Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index


Federal Models of (Civil) Authority

Daniel J. Elazar

Federalism, Covenant, and the Purposes of Politics

Human, and hence scholarly, concern with politics focuses on three general themes: 1) the pursuit of political justice to achieve the good political order; 2) the search for understanding of the empirical reality of political power and its exercise; and 3) the creation of an appropriate civic environment through civil society and civil community, capable of integrating the first two to produce a good political life. Political science as a discipline was founded and has developed in pursuit of those three concerns. In the course of that pursuit, political scientists have uncovered or identified certain architectonic principles, seminal ideas, and plain political truths which capture the reality of political life or some significant segment of it, and relate that reality to the larger principles of justice and political order and to very practical yet normative civic purposes.

Politics has two faces. One is the face of power; the other is the face of justice. Politics, as the pursuit and organization of power, is concerned (in the words of Harold Lasswell) with "who gets what, when and how." However, politics is equally a matter of justice, or the determination of who should get what, when and how -- and why. Power is the means by which people organize themselves and shape their environment in order to live. Justice offers the guidelines for using power in order to live well.

Politics cannot be understood without reference to both faces. Without understanding a polity's conception of justice, or who should have power, one cannot understand clearly why certain people or groups get certain rewards, at certain times, in certain ways. On the other hand, one cannot focus properly on the pursuit of justice without also understanding the realities of the distribution of power. Both elements are present in all political questions, mutually influencing each other.

One of the major recurring principles of political import which informs and encompasses all three themes is covenant -- an idea which defines political justice, shapes political behavior, and directs humans toward an appropriately civic synthesis of the two in their effort to manage political power. As such, covenant is an idea whose importance is akin to natural law in defining justice and to natural right in delineating the origins and proper constitution of political society. While somewhat eclipsed in political science since the shift to organic and then positivistic theories of politics which began in the mid-19th century, it persists as a factor shaping political behavior in those civil societies whose foundations are grounded in the effort to translate that idea into political reality and in others searching for a means to build a democratic order on federalist rather than Jacobin principles. In the present crisis of transition from the modern to the post-modern eras, covenant is resurfacing as a significant political force just as it did in the transition from the late medieval to the modern era which took place from the 16th to the 18th centuries.1

Like any great idea, covenant and its related terms are often used as slogans. Such use testifies to the seminal character of covenant as a concept, since every truly great idea must rest on so simple a core that it can become a slogan, but sloganeering should not obscure the more profound dimensions of covenant which requires sophisticated analysis and understanding if the concept is to be used properly for political invention and action.

Covenant can be studied in three dimensions: as a form of political conceptualization and mode of political expression; as a source of political ideology; and as a factor shaping political culture, institutions, and behavior. As a form of political conceptualization covenant shapes the way in which people look at the world and understand the nature of politics and civil society. The covenantal world view is one of the two or three "mother" world views shared by humanity. It is by no means far-fetched to assume that basic to every personality, as it is formed by both nature and culture, is a world view that is hierarchical, organic, or covenantal in orientation.

Federal and Other Origins of the Polity

Since its beginnings, political science has identified three basic ways in which polities come into existence: conquest (force), organic development (accident), and covenant (choice). These questions of origins are not abstract; the mode of founding of a polity does much to determine the framework for its subsequent political life.

Conquest can be understood to include not only its most direct manifestation, a conqueror gaining control of a land or a people, but also such subsidiary ways as a revolutionary conquest of an existing state, a coup d'etat, or even an entrepreneur conquering a market and organizing his control through corporate means. Conquest tends to produce hierarchically organized regimes ruled in an authoritarian manner; power pyramids with the conqueror on top, his agents in the middle, and the people underneath the entire structure. The original expression of this kind of polity was the pharaonic state of ancient Egypt. It was hardly an accident that those rulers who brought the pharaonic state to its fullest development had the pyramids built as their tombs. Although the pharaonic model has been judged illegitimate in western society, modern totalitarian theories, particularly fascism and nazism, represent an attempt to give it a certain theoretical legitimacy.

Organic evolution involves the development of political life from families, tribes, and villages into large polities in such a way that institutions, constitutional relationships, and power alignments emerge in response to the interaction between past precedent and changing circumstances with the minimum of deliberate constitutional choice. The end result tends to be a polity with a single center of power.

Classic Greek political thought emphasized the organic evolution of the polity and rejected any other means of polity-building as deficient or improper. The organic model is closely related to the concept of natural law in the political order. Natural law informs the world and, when undisturbed, leads in every polity to the natural emergence of power relationships, necessarily and naturally unequal, which fit the character of its people.

The organic model has proved most attractive to political philosophers precisely because at its best, it seems to reflect the natural order of things. Thus it has received the most intellectual and academic attention. However, just as conquest tends to produce hierarchically organized regimes ruled in an authoritarian manner, organic evolution tends to produce oligarchic regimes, which at their best, have an aristocratic flavor, and at their worst are simply the rule of the many by the few.2 In the first, the goal of politics is to control the top of the pyramid, in the second, the goal is to control the center of power.

