Althusius and Federalism as Grand Design
Daniel J. Elazar
At the very beginning of his classic study of the Israeli
kibbutz as a model for the reconstruction of society along
cooperative lines, Martin Buber described the proper social order
as a consociatio consociationum, deliberately selecting Johannes
Althusius' formulation as the starting point from which to
develop his own realistic utopia.1 Bernard Susser has described
Buber's politics as anarcho-federalism.2 In that light it is
clear why Buber found the kibbutz, as a voluntary commune, the
first building block in what he hoped would be a comprehensive
cooperative society linking social and political institutions in
the manner described by Althusius.
In 1973, I interviewed Jovan Djordjevic, the doyen of
Yugoslav political scientists, a close associate of Marshall
Tito, and author of the various Yugoslav and republic
constitutions during the first three decades of the present
Yugoslav regime. In our discussion, Professor Djordjevic
indicated how much the construction of that regime had been
influenced by Althusian ideas and models.3
Somewhere between Buber's utopian vision and the effort to
concretize Althusian models in Yugoslavia is the theory of
consociationalism developed by Arend Lipjhart, Gerhard Lembruch,
and others.4 Borrowing that distinctively Althusian term, the
consociational theorists attempted to explain what is in effect a
non-territorial federal division of powers that constitutes a
democratic alternative to either Jacobin or majoritarian
democracy and to demonstrate how that model has been applied in
countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria
and Israel, among others. Studies of consociational democracy in
action have repeatedly demonstrated that consociational
arrangements work best and are longest-lived where they are
combined with territorial federalism, in other words where both
dimensions of the Althusian solution grand design are present.5
As Althusius himself was careful to acknowledge, the first
grand federalist design was that of the Bible, most particularly
the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.6 For him, it also was the
best -- the ideal polity based on right principles. Biblical
thought is federal from first to last -- from God's covenant with
Noah establishing the biblical equivalent of what philosophers
were later to term natural law (Genesis, Chapter 9) to the Jews'
reaffirmation of the Sinai covenant under the leadership of Ezra
and Nehemiah thereby adopting the Torah as the constitution of
their second commonwealth (Ezra Chapter 10; Nehemiah Chapter 8).
The covenant (Latin: foedus from whence federal) motif is central
to the biblical world view, the basis of all relationships, the
mechanism for defining and allocating authority, and the
foundation of the biblical political teaching.
The biblical grand design for humankind is federal in three
ways: (1) It is based upon a network of covenants beginning with
those between God and man, which weave the web of human,
especially political, relationships in a federal way -- that is
through pact, association and consent. In the 16th century, this
world view was recreated by the Reformed wing of Protestantism as
the federal theology from which Althusius, the Huguenots, the
Scottish covenanters, and the English and American Puritans
developed political theories and principles of constitutional
(2) The classic biblical commonwealth was a fully articulated
federation of tribes instituted and reaffirmed by covenant to
function under a common constitution and laws. Any and all
constitutional changes in the Israelite polity were introduced
through covenanting and even after the introduction of the
monarchy, the federal element was maintained until most of the
tribal structures were destroyed by external forces. The
biblical vision of the restored commonwealth in the messianic era
envisages the reconstitution of the tribal federation. Certain
of the American Puritans and many Americans of the Revolutionary
era among others, were inspired by the Biblical polity to seek
federal arrangements for their polities.
(3) The biblical vision for the "end of days" -- the
messianic era -- not only sees a restoration of Israel's tribal
system but what is, for all intents and purposes, a world
confederation or league of nations, each preserving its own
integrity while accepting a common Divine covenant and
constitutional order. This order will establish appropriate
covenantal relationships for the entire world. Kant's and Buber's
grand designs draw heavily on that vision.
In some respects, all subsequent federalist grand designs
until Proudhoun's in the mid-nineteenth century are derived from
or somehow related to that scriptural precedent. This is true
even though there were distinctions between Jewish and Christian,
Catholic and Protestant, and religious and secular grand designs
within the biblical tradition. A grand design in this sense is a
comprehensive proposal for developing the ideal polity that will
function in harmony with the principal forces in the universe. It
is meant to provide a basis for organizing all aspects of the
polity and its social order in the manner of Scriptural law and
teachings. Moreover, it must be comprehensively federal; that is
to say, every aspect of the polity is to be informed by federal
principles and arrangements in the manner of the network of
biblical covenants. Third, it should attempt to be realistic,
that is to say, grounded in a realistic understanding of human
nature, its limits and possibilities.7
Each grand design is created out of a series of building
blocks or self-governing cells from the smallest, most intimate
connections to the universal commonwealth, each of which is
internally organized and linked to the others by some form of
consensual relationship. Each is oriented toward some higher end
of human harmony to be attained in the fullness of time. Finally,
each grand design in some way combines the political and the
redemptive or religious dimension as well in the quest for the
good commonwealth if not the holy one. A federalist grand design
is one in which the universe is understood in federalistic terms
and the comprehensive polity is constructed accordingly.
