political revue


Year XXXVIII, 1996, Number 3 - Page 175



The Origins of Modern Federalism: the “Covenant” in American History
The history of modern federalism began with the foundation of the United States of America. The “Convention for the revision of the federal system of government”, better known as the Philadelphia Convention, approved 17th September 1787, established the first example of a federal pact between sovereign states.
This outcome was not a foregone conclusion, nor one on which the congress members had previously set their sights, but was instead the result of a genuine compromise. “The most important points of the constitution were conceived as pure and simple transactions between the diverging opinions of the opposing parties and in no sense whatsoever as the elements of a coherent design”.[1]
The compromise was the brilliant intuition of the congressmen of that time, yet this is not sufficient alone to answer two important questions:
1)Why were the conditions for the development of federalism created only in that part of North America?
2) Why again was it only in North America that the implied federalism declared in the principles of the Philadelphia Convention was perceived by society as an integral part of their own historical and cultural baggage?
To find the answer to such questions means being able to identify which circumstances determined that, at the end of the 18th century, a federal society was established in North America; it means elaborating what Albertini[2] defines as “the historical framework of that particular federalistic social behaviour”; it means finally contributing to the analysis of the political, social and cultural motivations of modern federalism.
As we seek to demonstrate in this article, there existed an element (Puritan contractualism), which had moreover always been present in colonial society since its first settlements, that can provide an initial answer to these questions. Puritan contractualism was in fact a decisive influence on the development model the communities employed, and brought about a transferral from the religious sphere to the social and political ones of proto-federal behaviours that were forebearers of the attitudes and mentalities that were to lead the congressmen of Philadelphia to identify, probably unconsciously, the fundamental mechanisms of the federal system.
An event that took place in the summer of 1775 at the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia illustrates the degree to which Puritan contractualism permeated the society of the time.[3] This was the eve of the decisive conflict between the thirteen colonies and Great Britain. The Congress faced the crisis of imminent war with methods and forms which may seem to be at the very least unusual; in fact, it invited the peoples of the colonies to live the day of 20th July 1775 as “a day of publick humiliation, fasting and prayer”. This would serve to “confess and deplore our many sins and offer up our joint supplications to the all-wise, omnipotent and merciful disposer of all events” so that He may be moved to “forgive our iniquities, to remove our present calamities, to avert those desolating judgments with which we are threatened”. The effect of this recommendation was far from disappointing: everywhere, from New England to the Carolinas, there were widespread manifestations of genuine consternation, contrition, prayer and repentance. In this way the Continental Congress (composed partly of followers of the Enlightenment and deists) gained the favour of the people in the imminent struggle with Great Britain.
The meaning of the Congress’s appeal was immediately understood because the Congress had touched an extremely delicate and sensitive nerve among the colonists themselves; the mechanism that the Congress used to spread its message was a continuation of that which had been practised for at least 150 years in New England.
In New England[4] Puritanism had accustomed society to live a direct contractual relation with God and to dedicate one day in the week to confession and the repentance of sins. Every human omission damaged the contractual agreement with the Omnipotent, and in this way brought about a proportional punishment.
The profoundly religious mentality rooted in Puritan New England was, during the preceding century and a half, sufficiently diffused also among the other colonies as to convince the Congress that it was opportune to address the colonists with precisely the typical forms and elements of Puritan culture.
In such a society, infused with a religious sentiment based on contractualism between the people and God and accustomed to the practice of voluntary association among the different Christian confessions, modern political federalism found an ideal substratum for its first positive application, being seen not as something different, artificial or complex, but rather as a model of civil organisation that had already been previously delineated in the religious and political culture of the Puritans.
For confirmation of the importance that the particular nature of society had on the birth of federalism it is useful to recall the case of Mexico, along the lines of the reflections already made in the last century by de Tocqueville in the fundamental work Démocratie en Amérique. In 1824 this state adopted the American Federal Constitution of 1787, copying the American original in its entirety; nevertheless, the results were very different and within a short space of time the Mexican federation degenerated first into anarchy and then into despotism. The causes of its failure were numerous, but the fundamental issue, in our opinion, was that the values of Puritan contractualism were unrelated to the Mexican way of life.