Covenantal foundings emphasize the deliberate coming together of humans as equals to establish bodies politic in such a way that all reaffirm their fundamental equality and retain their basic rights. Even the Hobbesian covenant -- and he specifically uses the term -- which establishes a polity in which power is vested in a single sovereign, in principle maintains this fundamental equality. Polities whose origins are covenantal reflect the exercise of constitutional choice and broad-based participation in constitutional design. Polities founded by covenant are essentially federal in character, in the original meaning of the term (from foedus, Latin for covenant) - whether they are federal in structure or not. That is to say, each polity is a matrix compounded of equal confederates who freely bind themselves to one another so as to retain their respective integrities even as they are bound in a common whole. Such polities are republican by definition and power within them must be diffused among many centers or the various cells within the matrix.

We find recurring expressions of the covenant model in ancient Israel, whose people started out as rebels against the Pharaonic model; in the medieval rebels against the Holy Roman Empire; in the Reformation era rebels against the Catholic hierarchy; in the early modern republicans who were rebels against either hierarchical or organic theories of the state; and in modern federalists. Frontiersmen generally -- that is to say, people who have gone out and settled new areas where there were no preexisting institutions of government and who, therefore, have had to compact with one another to create such institutions -- are to be found among the most active covenanters.

Each of these forms of founding has very real implications for the character of the regime that emerges from it, in the structure of authority, in the mechanisms of governance, and in the forms the regime is likely to take. Thus in regimes founded by conquest and force we expect to find hierarchical structures of authority dominant, power pyramids in every sense of the word. In such regimes, administration, which is a matter of a top-down chain of command, takes precedence over politics and constitutionalism. Indeed the major political arena in such regimes is that of the ruler at the top of the pyramid. In other words it is court politics, with the kind of intrigue and jockeying for position associated with the politics of courts. If constitutionalism plays any role at all, the constitution takes the form of a charter granted by the ruler, whose status is at least formally controlled by him (although, as we know from feudal systems, under certain circumstances rulers who seem to be on the top of the pyramid can be forced to grant charters of liberties to subsidiary bodies because there has been a redistribution of force as a result of external factors over which the top of the pyramid has no control).

The apotheosis of such a regime is an army. Indeed, one of the first modern models was Prussia, described by Voltaire as "an army transformed into a state." So, too, was Napoleonic France where Napoleon's administrative reorganization of the country fixed its internal structure for the next 170 years regardless of wars, revolutions, coups, and regime changes. The worst manifestation of such regimes are totalitarian dictatorships whereby those at the top of the pyramid attempt, in the name of an ideology, to bring their pyramided powers to bear on every aspect of private as well as public life.

Organic polities that essentially develop by accident and are marked by their center-periphery configuration, organize their mechanisms of government differently. For them politics takes precedence over administration and both over the constitution. Since the most important political arena is in the center, the politics is the politics of the club or clubs where the elite gather and maintain relationships with one another regardless of their stand on issues, simply because they belong to a common elite or network of elites. Administration is deemed much less important than politics and exists only to the degree that it is necessary, flowing from the center outward. At first the same club members who dominate the regimes politics also undertake much of the necessary administration of functions, but as matters grow more specialized, a separate administrative elite is developed, drawn as much as possible from the same sources as the political elite and maintaining a common old-boy network.

The English system, where studies at Oxford and Cambridge are tickets of admission to either the political or administrative elites, whose members literally speak the same language or at least in the same accents and belong to the same clubs, typifies this kind of regime. Constitutionalism is not unimportant in such regimes, but it is not reflected in a single major document but in a set of constitutional traditions which may or may not have been set down in writing and transformed into law, again in the English model. The apotheosis of this model is parliamentary government along the Westminster system, while its excess is to be found in Jacobinism where a revolutionary cadre siezes control of the center in the name of the masses and concentrates all power within it in the name of the revolution in order to reconstruct the regime. It never relinquishes control.

Covenantal regimes, founded on the basis of reflection and choice to establish a matrix of power centers, so that both its framing institutions and constituent bodies share authority on a fundamentally equal basis, order the mechanisms of government quite differently. First and foremost comes the constitution and the constitutional tradition it fosters. The constitution must, perforce, come first because it is the basis upon which institutions are organized and authority and power are shared and divided. Without the constitution there can legitimately be neither politics nor administration. Pursuant to the constitu- tion there develops a politics of open bargaining in which access is guaranteed by the constitution and the constitutional tradition to all citizens who accept the rules of the game. The open competition of parties and factions is encouraged. Administration is subordinate to both constitutional and political standards and is further controlled by being divided between the framing institution and the cells of the matrix.

The apotheosis of this model is a federal democratic republic on the order of the United States or Switzerland. Its excess is anarchy where the framing institutions and cells prove incapable of ordering the exercise of power within the structure.