Following through on this classification, Althusius must be
considered a figure located at the intersection of the major
trends of Western culture. One of the Protestant Christian grand
designers, he straddled the Reformation and the opening of the
modern epoch. Accordingly, he made an effort to synthesize and
somewhat secularize Reformed Protestant thought on the ideal
polity and to push it in concrete, practical directions.
The road to modern democracy began with the Protestant
Reformation in the 16th century, particularly among those
exponents of Reformed Protestantism (later rather mistakenly
referred to as Calvinism) who developed a theology and politics
that set the Western world back on the road to popular
self-government, emphasizing liberty and equality.8 While the
original founders and spokesmen for Reformed Protestantism did
much political writing, their writing was either theological or
polemic in character. Only at the end of the first century of
the Reformation did a political philosopher emerge out of the
Reformed tradition who built a systematic political philosophy
out of the Reformed experience by synthesizing the political
experience of the Holy Roman Empire with the political ideas of
the covenant theology of Reformed Protestantism. That man,
Johannes Althusius, presented his political philosophy in a
classic work, Politica Methodice Digesta, first published in 1603
and revised in final form in 1614.
Althusius' Politics was the first book to present a
comprehensive theory of federal republicanism rooted in a
covenantal view of human society derived from, but not dependent
on, a theological system. It presented a theory of
polity-building based on the polity as a compound political
association established by its citizens through their primary
associations on the basis of consent rather than a reified state,
imposed by a ruler or an elite.
In the ensuing struggle over the direction of European
state-building in the 17th century, the Althusian view which
called for building of states on federal principles, as compound
political associations, lost to the view of Jean Bodin and the
statists who called for the establishment of reified centralized
states where all powers were lodged in a divinely-ordained king
at the top of the power pyramid or in a sovereign center. While
Althusian thought had its exponents until the latter part of the
century, after that it subsequently disappeared. It remained for
the Americans to invent modern federalism on the basis of modern
individualism and thus reintroduce the idea of the state as a
political association rather than a reified entity.
In the 19th century, one party of German thinkers seeking the
unification of Germany on federal principles, epitomized by Otto
von Gierke, rediscovered Althusius.9 There, too, however,
Germany's movement toward reified statehood and finally
totalitarianism left Althusian ideas out in the cold.
Althusian ideas remained peripheral even to students of
modern federalism since modern federalism, was so strongly
connected with the principle of individualism that there was no
need to consider the Althusian effort to deal with the problems
of family, occupation, and community along with individual rights
in establishing political order. Only recently, as we have come
to see the limits of unrestrained individualism, both
philosophically and practically, have political scientists begun
to explore problems of liberty in relation to primordial groups
-- families, ethnic communities and the like. Here it was
discovered that Althusius had much to offer contemporary society.
Martin Buber was perhaps the first to suggest how Althusian
ideas could serve 20th century man, in part basing his political
works on Althusius. Carl Friedrich, the great academic exponent
of German liberalism, revived academic interest in Althusius with
his publication of the Politics in its Latin version with an
extensive introduction.10 More recently, various scholars such as
Frederick Carney (who translated the major part of the Politics
into English), Patrick Reilly and Thomas Heuglin have explored
Althusius' ideas.11 In his native Germany there has been a
renewed interest in Althusian ideas as a foundation for German
federal democracy.12 In Yugoslavia Althusian influence has been a
powerful counterweight to Communism as the basis for introducing
a measure of republican liberty.
There is some dispute among scholars regarding the
relationship between Althusius and federalism. Otto von Gierke,
the first scholar to try to restore Althusius to his rightful
place in the history of political thought, saw him as essentially
a medievalist, seeking to reconstruct medieval corporatism for a
post-medieval and changing time. Carl Friedrich, on the other
hand, the most important figure in the twentieth century
Althusian revival, viewed Althusius as the forerunner of modern
federalism. Today, Patrick Reilly and to some extent Thomas
Heuglin follow the Gierkian approach, while Frederick Carney and
this writer follow that of Friedrich.
