Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

American Political Culture

Covenant and the American Founding

Daniel J. Elazar

On his way to Washington to take the oath of office as President of the United States of America, itself seemed destined for dissolution, Abraham Lincoln pointedly stopped in Philadelphia to visit Independence Hall. Standing before that historic landmark on February 21, 1861, Lincoln emphasized to his audience that he had come "to listen to those breathings rising within the consecrated walls where the Constitution of the United States, and I will add, the Declaration of Independence was originally framed." Lincoln continued:

I have never asked anything that does not breathe from those walls. All my political warfare has been in favor of the teachings coming forth from that sacred hall. May my right hand forget its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if ever I prove false to those teachings.1

America's Covenantal Vocation

Lincoln's paraphrase of the fifth and sixth verses of Psalm 137 is one of many manifestations of his view of the American experience as being parallel to that of biblical Israel. If Americans were not the chosen people, they were at least, in his eyes, "an almost chosen people." Every cadence and content of Lincoln's remarks at Independence Hall and on similar occasions suggest that he shared the sense of an American vocation similar to that described by Governor John Winthrop, the foremost of the American Puritan founders.2 In his Modell of Christian Charity delivered aboard the Arabella on the Atlantic Ocean in 1630, Winthrop summarized the enterprise upon which the first Puritan emigrants from England had embarked in the New World: "We are entered into Covenant with him for this work, we have taken out a Commission...."

In January 1965, Winthrop's statement found an echo in President Lyndon B. Johnson's inaugural address:

They came here -- the exile and the stranger, brave but frightened -- to find a place where a man could be his own man. They made a covenant with this land. Conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union, it was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind; and it binds us still. If we keep its terms, we shall flourish.

The American covenant called on us to help show the way for the liberation of man. And that is today our goal. Thus, if as a nation there is much outside our control, as a people no stranger is outside our hope.3

Almost 3,000 years after the Covenant at Sinai, the Pilgrims, who saw themselves as new Israelites embarked on a venture into their own "hideous and desolate wilderness," introduced into North America a major stream of thought derived from the biblical idea of covenant.4 While often more latent than manifest since the days of the Puritans, and partially submerged within other streams and eddies of American thought and culture -- especially secular constitutionalism -- covenant ideas not only formed a significant part of the foundation of the United States, but have continued to influence American life.

Thus, from their earliest beginnings, the people and polities comprising the United States have bound themselves together through covenants to erect their New World order, deliberately following biblical precedents. The covenant concluded on the Mayflower on November 11, 1620, remains the first hallowed document of the American constitutional tradition:

In the name of God, Amen. We whose names are under-writen, the loyall subjects of our dread soveraigne Lord, King James, by the grace of God, of Great Britaine, Franc, and Ireland king, defender of the faith, etc., haveing undertaken, for the glorie of God, and advancemente of the Christian faith, and honour of our king and countrie, a voyage to plant the first colonie in the Northerne parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly and mutualy in the presence of God, and one of another, covenant and combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete and convenient for the generall good of the colonie, unto which we promise all due submission and obedience. In witnes wherof we have hereunder subscribed our names at Cap Codd the 11. of November, in the year of the raigne of our soveraigne lord, King James, of England, France, and Ireland the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fiftie fourth. Ano: Dom. 1620.

A classic covenant, it explicitly created a community and the basis for its subsequent constitutional development. With more pride than accuracy, John Quincy Adams once referred to that Mayflower Compact as "perhaps the only instance in human history of that positive, original social compact which speculative philosophers have imagined as the only legitimate source of government."5 In fact, there were many such covenants at the time of the settlement of British North America. His point is an important one, however. The Mayflower Compact occurred at least thirty years before the speculative philosophers imagined it. By the time that Hobbes and Locke formulated their compactual theories, there were already many compactual civil societies in the New World.

For the patriots of Samuel Adams' "solemn league and covenant" against British oppression; for the framers of the constitutional compact of 1787; for Jefferson who referred to the young republic in his first inaugural address as a "chosen country;" for Lincoln who often characterized the American union as "a regular marriage;" for Johnson; and for millions of ordinary Americans, the concept of covenant has been reflected in real experiences from Jamestown to the present whereby individuals and families have come together to establish governing arrangements by compact.