While in real life many polities mix these models to establish their regimes, the classic examples of political organization tend to be relatively pure representations of one or the other. Both the purer cases and the mixtures teach us about important manifestations of political life.


Founding: Conquest
and Choice
Model: Pyramid Concentric
Structure of
Hierarchy Center-
Frame and
Mechanisms of
Governance (in
rank order):
top down
center outward
with factions
Apotheosis: Army Westminster
Federal system
Excess: Totalitarian
Jacobin state Anarchy
Most common
Form of
Coup de Etat Civil War
Among Elites
Resort to

The uses of covenant demonstrate how political conceptualization and expression go hand in hand. Thus, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Swiss and the Dutch, the Scots and the English Puritans not only conceived of civil society in covenantal terms, but actually wrote national covenants to which loyal members of the body politic subscribed. Similar covenants were used in the founding of many of the original colonies in British North America. Covenantal thinking was the common mode of political conceptualization and expression during the American Revolution, where it was reflected in any number of constitutional documents.3 More recently, such examples as the call for a social contract in England to create a new set of relationships between labor and management and the covenant inaugurated on the Boston Common by the city's major religious groups in 1979 to bring racial peace to that city are but two of many examples of the continuing use of covenant as a form of political conceptualization and mode of political expression.4

As a source of political ideology, covenant shapes the world views or perspectives of whole societies, defining their civil character and political relationships, and serving as a touchstone for testing the legitimacy and often even the efficiency of their political institutions and those who must make them work. Thus the Afrikaners have built the ideology sustaining their tribalism around the covenant one party of them made with God before a battle with the Zulus at the time of the Great Trek. Their national day is called the Day of the Covenant and their national shrine is designed to celebrate that day. Their leaders invoke that covenant to justify their policies toward non-whites and implicitly ask to be judged by it.5

Perhaps most important of all is the role of covenant as a factor in shaping political culture institutions, and behavior. This factor is the most difficult to measure and yet is operationally the most significant dimension of covenant.

The power of covenant and the covenant principle flows less from its conception and systematic presentation as philosophy (and certainly not from its reduction to the level of ideology) than from the way it informs culture, especially political culture, endowing particular peoples with a particular set of political perceptions, expectations, and norms and shaping the way in which those perceptions, expectations and norms are given institutional embodiment and behavioral expression. To take one example, there is every reason to believe that the idea of separation of powers, especially among equals as distinct from the separation of powers among different classes of unequals is a product of covenantal political culture, and that its various institutional expressions reflect that political culture. Where the same institutions have been introduced into political systems serving people with a different political culture, they have worked in opposite ways from those for which they were intended. This is in no way better reflected than in the differences between the separation of powers system of the United States where President, Congress, and the Supreme Court interact in creative tension to balance one another, and similar systems in Latin America which are modeled institutionally on the U.S. Constitution but which have been imposed upon a radically different political base. Lack of a covenantal political culture in Latin America with its sense of consent rather than force as the basis of political life, of limitations on the use of power, sharing among partners to advance the common good while preserving their respective integrities, and abiding by the rules of the game is both a response to and a generator of circumstances which lead to the abuse or the distortion of the institutional framework.

All the evidence points to the existence of certain covenantal peoples whose political cultures are informed by covenantal and related concepts, which in turn influence their political institutions and behavior. Those peoples emerged out of two nuclear concentrations. The first was at the western edge of southwest Asia some three to four thousand years ago, in what was once known as the fertile crescent, especially in what is today Israel and in surrounding Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The second was in north-western Europe, especially in Switzerland and in a band stretching from up the Rhine River Valley through western Germany, eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, across the North Sea to Scotland and the eastern coast of England. They subsequently settled and shaped various "new worlds" in North America, southern Africa and Australasia.

Out of these covenantal peoples emerged Judaism and Christianity with their biblical covenantal base, reformed Protestantism with its federal theology, federalism as a political principle and arrangement, the modern corporation, civil societies based upon interlocking voluntary associations, and almost every other element that reflects social organization based upon what has loosely been called "contract" rather than "status." Moreover, these covenantal peoples seem to have internalized a covenantal approach to life, to a greater or a lesser extent. The Swiss, for example, are a federal people through and through, whether they are dealing with their political system or with the way in which they serve customers in their resorts. The Americans have many of the same qualities, although in a softer and less sharply defined way.

Any study of covenant as a phenomenon must focus on these three dimensions. Indeed, the intellectual challenge of studying this phenomenon grows out of the possibility of using covenant as a seminal concept which has been given ideological expression and even more important, has shaped political culture and through it political institutions and behavior. Studying the linkages between these three and the way in which they occurred in various communities and societies is a major intellectual challenge of political science.