Focusing attention on Puritan contractualism in no way means underestimating the importance of other circumstances that favoured the birth of the federation of the United States. For example, the impact of the geographical context is more than evident: small groups of colonists, very distant one from the other, were to a certain extent “forced” to give themselves a decentralised and federally-leaning organisational structure. Likewise the political and philosophical ideas of the European Enlightenment (above all from Britain) provided the Founding Fathers with the cultural preparation that was indispensable for any modern ruling class. That said, it is however also correct to stress that Puritan contractualism, as we will examine below, preceded both the arrival of the colonists in the New World and the 18th century Enlightenment. It provided New England with the religious motivations of the particular political order that had been established there and influenced the new generations, preparing them culturally (and we could say almost instinctively) for the federalism of 1787.
In American historiography, Puritan contractualism[5] is usually associated with the English term “covenant”, even if, as will be seen below, the identification of contractualism with the covenant may often seem arbitrary.
This article will present in turn a preliminary historical and theoretical study of the covenant, and its affirmation in the colonies of New England and from there to all the other colonies of North America.
Definition of the Term Covenant.
The term covenant derives from the old French covenant and was most probably introduced into England following the great Norman invasion of 1066.
Had it not played a decisive role in the creation of North American federalism, it would probably be now remembered only by the historians of Protestantism.
In its practical meaning, covenant signifies “convention”, “promise”, “agreement”, “pact”.[6] Each of these words possesses an individual and specific nuance in English, such that none can fully express the complex of meanings contained in the term covenant.
Various scholars have in recent years suggested more sophisticated definitions,[7] whereas others have been directly drawn from 16th and 17th century American texts.[8]
Covenant may therefore stand for “a formal agreement with legal validity, made under the seal of the Crown”;[9] “an agreement established or secured by the Divine Being”;[10] “a Pact or convention between the chosen people and God”;[11] “an agreement made among a certain number of obviously Christian people for the creation of a Church”;[12] a “social Pact through which a certain type of government is accepted”;[13] a “Pact by which a certain number of men creates a City”.[14]
Evidently, the term covenant is used to describe different kinds of agreements with an equal number of different purposes. It is therefore difficult to summarise these many meanings effectively, and in fact such a process could prove counter-productive, given that every element of reasoning or logical discussion contained within a single phrase would emerge irremediably lessened.
Nevertheless, while containing all the limitations of a definition, it seems right to re-propose Sabetti’s definition[15] since it is useful for tracing the very basic outlines of this essay. Sabetti defines covenant as the “voluntary association among peoples or parties having an independent status, for undertaking a common action or commitments to achieve limited or very general objectives, in conditions of mutual respect for the individual integrity of the associated members”.
All the same, it needs to be emphasised that, whatever definition is chosen, the concept of covenant nevertheless always contains the most specifically contractualistic aspect of the mutual correspondence of many distinct wills.
Yet in England the terms which recur to describe something similar to our “agreement” were not limited to covenant alone, but included also the terms “contract” and “compact”. While the former, as we have already seen, could take on a wide range of meanings, a contract was simply an “agreement of mutual responsibilities on a specific matter… The contract would be enforceable by law but did not itself have the status of a law”.[16] On the contrary, a compact was “an agreement that affected the entire community in some way, or relations between communities… The compact was not as specific as a contract, and was more like a settled rule than an agreement with specific responsibilities”.[17]
Federal Theology.
With the Protestant Reformation the covenant developed more religious and metaphysical characteristics, and differentiated itself from the albeit similar contract and compact.