The Puritans: Covenant Comes to the New World

The first political principles systematically enunciated in America were extensions and adaptations of the Puritans' federal theology which saw all society as an outgrowth of the basic biblical covenants between God and His people.6 Winthrop referred to the good commonwealth as one committed to "federal liberty," or the freedom to freely harken to the law of the covenant. The Puritans sought to place all relationships among people on a covenantal basis. Their congregations were covenant-formed partnerships of "saints" which came into existence only when potential members covenanted among each other, and survived only so long as the covenantal act remained valid (potentially but not necessarily forever).

Similarly, civil government among the Puritans was instituted by civil covenant among the residents (or potential residents) of virtually every town in most of the New England provinces.7 The Mayflower Compact (originally known as the Plymouth Combination) was the first of these covenantal acts. Subsequently, the same mode of town formation was extended to virtually every settlement created in New England and to many created in the other colonies as well. Connecticut and Rhode Island, for example, were formed by their towns covenanting (together). John Clarke and his Narragansett associates expressed the basic idea in their Plantation Agreement:

It is agreed by this Present Assembly thus Incorporate, and by this Present Act declared, that the Forme of Government Established in Providence Plantations is Democraticall; that is to say, a Government held by ye Free and Voluntarie Consent of all, or the greater Parte of the Free Inhabitants.8

As Henry Steele Commager has observed: "All through the colonial era Americans went from compact to compact -- the Fundamental Laws of Connecticut of 1639, the 'Solemn Compact' at Portsmouth of 1638, and its successor the Charter of the Providence Plantations of 1647, the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges of 1701 (not quite so clear a case, to be sure), and thereafter a score of compacts and agreements on one frontier after another."9 As Richard Niebuhr observed some years ago: "one of the great common patterns that guided men in the period when American democracy was formed...was the pattern of the covenant or of federal society."10

As Winthrop and his colleagues such as Thomas Hooker, the Mathers and other Puritan divines reveal in their works, the Puritans who settled in New England combined a fundamental conservatism with an unhesitating radicalism in a way that was to become as paradigmatic for Americans as other aspects of their approach to life. That combination was no doubt directly related to their covenantal ideology which saw humans bound to God through predestination, yet through that binding free to live according to the constitution He provided for their salvation. To implement that constitution required a revolt against the existing society, but the goals of that revolt were to restore prelapsinarian harmony to the world. The Puritans came to the New World to build a new society, but never lost sight of human weakness in trying to do so.

The synthesis did not always hold together. Those who leaned more to the radical side such as Roger Williams and Ann Dickinson almost immediately broke away. Williams established his own covenantal commonwealth of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations that was as firmly grounded in covenant in matters civil and political in order to guarantee openness in matters religious, something that the Puritans believed was impossible for the attainment of salvation.

Others allowed the conservative dimensions of Puritanism to overwhelm them; hence the Salem witch trials in which the continued Puritan emphasis on the deviltry in human souls got out of hand. But for the most part the synthesis held, spinning off different versions. Thomas Hooker, for example, moved his flock from Massachusetts to what became Connecticut to develop a more egalitarian Puritan commonwealth, but one no less faithful to combining conservative and radical dimensions. Here his supporters wrote the first full American constitution, The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, which adopted the Mosaic law as the basis of Connecticut law, by reference.

Puritan federalism expressed itself socially through the concept of "federal liberty" which John Winthrop articulated in his Address to the General Court in 1645. For Winthrop and the other Puritans, federal liberty stood in contradistinction to natural liberty:

There is a two-fold liberty, natural (I mean as our nature is now corrupt) and civil or federal. The first is common to man with beasts and other creatures. By this, man, as he stands in relation to man simply, hath liberty to do what he lists; it is a liberty to evil as well as to good. This liberty is incompatible and inconsistent with authority and cannot endure the least restraint of the most just authority. The exercise and maintaining of this liberty makes men grow more evil and in time to be worse than brute beasts: omnes sumus licentia deteriores. This is that great enemy of truth and peace, that wild beast, which all of the ordinances of God are bent against, to restrain and subdue it. The other kind of liberty I call civil or federal; it may also be termed moral, in reference to the covenant between God and man, in the moral law, and the politic covenants and constitutions between men themselves. This liberty is the proper end and object of authority and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard (not only of your goods, but) of your lives if need be.11

In truth, others who came to America were attracted by the openness of a wild land and sought natural liberty. The tension between federal and natural liberty has been a continuing one in American society. Federal liberty -- the liberty to live up to covenants consented to -- is challenged again and again by those who see liberty as doing what one pleases except when it directly interferes with the liberty of the next person.