Covenant and its Federal Expression

A covenant is a morally-informed agreement or pact based upon voluntary consent, established by mutual oaths or promises and witnessed by the relevant higher authority, between peoples or parties having independent, though not necessarily equal status, that provided for joint action or obligation to achieve defined ends (limited or comprehensive) under conditions of mutual respect which protect the individual integrities of all the parties to it. Every covenant involves consenting, promising and agreeing. Most are meant to be of unlimited duration, if not perpetual. Covenants can bind any number of partners for a variety of purposes but in their essence they are political in that their bonds are used principally to create bodies political and social.

The definition of covenant in law as a binding promise is a straightforward statement of a concept of far-reaching importance in the relations between individual groups and peoples. In modern law, covenant is defined as "a promise or agreement under consideration, or guarantee between two parties, and the seal or symbol of guarantee is that which distinguishes covenant from modern contract." Theopolitically, "a covenant is a promise that is sanctioned by an oath..." accompanied by an appeal to a deity or deity to 'see' or 'watch over' the behavior of the one who has sworn and to punish any violation of the covenant by bringing into action the curses stipulated or implied in the swearing of the oath." For a theological or political significance, "the oath was usually accompanied by a ritual or symbolic act."6

Thus two words used as synonyms for brit in the Bible are shevuah and alah. The first means oath and the second is used as a synonym for covenant but has its origins in the word for cursed. This reflects the way in which a covenant embodies mutual oath-taking. The oath-taking basis of covenanting is even more pronounced in the medieval Latin term for confederacy, coniuratio, with iuratio the Latin term for oath. This may be a translation of the German eidgenossenschaft from eid, the German word for oath.

The covenant idea, with its derivatives and cognates, offers a particular orientation to the great questions of politics in theory and practice. Perhaps the clearest indication of this special orientation is to be found in Thomas Hobbes' translation of the principles of natural law into what he called articles of peace, i.e., the articles of the original civil covenant.7 In its theological form, covenant embodies the idea that relationships between God and humanity are based upon morally-sustained compacts of mutual promise and obligation. God's covenant with Noah (Genesis 9), which came after Noah had hearkened fully to God's commands in what was, to say the least, an extremely difficult situation, is the first of many such examples.

In its political form, covenant expresses the idea that people can freely create communities and polities, peoples and publics, and civil society itself through such morally grounded and sustained compacts (whether religious or civil in impetus), establishing thereby enduring partnerships. In its more poetic (but, for the Bible, no less serious) forms, covenant has even been used to describe relations between God and nature, man and nature, and the various elements of nature.8

In all its forms, the key focus of covenant is on relationships. A covenant is the constitutionalization of a relationship. As such, it provides the basis for the institutionalization of that relationship but it would be wrong to confuse the order of precedence. Students of federalism know that this is a real problem, having noted how federalism has come to be understood by many as no more than a matter of intergovernmental relations.

It is possible that covenant ideas emerged spontaneously in various parts of the world. If, indeed, covenant thinking is rooted in human nature as well as nurture, it is to be expected that some people everywhere would be oriented toward the idea somehow. In the course of this book we will explore some examples of such spontaneous developments outside of what became the covenantal mainstream: Beduin and American Indian tribal confederacies, the Scandanavian oath-pacts, and the Hungarian national covenant, to mention a few. In fact, it is not sufficient for random individuals or even groups to be disposed to it for an idea to take root and spread. Somehow a culture of civilization must emerge which embodies and reflects that idea.

The first such civilization or culture area was that of ancient Israel, located on the western edge of southwest Asia, whose people transformed and perfected a device originally developed among the Amorite and Hittite peoples who inhabited the area.9 The first known uses of covenant were the vassal treaties through which the lesser rulers and their domains through pacts secured by oath before the respective deities involved. These international or intra-imperial pacts laid out the form which covenants have taken ever since, which included five elements: an historical prologue indicating the parties involved, a preamble stating the general purposes of the covenant and the principles behind it, a body of conditions and operative clauses, a stipulation of the agreed-upon sanctions to be applied if the covenant were violated, and an oath to make the covenant morally binding. Often a sixth element was included as well, provisions for depositing the covenant document and of periodic public reaffirmation or recovenanting. These first covenants simultaneously established the political purposes and moral bases for covenanting. This is as true for ancient Hittite vassal treaties, the covenants of biblical Israel, the Scottish national covenant of the 17th century, and the Declaration of the Independence of the United States of America, to name but four examples.

Either parallel to or derived from these ancient vassal covenants there emerged domestic political and religious usages of covenant. The two were connected in the Bible to form the classic foundation of the covenant tradition.10 God's covenant with Israel established the Jewish people and founded it as a body politic while at the same time creating the religious framework which gave that polity its raison d'etre, its norms, and its constitution, as well as the guidelines for developing a political order based upon proper, that is to say, covenantal relationships.

