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The Idea of Covenant

Covenant and Civil Society: The Constitutional Matrix of Modern Democracy

The Covenant Tradition in Politics, Volume 4, Preface

Daniel J. Elazar

The settlement of new worlds by bearers of the covenant tradition in politics gave those settlers an unparalleled opportunity to build societies on the covenantal model or as close to it as they could, given the other pressures of the environment and parallel traditions borne by other settlers.

Those same covenantal ideas and their rivals existed in the Old World as well where they had already been in conflict in central, western and northern Europe for two centuries before the opening of the modern epoch. While the covenantal idea had had a certain success in those countries reshaped by the Protestant Reformation in its Reformed Protestant (sometimes called Calvinist) version, or where earlier oath and pact societies had existed as in continental Europe and the British Isles on both sides of the line that had once divided Roman control from that of the barbarians a thousand years or more earlier, only to be submerged by Christianity and the political regimes with which the church allied itself as described in Volume II of this series, in other parts of Europe the covenantal tradition was distinctly a minority one, if it existed at all, and was submerged by one or another of the hierarchical traditions. Thus, in Europe, even more than in the New Worlds, covenantalism confronted major barriers in some ways impossible to overcome.

Governmentally, the modern epoch was preeminently an epoch of statism. Modern states arose to replace the feudal complexities of medieval Europe and Asia and the tribal complexities of Africa and the Americas to establish states as the fundamental arenas within which all the other struggles of modernity took place. Statism triumphed for many reasons, but probably the most important was that the first states -- France, Spain, and England -- that emerged were powerful entities that could defend themselves and win wars against other, more fragmented polities such as Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. In the end, the leaders of the latter felt the need to transform those polities into states for self-protection.

Most states were consolidated by strong royal rulers functioning within hierarchies that they or their predecessors had established. In most, the crown was even reified so that the king was referred to by the name of the embryonic state. Statism succeeded because modern states seemed to demand hierarchical frameworks and both mobilized and concentrated their power through such frameworks to mobilize military strength vis-a-vis their neighbors through the centralization of power within the state.

Hierarchy is the exact opposite of what covenantal polities are all about. They emphasize equality and power-sharing instead of hierarchy and centralization. To the degree that some polities were covenantal they tended to be federal, just as to the degree that the modern states were hierarchical they tended to be centralized. Even after the kings themselves lost their powers and their authority was transferred to the parliamentary institutions of the reified state, the hierarchical pyramid was simply transformed into a center-periphery model with the state dominated by a single center occupied by its elite and the remainder of the population located in the peripheries. At most the peripheries could influence who was chosen to govern in the center, but the center remained very much like the top of a pyramid in the earlier hierarchical days and hardly, if at all, more subject to popular will, even if there were pro forma elections on a regular basis. The center-periphery model thus continued to differ from the covenantal one in this critical respect.

The statist model and its rival, the federalist model, both had their philosophic champions at the very beginning of the modern epoch. Jean Bodin spoke in the name of statism, and Johannes Althusius, in the name of federalism. Both laid out rather comprehensive models of the ideal polity from their perspectives.1

The reality gave Bodin the victory and left Althusius to be the province of a few mavericks or specialists who continued to argue for an Althusian-style polity rather than a reified state.

As European influence and power spread throughout the world, and the Americas, Africa and Asia were colonized by the European powers, they brought with them their statist approach which, except where the British trod and federal systems took root, became the dominant pattern for state-building when the era of decolonization began and the European powers were expelled or withdrew of their own accord. Thus the whole world was divided into a system of states most of which followed the models of European statism.