As a student of federalism in all its forms and a federalist,
I would suggest that it is necessary to look to Althusius not
only in historical perspective as a transitional figure from
medieval corporatism to modern federalism, but as a source of
ideas and models for a post-modern federalism. Pre-modern
federalism had a strong tribal or corporatist foundation, one in
which individuals were inevitably defined as members of
permanent, multi-generational groups and whose rights and
obligations derived entirely or principally from group
membership. Modern federalism broke away from this model to
emphasize polities built strictly or principally on the basis of
individuals and their rights, allowing little or no space for
recognition or legitimation of intergenerational groups.
A post-modern federalism must reckon with one of the basic
principles of post-modern politics, namely that individuals are
to be secured in their individual rights, yet groups are also to
be recognized as real, legitimate, and requiring an appropriate
status. Althusius is the first, and one of the few political
philosophers who has attempted to provide for this synthesis.
Needless to say, his late-medieval thought cannot be transposed
whole into the post-modern epoch in the latter part of the
twentieth century. But in part because he wrote in a period of
epochal transition from the late-medieval to the modern epoch,
much of his system, its ideas, and even its terminology, may be
adaptable or at least form the basis for a post-modern
federalism. This paper does not pretend to be able to make that
adaptation or synthesis. At most it will suggest some lines of
thought and investigation that can lead us in that direction.
Here we can only outline some of the salient points in
1) The foundations of Althusius' political philosophy are
covenantal through and through. Pactum is the only basis for
legitimate political organization. More than that, Althusius
develops a covenantal-federal basis that is comprehensive. Not
only is the universal association constructed as a federation of
communities, but politics as such is federal through and through,
based as it is on union and communication (in the sense of
sharing) as expressed in the idea that its members are symbiotes.
Althusius' dual emphasis on federalism as a relationship and
on sharing as the basis of federal relationships has turned out
to be a basic axiom of federalism. While there can be different
forms of a federal relationship and sharing can be expressed in
different ways, federalism remains essentially a relationship and
sharing its guiding principle. The polity, then, is a symbiotic
association based upon symbiosis and constituted by symbiotes
2) Althusius deals with the problem of sovereignty, then
becoming the critical juridical problem for modern federalism, by
vesting it in the people as a whole. On one hand this is what
makes the good polity a res publica or commonwealth. On the
other it also makes it possible to be a consociatio
consociationum, a universitas composed of collegia, since the
people can delegate the exercise of sovereign power to different
bodies as they please (according to their sovereign will).
The problem of indivisible sovereignty raised by Jean Bodin
became the rock upon which pre-modern confederation foundered.
The modern state system was based on the principle of indivisible
sovereignty which in an age of increasingly monolithic and
energetic states became a sin qua non for political existence.
Thus the medieval world of states based on shared sovereignty had
to give way. It was not until the American founders invented
modern federalism that a practical solution to this problem was
found enabling the development of modern federation as a form of
government. Althusius provided the theoretical basis for dealing
with the sovereignty question over 175 years earlier (no doubt
unbeknownst to them) and gave it the necessary philosophic
The revival of interest in Althusius in our time has
accompanied the revival of possibilities of confederation. The
European Community is the leading example of post-modern
confederation; there are now three or four others as well.
Although Althusius himself does not develop a theory of
confederation per se, his particular kind of federal thinking in
which he sees his universal association as constituted by
comprehensive organic communities has clearly had something to
contribute to an emerging post-modern theory of confederation.
Althusius further understands political sovereignty as the
constituent power. This is at once a narrower and more
republican definition of sovereignty whose plenary character is
harnessed as the power to constitute government -- a power which
is vested in the organic body of the commonwealth, i.e., the
people. Moreover, once the people act, their sovereignty is
located in the jus regni, the fundamental right/law of the realm,
namely the constitution.