A new and more elaborate conception of covenant became evident in various English Protestant fellowships that were intent on uniting through pacts founded on the free consent of the contracting parties. These pacts committed the contracting parties not only to live in a Christian way in all circumstances, but also to enter into a new and more Christian community. Behind a varied ritual and an apparent simplicity with regard to expressing their consensus, were hidden on the one hand a different conception of the Church and society, and on the other a real, practical theology.
The followers of these sects (who we will call from now on by their proper name, Puritans) strongly disassociated themselves from the official confession of the King and the English people (Anglicanism), yet also from confessions that were much closer to theirs (such as Presbyterianism), since, as discussed above, they were oriented towards a specific theology: federal theology.[18]
This theology, which was a minority element in the varied world of Protestant religious theories, was the result of a long and complex intellectual process started in Switzerland by Zwingli and Bullinger and in the Rhineland by Ecolampadius[19] and Martin Bucer.[20] Its first exhaustive conceptualisation was achieved by the Dutchman Zacharias Ursinus and his English pupil Thomas Cartwright.[21] The latter spread federal theology in England, whose principles were definitively established by some important members of the Reformation intelligentsia, such as William Perkins, William Ames and John Preston.[22]
The federal theology was able fully to express and partly anticipate the new intellectual climate which was spreading from England onto the continent through the new religious ferment of Protestantism. In fact, by taking up with unusual zeal and dynamism the very ancient idea of the pact, of the alliance (precisely the covenant) between God and man, which had been widely described in the Old Testament, the federal theologians unconsciously sowed also the seed of a new social mentality (and subsequently of a new political and institutional order) that was no longer based on “nature” but rather on human voluntarism. The premises of this voluntarism were very different from the various forms of mediaeval foedera,[23] since they referred back directly to the bible, and hence interpreted all the contractual relationships of ecclesiastical and social life under Puritan contractualism as “divine right”.[24]
In this way, the biblical experience of ancient Israel, modelled on the sacred alliance of the chosen people with God, was reinterpreted and reproposed as an authentic benchmark of political relations; from the outset, therefore, the theological covenant began to influence profoundly the ecclesiastical, political and institutional spheres of the English Puritans.[25]
The Ecclesiastical Covenant and Congregationalism.
Taking the theological covenant and federal theology as their starting point, the English Puritans (who, at the time, were still part of the larger family of Presbyterians) developed new aspects within the overall framework of covenant ideas. They believed in the absolute need to found churches through a public contract, in the presence of God, between a certain number of Christians. The signatories of such a solemn contract could not be the whole of Christendom, but only that small group which had taken the theological covenant with God to heart. Such people were none other than the true Christians, “the elect” and, by definition, the Puritans themselves.
It was not easy to identify who, out of the vast sea of humanity, had been predestined (elected) to salvation by God. It was necessary to judge people’s actions and behaviour, their successes (a sign of divine grace) or failures. Only the visible saints, those who demonstrated already on earth to be in receipt of divine grace, could consider themselves to be the chosen ones and authentic Christians, and therefore gather together in a free church.
In this regard, it is useful to describe the way in which a new church was born: a group of visible saints solemnly met together and, through a free and voluntary covenant, gave birth to a Puritan church.
The roots of this covenant (ecclesiastical covenant) are biblical: the Old Testament is full of alliances (covenants, according to federal theologians) stipulated among groups of the elect. The New Testament (as interpreted by the Puritans) also gave Christians the task of uniting in order to spread the gospel.
The Puritan churches were established therefore to the exclusion of all non-Christians and at the same time did not include the whole of Christendom. In other words, they were not ecumenical but selective and confined to that specific group of stipulators and that specific ecclesiastical covenant. Hence, there existed as many Puritan churches as signed covenants; every Puritan group endowed itself with a church that was equal and at the same time different from all its sister churches; none of these churches could prevail over the others in as much as each of them was directly wished by God.
From these theoretical premises, which derived from the developments of federal theology and the bible, the so-called congregationalism, that is, the ecclesiastical organisation that the Puritans adopted, gradually took shape.