Meanwhile, in Europe the first revolutions of modernity rejected the royal absolutism and attempted to transfer power to the people but left a reified state in place which soon became the actual repository of the power which was exercised by the state bureaucracy. The acceptable messages of covenantalism, namely covenanting and constitutionalism, were introduced as formal coverings of the reality. In time, however, they began to acquire a meaning of their own. Meanwhile, the people came up with other devices to introduce covenantal principles into their now modernized, reified states, and so in the Old World of Europe and the other Old Worlds of Africa and Asia. Thus Latin America, that part of the New World settled in late medieval times before the dawn of the modern epoch, remained locked in a struggle between hierarchical and covenantal forces, a struggle which lasted with greater or lesser intensity throughout the modern epoch. Only after World War II did the tide begin to turn toward covenantal models and even then only in a limited manner. The history of this struggle is our concern in the following pages. Its outcome is a concern not only for students of the process but for all of us who are concerned with the regimes in which we find ourselves or to which we have access.

Yet in the end, as the modern epoch unfolded, certain key institutions of the covenantal tradition that expressed the essence of that tradition in the realities of the political arena did score major successes to become the norm for modern democratic republicanism. These included: (1) the idea that political society is a human artifact that humans established for themselves through political compact either in conjunction with or on the heels of human founding of civil society through some form of pact, social contract, political compact, or covenant; (2) the transformation of the old principle of constitutionalism into new and eminently practical forms of constitutional design and politics that introduced real constitutions with enforceable characteristics to shape the governance of real polities, thereby translating paper theories of constitutionalism that had been essentially unenforceable in the Middle Ages into enforceable constitutions and constitutional systems; (3) the idea of popular sovereignty (albeit under God), whereby the people could covenant or compact with each other and form their own constitutions and polities accordingly; (4) where covenantalism was strong yet not strong enough to replace other models of polity-building, the development of consociational and cooperative forms of political and social organization within existing hierarchical frameworks to give it expression.

These institutions and the principles they represented penetrated most parts of Europe with difficulty and required the entire modern epoch to do so accompanied by revolutions, the most important of which in the short term fostered hierarchical modifications of hierarchical models rather than new covenantal models, and authoritarian and totalitarian backlashes that rejected covenantal principles totally. Yet in the end, the basic principles and institutions outlined above have come close to triumphing throughout Europe, if unevenly. This volume is devoted to the exploration of the ideas, institutions, and struggles to develop them in the Old World, especially in modern and early postmodern Europe. Best read in conjunction with the three earlier volumes of this series, it does stand alone as the investigation and analysis of the true success of the revolutions of modern Europe. While aided by those revolutions usually deemed most important, it is a success that not only transcends those revolutions but in certain respects counters them with a different model.

* * *

Once again, I wish to express my deepest thanks to the Earhart Foundation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, its President, David Kennedy, its Secretary and Director of Program, Dr. Antony T. Sullivan, and its former President, Richard Ware, for the very tangible encouragement and assistance they have provided me over the years of this effort, and the understanding that accompanied it. Deepest thanks, too, to the institutions with which I have been associated and their staffs, who have been enormously helpful: the Center for the Study of Federalism at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in Jerusalem, Israel; the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. All three have also provided support for this project: the Jerusalem Center through the Milken Library of Public Affairs, and the Bar-Ilan Department of Political Studies through the Senator Norman M. Paterson Chair in Intergovernmental Relations. They have my deepest gratitude. Thanks also to the Milken Family Foundation for their support of the publication of this book through the Jerusalem Center.

I would like to especially thank Mark Ami-El, Publications Coordinator of the Jerusalem Center for his vital role in bringing this book to publication, and Deborah Gerber and my other research assistants in both the Philadelphia and Jerusalem centers for their contribution to its final preparation. The final stages of the research for this volume benefitted from the Weidener Library at Harvard University, where I was a visitor in 1993-1994, one of the major repositories of European and American covenantal materials in the world.

A project of the magnitude of this one requires considerable support from many sources, but no support is more extensive or more critical than that provided by one's own family. My wife Harriet and my children were everything that one could possibly expect in this connection and even more, making it possible for me to live and work in a way most conducive to beginning this undertaking, staying with it, and finally bringing it to a proper conclusion. My love for them is inexpressible as is my gratitude.


1. See Daniel J. Elazar, Covenant and Commonwealth: Europe from Christian Separation through the Protestant Reformation, Volume II of the Covenant Tradition in Politics (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), ch. 16.

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