This Althusian concept has important implications for
contemporary international law which is grappling with the
problem of how to mitigate the effects of the principle of
absolute and undivided sovereignty inherited from modern
jurisprudence in an increasingly interdependent world. Even
where the principle is not challenged, the practical exercise of
absolute sovereignty is not longer possible. Moreover, there are
an increasing number of situations in which even the principle
cannot be applied as it once was. One way out in such cases has
been to vest sovereignty in the constitutional document itself,
that is to say, in what Althusius would refer to as the jus
regni. Vesting sovereignty in a constitutional document is
entirely consonant with a covenantal federalism.
3) Althusius serves as a bridge between the biblical
foundations of Western civilization and modern political ideas
and institutions. As such he translates the biblical political
tradition into useful modern forms. In this he must be
contrasted with Spinoza who a few years later in his Theological
Political Tractate makes the case for a new modern political
science by presumably demonstrating that the biblical political
tradition applied only to ancient Israel and ceased to be
relevant once the Jews lost their state (unless and until the
Jewish state was restored). Althusius confronts the same
problems of modern politics without jettisoning or denying the
biblical foundations. In part this rendered him less useful
during the modern epoch when his unbending Calvinist emphasis on
the necessary links between religion, state and society, ran
encounter the development of the modern secular state.
The Althusian version of the Calvinist model of the
religiously homogeneous polity is not likely to be revived in the
post-modern epoch. On the other hand, we are beginning to
recover an old understanding that no civil society can exist
without some basis in transcendent norms which obligate and bind
the citizens and establish the necessary basis for trust and
communication. The connection between the decalog and jus as
both law and right, while hardly original to Althusius, may offer
possibilities for renewed development in our times. Althusius
adopts a conventional understanding of the two tables of the
Decalogue of his time, namely that the first table addresses
itself to piety and the second to justice, both of which are
necessary foundations for civil society.
4) Very important in this connection, is Althusius'
development of the concept of jus regni, which he derives
explicitly from the biblical mishpat hamelukhah (law of the
kingdom), enunciated in I Samuel 10 and elsewhere, to serve as
constitution of the universal association, at one and the same
time establishing the constitution as a civil rather than a
religious document, yet one which has its source in or at least
is in harmony with divine and natural law. This is precisely the
task of the mishpat hamelikah which constitutes a civil law
separate from the Torah but in harmony with it.13 While
contemporary political scientists emphasize the secular character
of modern constitutionalism, examination of most contemporary
constitutions reveals that they reflect the same combination of
claims, namely linkage to transcendent law, more often divine
than natural, yet human artifacts that are civil in character.14
While in recent years we have made considerable advances in
developing an understanding of constitutional design, in doing so
we have neglected this linkage and its implications for right law
that Althusius calls to our attention.
5) While Althusius was clearly a product of his times and the
ideal state of his design is one which reflects the class and
reference group structure of 16th century German society, it is
significant that Althusius leaves open the possibility for
democracy as we know it, including female participation in public
life and office-holding, and a more classless and egalitarian
basis for participation generally. Since I do not have a
sufficient command of the Latin text to properly explore the
issue, I cannot say whether Althusius has an esoteric as well as
an exoteric teaching, but this suggests that there may be a
hidden dimension to be explored in the Politics and Althusian
thought generally. Nor is the federal aspect insignificant here.
Althusius suggests different forms and extents of participation
in the different arenas of government as one possible way to
extend participation in public life to groups heretofore
disenfranchised in the world that he knew.
A contemporary Althusian politics should address itself to
the same possibilities; for example, direct democracy for the
most local assemblies, somewhat indirect democracy for county
institutions, and republican or representative government for
what Althusius would have called provincial and we would call
state land, or cantonal institutions, and for the universal
association or general government.
6) Althusius recognizes the modern distinction between public
and private realms, yet also preserves the connection between
them. In this respect, he, like the moderns who were to follow
him, breaks with classic nations of the all-embracing polis to
recognize the legitimacy of a sphere of private activity that is
constitutionally by right, thereby preventing totalitarianism.
Yet he recognizes the connection between the simple and private
dissociations of family and collegium and the mixed and public
associations of city, province and commonwealth. Indeed the
relationship between private and public spheres and associations
is a major concern of his as it is increasingly to those of us
who must reckon with the realities of the post-modern epoch in
which everything is tied into everything else.