Politically, the culmination of Puritan federalism was in the New England Confederation which in the end was destroyed by the British as a threat to the empire. Organized originally by the four New England colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Connecticut for defensive purposes, it followed the style of ancient and medieval confederacies of communities in which the real locus of power and commitment remained in the constituting units, but it soon showed signs of going beyond a mere military alliance.

Although the New England Puritans remained the most eloquent articulators of the covenant idea, they were not the only ones to bring it to America. The Scotch-Irish of the mountains and piedmont from Pennsylvania to Georgia; the Dutch of New York; the Presbyterians; and to a lesser extent, the Quakers and German Sectarians of Pennsylvania and the Middle States; and the Huguenots of South Carolina were all nurtured in churches constructed on the covenant principle. The first ministers in Virginia -- usually cited as the antithesis of New England -- were also Puritans.12 Indeed, the tradition became so widespread that by 1776 over half of the new nation's church congregations were based on covenant principles.

Initially, the basic covenants of town and congregation united individuals and families. Parallel to those covenants there developed the network of voluntary associations -- commercial, social, church, and civic -- which represent the non-governmental aspects of a society founded on the principles of free contract. From the first, networks of communities were united as colonies, then states. Ultimately, the network of states was linked in a federal union, always paralleled by a similar network of associations.

Covenants and Other Bonds

The American federal system is very much an outgrowth of both the theological and philosophic streams of thought that converged about covenant by the late seventeenth century. If covenant ideas were first brought to the New World by the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled New England, another set of covenant-related ideas entered America through the teachings of the new political science, especially those of Locke and Montesquieu. That is why federalism in the United States is more than a political device for dividing and sharing power among the state and federal governments but, rather, the form of the American polity in the eighteenth century sense of the term, that is to say, the principle that informs every aspect of the polity.13

As the form of the American polity, federalism has its roots not only in the political dimension of American society, but in the economic, social, and religious dimensions as well. As we have seen, the political and religious dimensions are closely linked. Significantly, the economic roots of American federalism also have a compactual base. They can be traced back to the early trading companies that sponsored British and Dutch settlement in North America and to the system of governance encountered by those settlers on the voyage over.14

The trading companies, each with its royal monopolies, were organized on a shareholding basis, so that both ownership and control was spread among the shareholders. In some cases, the shareholders remained in Europe and tried to hold the actual settlers within their grasp on the basis of their control of the company. Invariably, this failed for political reasons. In a few cases, the settlers or some significant portion of them were themselves shareholders and, as such, combined political and economic control. In either case, the pattern of shareholding led to a corporate structure that was at least quasi-federal in character.

In the very earliest days the line between the political and economic aspects of the charters establishing the colonies was not at all clear. As the companies lost their monopolies, charters turned more in the direction of political constitutions, pure and simple, thereby reinforcing the theopolitical covenantal dimension where it was present or providing a complementary, compactual alternative where it was not.

Even the voyage across the ocean contributed to the covenantal experience of the colonists. The governance of ships had a contractual character that at least involved federal principles to the extent that every member of a ship's crew was in some respects a partner in the voyage. By signing the ship's articles, a crew member was entitled to an appropriate share of the profits of the voyage while at the same time formally submitting himself to the governance of the captain and the ship's officers. Since every ship that ventured forth on the ocean was, in effect, leaving civil society for a state of nature, every voyage had to be based upon a prior compact among all participants that would determine the political arrangements that would prevail for that voyage and the distribution of the economic benefits that would result. Two centuries later, this system resurfaced in slightly different form in the organization of the wagon trains that crossed the plains, which also left civil society for a land voyage through the state of nature, so that their members also had to compact with one another to provide for their internal governance during the long trek westward.