Congregationalism was the cause which persuaded the followers of federal theology to split from the larger family of Presbyterianism. The Presbyterians, just as the Anglicans, claimed that the church had by its nature to be one and spread throughout the territory of the Crown. It could not be based on the consensus and voluntarism of a restricted number of people, but had to include the totality of Christians, regardless of any underlying covenant. The Anglican Church rested on these foundations; and it was for this reason that the Presbyterians remained within it.
A part of the Congregationalist Puritans did not accept such a compromise and decided officially to leave the Church of England. Others, probably the majority, argued that it was not opportune to abandon the Anglican church in as much as they believed it still possible to reform it from the inside. In this way, two distinct groups of Puritans were born: the separatist Congregationalists and the non-separatist Congregationalists. The non-separatists constituted the majority of those subjects of the Crown that crossed the ocean in order to venture into the New World.
The differentiation between separatists and non-separatists very soon involved also the ecclesiastical structure as such. In fact, while both churches were based on free covenants, and while every church enjoyed independence from the others, the separatists developed this basic form of organisation to its extreme. In short, since the separatist churches did not benefit from any solid reference point at a higher level of organisation, they ended up becoming increasingly different one from the other (also at a doctrinal level) and within a short space of time, fell into complete anarchy, which endangered their very survival. On the contrary the non-separatists, in part because they never renounced their membership of the Church of England, managed to achieve an organisation of the system of churches which, when carefully considered, reveals some similarities with what would become the federal system of 1787. In fact, every church enjoyed full freedom and autonomy. In 1636, a special body, called Synod, was created above the churches and given a few, well-defined functions (set down in Chapter XVI of the Cambridge Platform). The Synod was made up of pastors sent from the various churches, so that continuity and uniformity of religious and political action was developed between the two levels of ecclesiastical organisation.
The Covenant in the Experience of the British Settlers in North America.
Had the hard-line British Puritans not left their home country, they would probably over time have been re-absorbed into the large family of Presbyterianism. And today, dealing with their history and explaining their ideas would have no sense beyond a historical account. Instead, these men left a lasting impression of their presence in the New World.
A few historical facts will suffice to explain the extraordinary importance that these conventicles of the visible saints had. In 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers, during the voyage towards the American coasts, entered into (as was their usual practice) a covenant.[26] “We do solemny and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together, into a civil body politic”.[27] This covenant, that already had the characteristics of the social covenant (which will be discussed below), later became the symbol of the spirit that inspired the creation of the United States and its political model.
Nevertheless the adventure of the Pilgrim Fathers did not, nor could it have had, the importance which history later attributed to it. After landing at Plymouth in New England, they immediately put into practice all the institutions of federal theology and separatist congregationalism. Yet, as important as their experience was on a symbolic level, it was nevertheless restricted to a group of 150 people and the practical consequences of their action did not go beyond a generation.[28]
Definitely more important was the great migration of 1629-30 by non-separatist Puritans led by J. Winthrop.[29] This migration was different from all previous and future ones for a variety of reasons, of which one is particularly significant: Winthrop and his followers arrived in New England convinced that they had been guided to the new promised land by God, to whom each was linked by the theological covenant.
They left for such a remote land not because they were oppressed by their home country, but because they were convinced that they would be able to create there an authentic Christian community, populated by true Christians and organised on the model of free churches that were founded on the equally free ecclesiastical covenant. In other words, they (the new Israel) landed in America just as the old Israel, under the guidance of the Lord, had reached the Promised Land in Palestine.
A significant part of American historiography,[30] referring back also to de Tocqueville’s teaching,[31] agrees on identifying precisely in the Puritans of New England the first authentic seed of national identity, democracy and federalism.
From Ecclesiastical Covenant to Social Covenant.
The ecclesiastical covenant of the Congregationalist Puritans succeeded in shaping an entire society, even as far as the most insignificant details, and provided the parameters, forms and model for the social covenant.
A large number of churches was rapidly established in Massachusetts, each of them free, autonomous, and independent, founded on the will and consensus of more or less small groups of Puritans. This system of organisation, being highly decentralised, encouraged the grouping together of settlers in isolated communities, and hence prevented the emergence of a strong central control.