One of the advantages of the modern epoch was that it was
possible to more sharply separate the public and private spheres
because it was a period which fostered increased distance between
them. This is no longer the case as the postmodern
communications technology requires more Althusian communication,
that is to say, as everything impinges upon everything else, more
sharing is necessary. Althusius' emphasis on the existence of
both natural and civil associations in the private sphere
reflects his emphasis on what we would call the natural right of
association. The family is a natural association based on two
relationships: conjugal and kinship. Since the nuclear family is
a conjugal relationship, even it is covenantal. Naturally the
collegium or civil association in both its secular and
ecclesiastical forms is covenantal.
Mixed and public associations are equally covenantal with the
city as a covenantal republic formed of a union of collegia, the
province a covenantal union of cities, and the commonwealth a
covenantal union of provinces (this is so even though Althusius
talks of the rights of the province as an arm of the commonwealth
and not simply a union of cities). Covenant for Althusius are
the ways in which symbiotes can initiate and maintain
associations. They are products of both necessity and volition.
7) Althusius' definition of politics as the effective
ordering of communication (of things, services and rights) offers
us a starting point for understanding political phenomena that
speaks to contemporary political science. This leads us to the
second half of Althusian thought: that dealing with
statesmanship, prudence and administration. It would be possible
to say of the second half of Althusian teaching that it is
general to all of politics and not specifically to federalism,
except that this would do violence to the first half of Althusian
teaching which sees all politics as federal politics.
1. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958).
2. Bernard Susser, "The Anarcho-Federalism of Martin Buber",
Publius 9 No. 4 pp. 103-116.
3. See also Juoan Djordjevic, "Remarks on the Yugoslav Model of
Federalism", Publius 5, No. 2 (Spring 1975), pp. 77-78.
4. See Arend Liphart, Consociational Democracy, World Politics
21 (1968/69), pp. 208-225.
5. See Federalism and Consociationalism (a special issue of
Publius) 15, No. 2, Center for the Study of Federalism, Temple
University and North Texas State University (Spring 1985).
6. No adequate discussion of the federal dimension of the
biblical world view is presently available. Two of the best
available treatments of this point are to be found in the
works of Althusius and Buber. See, for example, Johannes
Althusius, Politics, trans. Frederick Carney (Boston: Beacon
Press, 1964) and Martin Buber, Kingship of God (New York:
Harper and Row, 1967). This writer has treated the subject
in "Government in Biblical Israel," Tradition (Spring-Summer,
1973) and "Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political
Tradition," Jewish Journal of Sociology (June, 1978). The
Israel-based Workshop in the Covenant Idea and the Jewish
Political Tradition sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for
Public Affairs and the Bar-Ilan University Department of
Political Studies and its American-based counterpart, the
Workshop on Covenant and Politics sponsored by the Center for
the Study of Federalism, are probing that issue among others.
The principal work on the former is available in Daniel J.
Elazar, Kinship and Consent, The Jewish Political Tradition
and its Contemporary Manifestations (Lanham, Md.: University
Press of America and Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,
1983). The principal work of the latter is available in
Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid, eds. Covenant, Polity, and
Constitutionalism (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America
and the Center for the Study of Federalism, 1984).
7. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Federalism as Grand Design
(Lanham, MD: Center for the Study of Federalism and
University Press of America, 1987).
8. Cf., for example, R.H. Murray, The Political Consequences of
the Reformation (New York: Russell and Russell, 1960).
9. Otto Von Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Ages.
Translated with and Introduction by F.W. Maitland
(Cambridge, England: The University Press, 1900); reprinted
10. Carl J. Friedrich, ed. The Politica Mehodice Digesta of
Johannes Althusius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,
11. Frederick Carney, trans., Johannes Althusius Politics,
Boston: Beacon Press, 1964; Thomas Heuglin, "Johannes
Althusius: Medieval Constitutionalist or Modern Federaist?"
Publius 9 No. 4 (1979): 9-42; For a different perspective on
Althusius, see: Patrick Riley, "Three Seventeenth Century
German Theorists of Federalism: Althusius, Hugo and Leibniz"
in Publius 6 No. 3 (1976): 7-42.
12. See the work of the Johannes-Althusius-Gesellschaft e. V.
13. On mishpat hamelukhah, "king, kingship: The Covenant of
Monarchy," in Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 10 (Jerusalem: Keter,
1972) pp. 1019; also see: Daniel J. Elazar and Stuart A.
Cohen, The Jewish Polity: Jewish Political Organization from
Biblical Times to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1985) Part I Epoch IV.
14. See Albert Blaustein, and Gilbert H. Flanz, Constitutions of
the Countries of the World (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana