintain a free government.”   

Eric Magazu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at emagazu@ student.umass.edu.

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