Given that not only the religious but also the social point of reference was provided by the various churches, the need existed from the outset to provide a more specifically political organisation, so that the New Israel could survive and flourish in those so apparently inhospitable lands.
Once again, the vivid and practical answer the Puritans gave to this emergency situation derived from an elaborate theological and biblical construction: the social covenant.
Unlike the ecclesiastical covenant, the social covenant was much less selective. The non-elect could also take part. In this way, the colony was able to enlarge itself while maintaining power and religious and political management firmly in the hands of the visible saints alone.
It may be interesting at this stage to recall briefly the principles on which the transformation of the theological covenant into social covenant took place.
The Puritans used to state: just as all Christians had signed a theological covenant with God and just as they had combined together in order to build the Church, likewise all other social and political communities must be founded on the same premises, namely on a public, free and voluntary contract between men and an earthly authority. The parties to such an agreement must have equal dignity and one party could not trample on the rights of another.
The Old Testament is rich with examples of this kind:[32] the contract between God and Abraham later becomes the contract which binds Israel in its entirety. And if God himself wished to found his authority on a contract stipulated on a free and equal basis, subjecting himself in some sense to its conditions, then all the more reason why every earthly king or political power should do the same.
These ideas seem to anticipate by a century the thinking of Locke and Montesquieu; indeed, the Puritans succeeded, perhaps unconsciously, in elaborating something which recalls the social contract of the Enlightenment.
Needless to say, widespread ideas on contractualism also from a political viewpoint had existed for some time in England and Europe, but the New England Puritans were the first to put into practice these new principles; new, if considered in the context of the 17th century, but in reality ancient in as much as they appeared to the eyes and minds of those settlers as a return to the thousand-year old roots of the bible.
At this stage, it is possible to identify two basic guiding principles that emerged out of the social covenant: the government had to derive its strength from popular consent; the people, should the government betray its contractual obligations, had the right/duty to rebel.
These guiding principles re-emerge in the Declaration of Independence of 1776. From this point of view, Jefferson and the other congress delegates did not create anything new.[33]
Of course, we do not seek to argue that the American revolution was the mere implementation of the ideas of 17th century Puritan contractualism. Yet in our opinion (which is along the lines of de Tocqueville’ s teachings), what really gave the revolutionary process its original nature was the covenant, its history, premises and influence on the “thoughts” and “actions” of the peoples of North America.
The Implementation of the Social Covenant and the Township System.
Convinced that they were following biblical laws and the design of Divine Providence, the non-separatist Puritans of Massachusetts spread their covenant ideas to an extremely large number of areas of colonial life. Of these, we want to mention the particular social covenant through which new towns were founded.[34]
It is worth describing how cities in Massachusetts were founded and organised. Immediately after 1630, nearly 1,500 settlers distributed across at least 10 towns, lived in what is now the state of Massachusetts. Each town was created on the model of the township system. A group of colonists decided to unite freely by stipulating a covenant and thereby to found a new, stable community.
These communities were border communities: the constant dangers, due to the presence of Indians and the inhospitable environment, forced the settlers to remain united and organised. Towns were established also in extremely remote places, so long as the soil was suitable for agriculture. Indeed, agriculture, apart from being a necessity for survival, in the colonists’ mind re-created in the New World that atmosphere of the rural English village from which the vast majority of them had come. All the settlers involved, and not only the elect, took part in this covenant, whose outward form followed that of the ecclesiastical covenant.
A group of settlers that wished to join together in a town had to receive the approval of the General Court of Massachusetts, the equivalent of a central government. Once approval was gained, the new town sent a representative to the General Court. A part of the town’s territory remained public property (on the model of the English village), while the remainder (the township) was shared out among all the heads of families.
The central government nominated the public officers,[35] while important sectors such as education, the school system, roads, public charity, the training of the colonial militias, tax collection and so on, remained the responsibility of the local authority.