These religious, political, and economic elements combined to socialize Americans into a kind of federalistic individualism. That is to say, not the anarchic individualism of Latin countries, but an individualism that recognized the subtle bonds of partnership linking individuals even as they preserved their respective integrities. William James was later to write about the federal character of these subtle bonds in his prescription for a pluralistic universe.15 Indeed, American pluralism is based upon the tacit recognition of those bonds. Even though in the twentieth century the term pluralism has replaced all others in describing them, their federal character remains of utmost importance. At its best, American society becomes a web of individual and communal partnerships in which people link with one another to accomplish common purposes or to create a common environment without falling into collectivism or allowing individualism to degenerate into anarchy. These links usually manifest themselves in the web of associations which we associate with modern society but which are particularly characteristic of covenanted societies such as that of the United States.16

In a covenanted society the state itself is hardly more than an association writ large and endowed with exceptional powers but still an association with limited means and ends. Were Americans to adopt a common salutation for some farfetched reason, like "comrade" in the Soviet Union or "citizen" in the days of the French Revolution, in all likelihood the American salutation would be "pardner," the greeting of the archetypical American folk figure, the cowboy who embodies this combination of individualism and involvement in organized society and who expresses the character of that involvement through the term "pardner."

The Revolution and the Declaration of Independence

The Revolutionary era required a new round of covenanting as the colonies reconstituted themselves as independent civil societies. Invariably they followed the customary patterns albeit in the new secularized forms of declarations of rights of constitutions. Thus, according to the Virginia Bill of Rights (1776):

All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity, namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

The Vermont Declaration of Independence of 1777 holds that:

We...the inhabitants [of the New Hampshire Grants] are at present without law or government, and may be truly said to be in a state of nature; consequently, a right remains to the people of said Grants to form a government best suited to secure their property, well being and happiness.

All followed the dictum from Leviticus inscribed on the Liberty Bell, rung for the reading of the Declaration of Independence, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof," as they understood it.

These Revolutionary era documents reflect the influence of the "new political science" which had become prominent by this time. They also reflect the increasing secularization of covenant which had begun to occur after 1690 along with the Puritan declension in Europe and America. By 1776, the word covenant had been largely, though not entirely, superseded in political affairs by the words compact and constitution. It was during this period, for example, that the Plymouth Combination became known as the Mayflower Compact.17

As the original Christian and communitarian solidarity associated with the idea of covenant (i.e., both kinship and consent) became more elusive in the face of growing populations, new generations, and rising manufacturing, the old Puritan communities tended to become more legalistic and contractual, often along the kinds of "oppressive" lines which many contemporary Americans associate with "Puritanism." Where, for instance, a handshake might have sealed a business relationship in 1630, a written contract with "fine print" enforceable by secular courts was more likely to seal a relationship in 1730. Consequently, in a movement paralleled in the "new political science," there tended to be a greater division of secular and religious affairs, with the formal language of covenant being more confined to private sector congregationalism and a secularized language of constitutionalism being more prominent in public sector affairs. In short, the emphasis shifted from communitarianism toward individualism -- a movement capped by the disestablishment of churches in all but the most religiously covenantal states during the immediate revolutionary era. The shift was not complete, of course, and tensions between these conceptions of civil society have persisted throughout American history.

Some of these tensions are also reflected in the Declaration of Independence, the founding covenant of the American people which preceeded the Constitution of 1787. The Constitution was designed to translate the relationships called for in the Declaration into workable institutions. Whatever Jefferson's and Congress' indebtedness to Locke, which is a subject of much debate' the concept and intention of the Declaration is more covenantal than compactual in the American context. As Jefferson remarked nearly fifty years later:

Neither aiming at originality of principles or sentiments nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American Mind.18

There is little resemblance between the Declaration and the Hobbesian compact. While many of the fundamental principles and basic ideas of Hobbes with regard to human nature and natural right are present, the Declaration is prudential but not pessimistic about the possibilities of human self-government, hence it does not accept the idea of absolute king of leviathan state required by the Hobbesian compact. At the same time, the Declaration is more comprehensive than the Lockean compact and even drops the word "property," which is so essential to Locke's system, in favor of "the pursuit of happiness." Since the Declaration is the statement of a people that has already emerged from the state of nature, it does not use that starting point. In that sense, it is presented as a revision of an earlier compact and appeals to the Laws of Nature and of nature's god.19

The Declaration shares many of the characteristics of the classic biblical covenant at Sinai.20 Central to this similarity is that the Declaration established the Americans as an organized people bound by a shared moral vision as well as common interests. The sense of an American identity, which had been emerging during the previous generation, was formalized and declared to the world much like the Sinai covenant had formally created the people of Israel whose sense of shared identity and common destiny had emerged earlier but was concretized during the Exodus. Thus, the opening paragraph of the Declaration asserts that Americans are no longer transplanted Englishmen, but a separate people entitled, like all peoples, to political independence. There is, then a separation of one people from another and a flight from tyranny. The Americans, moreover, are held to be a single people made up of individuals bound in partnership in a common enterprise.

Also like the classic Sinai covenant, the Declaration is not a constitution. It does not establish a particular form of government. That is left open to subsequent constitutional action on the part of the people created by the Declaration.

Instead, the Declaration sets forth the fundamental principles that define the character of the American people, their basic purposes, and the nature of good government for such a people. Perhaps this is why Abraham Lincoln appealed so often to the Declaration during the Civil War. The Constitution had already been torn asunder by a bloody war between the states which threatened to destroy the American people as well. While constitutional matters could be dealt with in due time, there is the more fundamental promise of peoplehood contained in the Declaration of Independence. This promise has the character of being perpetual and irrevocable. As Lincoln said in several of his addresses, there can be no divorce. The American people cannot separate and go away from each other.

While the Declaration does not have the force of law in the American system, it is part of the higher law background of the United States Constitution and serves as the standard against which particular constitutions are to be judged by Americans. As such, like a classic biblical covenant, the Declaration invokes God as both a witness and guarantor. This sets it apart from a simple compact. Niebuhr's description of this dimension as understood by early Americans seems to capture the essential thrust of the Declaration.

Covenant meant that political society was neither purely natural nor merely contractual, based on common interest. Covenant was the binding together in one body politic of persons who assumed through unlimited promise responsibility to and for each other and for the common laws, under God. It was government of the people, for the people and by the people but always under God, and it was not natural birth into natural society that made one a complete member of the people but always the moral act of taking upon oneself, through promise, the responsibilities of a citizenship that bound itself in the very act of exercising its freedom. For in the covenant conception the essence of freedom does not lie in the liberty of choice among goods, but in the ability to commit oneself for the future to a cause and in the terrible liberty of being able to become a breaker of the promise, a traitor to the cause.21

The Declaration also follows the classical covenant formulary to a great degree. First, there is a statement of who is doing the covenanting, namely, "the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled," July 4, 1776. Second, there is a prologue and historical section detailing the prior relationships of England and the American colonies. These establish the setting for the Declaration and give reasons for its creation. Third, there is a set of stipulations and obligations containing the basic agreements of the American people. These begin as a statement of self-evident truths. Fourth, there is a provision for its public proclamation to mankind, and copies were to be sent to Parliament and distributed throughout the newly independent states. While, of course, there are no provisions for depositing the Declaration in a temple, it was eventually enshrined and elevated to a hallowed position. During the nineteenth century, moreover, the Declaration was given annual public readings on the Fourth of July in many communities, events which had echoes of covenant renewal ceremonies which often are a feature of covenantal communities. Fifth, there is an invocation of a divine witness, namely, "the Supreme Judge of the world" and "Divine Providence." Sixth, there are indirect statements of blessings and curses. The blessings for performance are national independence and individual life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. The curses for non-performance are tyranny, oppression, and even death.

From Covenant to Constitution

The establishment of the American covenant in an appropriate constitution occurred over a period of twelve years. The states were the first to write constitutions. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 -- the oldest written constitution in the modern world and still in effect today -- is as close to being an example as any.22 Drafted largely by John Adams, it weaves together the elements of covenant, compact, and constitution quite nicely, as reflected in the Preamble quoted earlier.