Biblical adaptation of the forms of the vassal covenants involved a transformation of purpose and content so great as to mean a difference in kind, not merely degree. A covenant was used to found a people, making their moral commitment to one another far stronger and enduring than that of a vassal to an imperial overlord. The Bible draws a distinction between "sons of the covenant," bnai brit in Hebrew, and "masters of the covenant," or ba'alei brit. Bnai brit is used where the covenant has created a new entity whose partners are bound together as sons within a family. The covenant that unites and forms the Jewish people in the biblical account makes all Jews bnai brit (as the organization of that name indicates). On the other hand, where the term used is baalei brit, it is essentially an international treaty. It does not create a new entity, but establishes a relationship of peace and mutual ties between quite separate entities who remain outside of the limited purpose pact.

This new form of covenant was not simply witnessed by Heaven, but brought God in as a partner, thus informing it with religious value and implication for the Israelites, who saw no distinction between its religious and political dimensions. The covenant remained a theo-political document with as heavy an emphasis on the political as could be. The strong political dimension reflected God's purpose in choosing one people to be the builders of a holy commonwealth which could be a model for all others.

It was only later with the rise of Christianity and the beginning of the long exile of the Jews from their lands that covenant took on a more strictly religious character for some, in which the political dimension was downplayed, if not downright ignored by Christian theologians, on the one hand, and diminished by Jewish legists on the other. Christianity embraced the covenant idea as one of the foundations, reinterpreting the old biblical covenant establishing a people at a polity as a covenant of grace between God and individual humans granted or mediated by Jesus.11 Jewish legists simple took the basic covenantal framework of Judaism for granted and concentrated on the fine points of the law as applied to daily living or the expected Messianic redemption.12

Within the Jewish world, the political dimension of covenanting received new impetus in the 11th century to provide a basis for constituting local Jewish communities throughout Europe. That effort ran parallel to the establishment of municipal corporations throughout that continent which were legitimized by royal charter, usually negotiated between the municipality and the throne.13 While these efforts found some expression in political thought, it was really not until the Reformation that covenant re-emerged as a central category, first in political theology and then in political philosophy.

It was at this time that the covenant idea emerged as a powerful force in the second major cultural area, that of western and, most particularly, northwestern Europe. What cultural predispositions lay behind the receptivity of the peoples of that culture area to covenant as a concept remain to be uncovered, if they can be. It cannot be an accident that the federal theology emerged simultaneously in the 16th century in four separate places in Switzerland (Zurich, Basel, Berne, and Geneva), where confederal political arrangements had been dominant since the late 13th century.14

The reformed churches turned to the covenant concept with relish, finding in it the most appropriate expression of their theological ideas and expectations for church polity. The federal theology which they articulated (federal is derived from the Latin foedus, which means covenant) stimulated the renewed political application of the covenant idea which was given expression first by political theologians and then by political philosophers such as Althusius and in the next century was secularized by Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza.15 By the late 17th century, the concept had come full circle with its political dimension having taken on an independent life of its own.16

The connections between covenant and natural law go back to the seventeenth century philosophic revolution of Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza which transformed ancient natural law into modern natural law or natural right. Partisans of classic political philosophy view this transformation as a betrayal, gutting, or simple falsification of both classical and medieval natural law theories. Leo Strauss has made the strongest case for this view in Natural Right and History.17 In one sense, they are quite correct. However, it is possible to look upon the transformation in another way, namely the covenantalization of philosophy. That is to say, the recognition of the power of the philosophic tradition in shaping the idealized frameworks of western man which had led to an intolerable gap between ideal and reality in everyday life and therefore the necessity to reconstitute the natural law idea within a new system derived from very different premises. That indeed is what Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, among others, try to do.

Hobbes and Spinoza are the two most important figures in this process. The great student of medieval philosophy, Harry Austryn Wolfson, has made a strong case for the thesis that medieval philosophy began with Philo and ended with Spinoza.18 We all know that medieval philosophy is, mainly, a synthesis of biblical and Greco-Roman intellectual systems. What Philo did was to take the biblical outlook and integrate it into the Greco-Roman systems; i.e. covenant thought into natural law philosophy, to set a pattern followed by the Church Fathers, the great Catholic and islamic philosophers, and even Jewish and Protestant thinkers prior to the 17th century. Spinoza, in essence, reversed the process. He knocked the props out from under the edifice of medieval philosophy in an effort to replace it with a causual modernism. Whatever his intentions, in his effort to create an entirely new system, what we have come to call modern thought, he opened the door for the resurrection of the primacy of covenantal thinking. While it certainly cannot be said that undoing Philo's syntheses, he desired to make biblical thought supreme, he did open the way for the major political product of the Bible, the covenant idea, to flourish once again.

So, too, with Hobbes, another unabashed modern who controlled the expression of his new system only in so far as he thought it politic to do so. Hobbes, like Spinoza, set out to undermine ancient philosophy and religion and replace both with a modern ideational system, but in doing so reestablished the possibility of covenantal thought. That indeed was the first consequence of his effort, one which persisted for some two centuries and which again calls to us today.

From northwestern Europe, covenantally grounded civilization spread to the new worlds opened by northwestern European colonization. Such covenantal societies ranged from the United States settled by the covenanters from the British Isles in the early 17th to South Africa settled by covenantal people from the Netherlands in the late 17th to New Zealand settled by British in the 19th. Where settlers from those traditions were dominant, new peoples were established by covenant and they in turn created constitutions which concretized the covenantal dimension through a network of political institutions. In the 18th century, the American Revolution translated the concept into a powerful instrument of political reform but only after merging it with the more secularized idea of compact. American constitutionalism is a product of that merger.19

Covenant, Natural Law, Federalism, and Constitutionalism

Over the centuries, covenant, natural law, federalism, and constitutionalism became intertwined. When, for example, the Americans formally declared themselves an independent people in the Declaration of independence -- itself a covenant creating a new relationship based on natural law precepts -- they then saw constitution- making as a way of further covenanting or compacting together in order to create civil instruments designed to carry out the Declaration promises.20 The resulting state and federal constitutions were seen as compacts embodying the principles of natural law, especially in their Declaration of Rights. The propriety of subsequent legislation was, therefore, to be judged in light of its "constitutionality," or in other words, its conformity to both natural law and covenants, one step removed.

Normally, then, a covenant procedes a constitution and creates the people or civil society which then proceeds to adopt a constitution of government for itself. Thus a constitution involves the implementation of a prior covenant -- an effectuation or translation of a prior covenant into an actual frame or structure of government. The constitution may include a restatement or reaffirmation of the original covenant as does the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 in its preamble:

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 with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.

but that is optional.

Covenant relationships have often been compared to marraiges in their permanency, promissory trust, mutuality of responsibility, and respect for the integrity of each partner within the community created by wedding (an ancient Anglo-Saxon term for sealing a contract). The analogy also highlights the way in which covenant links consent and kinship. In the biblical-covenantal view of marriage, two independent and otherwise unrelated persons consent to become "one flesh" and establish a family.

In politics, covenant connotes the voluntary establishment of a people and body-politic. Again, the American Declaration is an excellent example. The diverse inhabitants of the thirteen colonies consented to become a people. It was not without reason, therefore, that Abraham Lincoln fondly described the union created by that act as "a regular marriage,"21 The partners do not, of course, always live happily ever after, but they are bound by covenant to struggle toward such an end, a commitment will understood and made explicit by Lincoln during the Civil War. At the same time, covenants beget constitutions almost as a matter of course but also influence every dimension of constitutionalism.

Following Aristotle, every political system is delineated along three dimensions: its moral constitution, its socio-economic constitution, and its frame of government, which taken together link the two faces of politics.

1) The moral basis of the constitution refers to the generally accepted ideas about how people in a particular polity should live. It includes the conception of justice which is held to be the guiding standard of the polity, the picture of the good polity in the minds of citizens, plus other opinions about what kinds of political and social actions are right and good. 2) The socio-economic basis of the constitution refers to the ways people actually live. In includes such things as class structure, ethnic composition, type of economy, and the actual distribution of power, in other words, who is important and influential and why. 3) The frame of government refers to the institutions and structures of government itself, including the document (or collection of documents) that sets out the institutions of government, establishes their powers and limits of those powers, and indicates who shall govern and how the governors shall be chosen.

Unlike many philosophic conepts, covenant addresses all three dimensions of the political system. It delineates the system's moral foundations, offers mechanisms for constructing the system's frame of government, and suggests a behavioral dynamic to shape the system's socio-economic basis.

Covenant, Compact, and Contract

Covenant is tied in an ambiguous relationship to two related terms, compact and contract. On one hand, both compacts and contracts are in a sense derived from covenant, and sometimes the terms are even used interchangeably. On the other hand, there are very real differences between the three which need clarification.

Both covenants and compacts differ from contracts in that the first two are constitutional or public and the last private in character. As such, covenantal or compactual obligation is broadly reciprocal. Those bound by one or the other are obligated to respond to one another beyond the letter of the law rather than to limit their obligations to the narrowest contractual requirements. Hence, covenants and compacts are inherently designed to be flexible in certain respects as well as firm in others. As expressions of private law, contracts tend to be interpreted as narrowly as possible so as to limit the obligation of the contracting parties to what is explicitly mandated by the contract itself.

A covenant differs from a compact in that its morally binding dimension takes precedence over its legal dimension. It its heart of hearts, a covenant is an agreement in which a higher moral force, traditionally God, is a party, usually a direct party to, or guarantor of a particular relationship. Whereas, when the term compact is used, moral force is only indirectly involved. A compact, based as it is on mutual pledges rather than guarantees by or before a higher authority, rests more heavily on a legal though still ethical grounding for its politics. In other words, compact is a secular phenomenon. This is historically verifiable by examining the shift in terminology that took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. While those who saw the hand of God in political affairs in the United States continued to use the term covenant, those who sought a secular grounding for politics turned to the term compact. While the distinction is not always used with strict clarity, it does appear consistently. The issue was further complicated by Rousseau and his followers who talk about the social contract, a highly secularized concept, which, even when applied for public purposes, never develops the same level of moral obligation as either covenant or compact.