The body-politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact by which the whole people covenants with each citizen and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. It is the duty of the people, therefore, in framing a Constitution of Government, to provide for an equitable mode of making laws, as well as for an impartial interpretation and a faithful execution of them, that every man may, at all times, find his security in them.

Similar statements, though usually less eloquent, appear in almost all of the fifty state constitutions.23

It should not be surprising, therefore, that the Americans established a federal system of government with sovereignty divided and shared between the states and the nationwide government. This if often treated as an anomaly or as a product of unique circumstances. Yet the governmental outcome of the Revolution could have been very different. The states could have separated as independent nations. They could have been united in whole or in sections by conquest. The Americans could have erected a monarchy. Indeed, given past experiences with the governance of large territories, these were much more likely outcomes than the actual one. Instead, the Americans, within their states, sent representatives to a convention, ostensibly to improve the Articles of Confederation, and then ended up ratifying, under pacific conditions, a wholly new constitution that employed federal principles to create the first continental republic in world history. Whereas, historically, large territories (as well as most small ones) were invariably ruled by an imperial center, the United States became governed through a system of dispersed democratic majorities coupled with nationwide representation of both individuals and constituent states.24

Although it is impossible to determine definitively the influences upon the minds of the framers of the Constitution who created the unique American federal system, the most overlooked, yet perhaps most important, source of ideas is the covenant tradition which found its first political expression in the federation of tribes of ancient Israel. One of the few political scientists to recognize this possibility was William C. Morey in the late nineteenth century. Morey saw the sources of American federalism in "the reappearance of democratic and federal institutions in the Puritan colonies.25 Although he did not mention federal theology, he regarded the federative system of New England as the model of federalism. After all, there were no extant models for the framers of the U.S. Constitution except New England. Furthermore, representatives from New England, especially Connecticut and Massachusetts, were influential in the Constitutional Convention. The principal compromise of the Convention, The Connecticut Compromise, was initiated by those delegates accustomed to the New England legislative system in which one house provided for representation of towns. This compromise lies at the heart of the federal system and makes it, in the words of James Madison, a "compound republic" partly national and partly federal (in the earlier sense of confederal). In addition, the most covenantal of the state constitutions, that of Massachusetts, was among the most influential of the state models for the framers.

Supplementing the New England regional influences were the ethnoreligious conduits of covenant ideas, especially Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, the two largest denominations in 1787. A majority of the delegates to the Convention were affiliated with covenant-based churches, while most of the delegates were no doubt familiar with the covenant idea, given their Protestantism and attention to the Bible as a source of wisdom and literary enjoyment, if not always spiritual inspiration. The English and Scottish backgrounds of many of the delegates may have also accounted for covenantal influences. The Congregationalists were certainly grounded in covenant ideas, though their propensity for localism and local control made them somewhat hesitant to leap into large-scale arrangements. The Presbyterians, however, were already moving toward full-scale federalism. As Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., noted: "More than either [the Congregationalists or Anglicans] the Presbyterians in their reliance on federalist and representative institutions anticipated the political makeup of the future United States.26 Indeed, as the first government came into office under the U.S. Constitution in 1789, the Presbyterians held their first nationwide General Assembly. In the Presbyterian system, congregations in a local area formed a presbytery; several presbyteries in a region formed a synod; and then came the General Assembly. As a result, the system of federal democracy established by the U.S. Constitution has often been referred to as Presbyterianism writ large for civil society.

Moreover, James Madison of Virginia, the principal architect of the theory of federal democracy, was a Scotch-Irish Episcopalian who had studied under and been greatly influenced by the Scottish Reverend, Donald Robertson, the prominent scholar-divine John Witherspoon at the Presbyterian-oriented College of New Jersey (now Princeton). Indeed, six of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had studied under Witherspoon. As a strong supporter of independence and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon's influence was substantial enough that Horace Walpole is alleged to have complained that: "There is no use crying about it. Cousin America has run off with a Presbyterian parson, and that is the end of it."27

The comment may be fictitious, but the sentiment is not. Institutional structures and cultural traditions which served as carriers of covenant ideas were still strong in 1787, though increasingly in secular forms. The framers, however, were engaged in a wholly secular enterprise. By 1787 the theological stream of covenant ideas and the philosophic stream of compactual ideas had become so intermingled in the concept of constitutionalism that it is difficult to separate their effects. Albeit, given that the federal system established by the framers bears a much greater similarity to the political systems proposed by the federal theologians and implemented in their church polities, than the political systems proposed by Hobbes and Locke, and given that Americans were already covenanting into civil societies well before the speculative philosophers adopted the idea, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that covenant ideas had, in the final analysis, a more decisive influence than those of the "new political science."

Furthermore, the systems of the English philosophers could not by directly applied to America because, even in 1787, the country was simply enormous compared to tiny England. While such prominent revolutionary ideas as "natural rights" certainly belong to the Lockean tradition, they were also grounded in the covenant tradition and were further adapted to the federal framework of American constitutionalism rather than the monarchical framework of Hobbes or parliamentary framework of Locke. Thus, it is inaccurate to describe America as simply a Lockean nation.


1. Abraham Lincoln, "Reply to Mayor Alexander Henry at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania" in Collected Works (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. 4, pp. 238-239.

2. John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity," in The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry, Perry Miller, ed. (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1956), pp. 79-84.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson, January 20, 1965 Presidential Inaugural Address, in Howard B. Furer, ed., Lyndon B. Johnson: Chronology-Documents-Bibliographical Aids (New York: Ocean Publications, 1971), pp. 92-95.

4. Richard P. Gildrie, Salem, Massachusetts, 1626-1683: A Covenant Community (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1972), and E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England: 1570-1720 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

5. John Quincy Adams, The Social Compact, Exemplified in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; with Remarks on the Theories of Divine Right of Hobbes and of Filmer, and the Counter Theories of Sidney, Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, concerning the Origin and Nature of Government, a lecture delivered before the Franklin Lyceum at Providence, R.I., November 25, 1842 (Providence: Knowles and Vose, 1842).

6. Charles Hyneman and Donald Lutz, American Political Writing During the Founding Era, 1760-1805 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983); Donald Lutz, Documents of Political Foundation Written by Colonial Americans (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1986); Perry Miller, The New England Mind: From Colony to Province (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953).

7. Edmund S. Morgan, Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965).

8. Cf. Donald Lutz, Documents of Political Foundation.

9. Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1963).

10. H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy," Church History, Vol. 23 (1954): 126-135.

11. John Winthrop, History of New England, 1630-1649, ed. Sam Savage (Boston, 1853), 2: 279-282.

12. On non-New England covenants, see W. Keith Kavenagh, ed. Foundations of Colonial America (New York: Chelsea House, 1983),m especially Volume 3, Parts I and II.

13. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, The American Constitutional Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

14. Andrew McLaughlin, The Foundations of American Constitutionalism (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972).

15. William James, A Pluralistic Universe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977). Cf. also Harry S. Levinson, "William James and the Federal Principle," Publius, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Fall 1979): 65-86.

16. Cf. Robert MacIver, The Web of Government (New York: Macmillan, 1947), and Corinne L. Gilb, Hidden Hierarchies: The Professions and Government (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

17. Cf. Donald Lutz, "From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought," Publius, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Fall 1980): 106, and Harry M. Ward, Statism in Plymouth Colony (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972), p. 4.

18. Saul K. Padover, Jefferson (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1942), p. 54.

19. Cf. Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), and Daniel J. Elazar, The American Constitutional Tradition, Ch. 4.

20. Neal Riemer, "1776 and the Tradition of Prophetic Politics," Working Paper (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism, 1981).

21. H. Richard Niebuhr, "The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy."

22. Ronald Peters, The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780: A Social Compact (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974).

23. John Adams, Adams: His Political Writings, edited with an introduction by George A. Peek, Jr. (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1954), p. 95; Willi Paul Adams, The First American Constitutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973); Donald Lutz, Documents of Political Foundation Written by Colonial Americans.

24. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, The Politics of American Federalism (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1969), Introduction.

25. William C. Morey, "The First State Constitutions," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 2 (1893): 201-232.

26. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., The Birth of the Nation (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1968), p. 83.

27. Cf. Gary Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978).

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