The Bible and the Origins of the Polity

The Book of Genesis begins with humanity emerging from one common ancestor and then, after the Flood, dividing into three branches or grand families: that of Ham, that of Shem, and that of Japhet. Ham and the Hamites are located principally in Africa, although they cross over into Asia in Canaan and the lower Mesopotamian valley for a brief period. Shem and the Semites are located in southwestern Asia, while Japhet and the Japhetites are located to the north of the Semites and westward into Europe.

If one reads the biblical text closely, we discover that hierarchical government originates among the Hamites, first in Nimrod's empire and then in Egypt. The organic state, on the other hand, originates with Japhet and his descendants, particularly in Yavan, among the Ionians, or Greeks. The covenantal polity originates among the Semites, particularly the western Semites, culminating in the covenantal polity of Israel.

Both Egyptian and Greek mythologies reinforce this biblical classification. The origins of the biblical world are in creation, while those of the Ionian world, by their description, are through generation, that is to say, organically. In the first, God, by His will, creates heaven and earth and all things therein, including man and woman with whom He covenants. For the Greeks, the gods are begotten. Gaia, the earth, begets Ouranos, heaven, with whom she then mates to bring forth Kronos and his brothers and sisters, after which there are a series of matings and struggles which create the gods as the Greeks knew them and the world as we know it. The result is a world developed organically but around competition, which competition is resolved by agreements among elites, as distinct from the world of God's creation in which God and man are linked by covenant. According to the myths of the Hamites, individual gods came down to earth and assumed human form, each to rule his people through a power pyramid as in pharaonic Egypt. The myths of the Japhetites, or at least those of them in Ionia, gave birth to philosophy, just as the Semites gave birth to the Bible. Both philosophers and prophets are concerned with the pursuit of justice and righteousness. Hence they require a just political order for their teachings to be fulfilled. Each sought that political order within the context of the fundamental orientation of their civilization. For the prophets, that orientation was covenantal.

A covenantal politics, then, is directed simultaneously toward linking people and communities as partners in common tasks and allowing them space in which to be free. The very idea of a covenant between God and humankind contains this implication in its most radical form. The omnipotent Deity, by freely covenanting with man, limits His own powers to allow humans space in which to be free, only requiring of them that they live in accordance with the Law established as normative by the Covenant. This view is reflected in the midrashic literature. In Genesis Rabbah 38:13 it is specified that Abraham chose God by the way he lived before God spoke to him, while the Sifrei makes the same point with regard to the mutual relationship between God and Jacob. In a sense, this is part of the polemic between Judaism and Pauline Christianity which emphasizes the unilateral character of God's action as a form of grace.22

The Puritans' recognition of this aspect of the covenantal relationship between God and man in sixteenth and seventeenth century Britain and America became the basis of their federal theology. John Winthrop, the great Puritan Governor of Massachusetts, referred to this relationship as "federal liberty," or the freedom to freely obey the Law.23 A century later, when the federal idea was secularized by the descendents of the Puritans, "federal liberty" was redefined in terms of what actions were or were not constitutional.

The ambiguous origins of the Hebrew word brit tell us much about this fettered freedom or liberating bondage. Of the two Accadian words which scholars suggest are related to it, biritum means "space between" while beriti means "fetter" or "binding agreement." This notion of dividing and then binding together is present in the Hebrew phrase lichrot brit (literally: to cut a covenant) and on the ceremony which went with that term, which in earliest form involved the halving of an animal and passing between its two parts to symbolically reunite them. It survives in the Jewish ceremony of brit millah (the covenant of circumcision).

Theologians tend to describe foundations of theistic belief systems as a kind of revelation. Actually, a more accurate term would be divine communication. According to the Bible, God did not so much reveal Himself to His people, that is to say, move from being hidden to being visible, as to enter into direct communication with them. When God speaks to humans, He does so more in the way of a normal communication than a revelation. It is rather matter of fact, as if dialog between God and man is expected. This is a covenantal posture and outlook. Covenant is not a matter of revelation which essentially is a unilateral act among radical unequals. The conditions of covenant require communication with both sides participating, in which the radical inequality is overcome at least for purposes of the communication.

It can be said that the ties of covenant are the concretization of the relationship of dialogue which, when addressed to God, makes humans holy and, when addressed to one's fellows, makes men human. As the Bible itself makes clear, the covenantal bonds transform a mystical union into a real one, making life possible in an all-too-real world and, at the same time, creating the possibilities for a whole new realm of what Max Kadushin has called"normal mysticism," or the fusion of the highest goals of the mystics' quest with the demands of everyday living. The progress of civilization can be traced as corresponding to the periods in human history when the historical vanguard has recognized the vanguard idea and sought to concretely apply it to the building of human, social and political relationships.

In sum, a covenant-based politics looks toward political arrangements established or, more appropriately, compounded, through the linking of separate entities in such a way that each preserves its respective integrity while creating a common association to serve those purposes, broad or limited, for which it was called into being. These purposes range from keeping the peace through a permanent but very limited alliance of independent entities to the forging of a new polity through the union of previously separate entities to create a new whole. A covenant-based politics is not simply a symbolic matter; it has to do with very concrete demands for power-sharing and the development of institutionalized forms and processes for doing so. Whether in its theological form or secularized as the compact theory of the origin of civil society, the covenant principle has manifested itself in different ways, in different times and places, regularly reemerging as one of the fundaments of politics.


1. See for example, G.H. Dodge, The Political Theory of the Huguenots of the Dispersion (New York: 1947); E.J. Shirley, Richard Hooker and Contemporary Political Ideas (London: 1949); R.H. Murray, The Political Consequences of the Reformation (New York: 1960); Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Resolution (Oxford: 1965) and books listed in Appendix .

2. Cf. Robert Michel, Political Parties; A Sociological Study of the Oligarchial Tendencies of a Modern Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1966).

3. H.R. Niebuhr, "The Idea of Covenant and American Democracy" in Church History/23 (1954), pp. 126-135. Donald Lutz has collected most of the relevant documents in Documents of Political Foundation Written by Colonial Americans (Philadelphia: Center for the Study of Federalism, 1980).

4. See "Make the Symbol Appeal Everywhere" in The Boston Globe, December 17, 1979, p. 14. The Covenant Letter issued periodically by the Center for the Study of Federalism Workshop in Covenant and Politics regularly documents contemporary uses of covenant.

5. T.R.H. Davenport, South Africa, A Modern History (Johannesburg: Macmillan South Africa, 1977); W.A. de Klerk, The Puritans in Africa (London: Rex Collins Ltd., 1975); Leo Marquard, The Story of South Africa (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1966); and Marquard, A Federation of Southern Africa (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).

6. Quotations are from George E. Mendenhall, "Covenant", Encyclopedia Britannica.

7. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapters XIV and XV. See also Vincent Ostrom's discussion of Hobbes' articles of peace in his Leviathan and Democracy (forthcoming).

8. Daniel J. Elazar, "Covenant as the Basis of the Jewish Political Tradition", in The Jewish Journal of Sociology, Volume XX, No. 1 (June 1978), pp. 5-37.

9. See, for example, Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant, The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969).

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Gordon Freeman, "Rabbinic Conceptions of Covenant" in Daniel J. Elazar, ed., Kinship and Consent: The Jewish Political Tradition and its Contemporary Uses (Ramat Gan: Turtledove Publishing, 1981).

13. Menahem Elon, "Power and Authority in the Medieval Jewish Community" and Gerald Blidstein, "Individual and Community in the Middle Ages" in ibid.

14. B. Bradfield, The Making of Switzerland (Zurich: Schwietzer Spiegel Verlag, 1964); Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid, eds., Federal Theology and Politics (forthcoming). Denis de Rougement, La Suisse (Lausanne: La Livre du Mois, 1965); William Martin, Histoire de la Suisse (Lausanne: Librairie Payot, 1943); and Walther ab Hohlenstien, Urschwiezer Bundesbrief (St. Gallen: Ausheferung Durch Das Staatsarchiv, 1956).

15. Thomas Hueglin, "Covenant and Federalism in the Politics of Althusius" in Daniel J. Elazar and John Kincaid, Federal Theology and Politics (forthcoming).

16. See Vincent Ostrom, "Hobbes, Covenant and Constitution" in Publius, vol. 10, no. 4 (Fall, 1980).

17. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), Chap. V.

18. Harry Austryn Wolfson, Philo (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947), Vol. II, Chap. XIV.

19. Edmund S. Morgan, Puritan Political Ideas, 1558-1794 (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1965), and de Klerk, op. cit. See Donald Lutz, "From Covenant to Constitution in American Political Thought," and Rozann Rothman, "The Impact of Covenant and Contract Theories in Conceptions of the U.S. Constitution" in Publius, vol. 10, no. 4 (Fall 1980).

20. Rothman, op. cit., and Daniel J. Elazar, The Declaration of Independence as a Covenant, a working paper of the Workshop in Covenant and Politics, Center for the Study of Federalism.

21. Daniel J. Elazar, "The Constitution, The Union, and the Liberties of the People," in Publius, vol. 8, no. 3 (Summer 1978), pp. 141-175.

22. See Eugene Milhaly, "A Rabbinic Defense of the Election of Israel," Hebrew Union College Annual 35, 1964, p. 108f.

23. John Winthrop, A Model of Christian Charity (1628).

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