Civil and political life was developed in the town’s outskirts and arose on the basis of solid contractualistic and federalist principles; the town itself did not possess a uniform nature, but rather drew its own political and social strength from a series of pacts (covenants) that were stipulated between the various settlements spread throughout the territory. The General Court intervened only at a later stage to give its approval to the new community order and recognise that a given town was in accordance with the religious orthodoxy.
In 1636 the Court conferred self-government on the various towns, by granting them the right to elect their public officials and to decree laws and regulations on varying subjects. Every member of the town could be called to take on government functions and the management of the public administration.
Since Massachusetts was a colony whose government had been established previously in England,[36] every town of the region was obliged, despite enjoying a large degree of self-government modelled on the principle of subsidiarity, to take account of the decisions of the superior political organ, that is, the General Court, in matters of public order and relations with neighbouring colonies.
However, other Puritan settlements in New England were founded in a significantly different way: Connecticut, New Haven and Rhode Island assumed from the outset what could be defined as a form of federation (to the extent that this was possible in the 17th century).
Connecticut was created following a solemn covenant stipulated in 1638 by the towns of Windsor, Hartford and Wethersfield;[37] this covenant, which called God as a witness, provided for the creation of a new political entity, Connecticut, which was to be endowed with a government organ, the General Court, the product of the three towns. The three towns agreed to give up part of their prerogatives in favour of the central organ, yet always within a relationship based on subsidiarity, such that the functions of the central government could not interfere with those of the towns for all matters which concerned the towns alone. In the preamble of Connecticut’s Fundamental Orders (the equivalent of a constitution), there is an explicit reference to the intention to unite within a confederation.[38]
New Haven was founded in 1643 through a similar procedure to that used five years earlier by the towns of the Connecticut valley. Through the stipulation of a covenant, the towns of New Haven, Stamforde, Guilforde and Milford took the decision to join together in a federal-type union and to create a General Court comprised of representatives from the various towns.[39] The General Court, despite wielding the same powers as a central and superior organ, was obliged to respect precisely the functions of the towns, on the basis of a social covenant stipulated between the General Court itself and the towns, which established the respective spheres of competence.
Finally, Rhode Island (the most turbulent and heterodox Puritan settlement in the whole of New England) arose as the product of a series of covenants signed in 1643 by the towns of Providence, Warwich, Portsmouth and Newport, each of which was the result of the stipulation of a specific settlement covenant.[40]
In each of these colonies, as in Massachusetts, the town represented the initial core of association and elaborated a system of contractual relationships (covenantal relationships) similar to those of the Congregationalist Churches. The towns gave up their own absolute sovereignty and delegated the task of extra-regional representation to the General Court. Therefore, every General Court acted as a federal government could act, by taking foreign policy decisions that were binding for all the member towns.
As can be deduced from the observations made so far, the township system was the result of the complex Puritan ideology of the covenant and, at the same time, the legacy of the English tradition, which the settlers inevitably brought with them. The primitive weakness of the central government is not enough to justify the deep sense of self-government in Puritan culture. Even when the central power began to be strengthened, the autonomy and self-government of the towns were intentionally not called into question. The towns were supported by an Assembly of free colonists, who were not necessarily members of the elect. The similarities with the ecclesiastical Pact can not but confirm the strong influence that this exercised on local self-government. The Puritan mentality did not take kindly to an overly strong central government (perhaps also due to the Puritan experience in England) nor was it willing to renounce that strong sense of community that derived from belonging to the various Congregationalist Churches.
In 1643 the colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Plymouth and New Haven stipulated, through their respective General Courts, a solemn covenant, to which God was called as a witness, through which they committed themselves to join together by establishing the United Colonies of New England. This association, which went down in history as the Confederation of New England, operated for four decades until 1686, and represented the first attempt on American soil to gather together a number of complex political realities through a federal method.
This model exercised a considerable influence on the constitutional evolution of American history, at least until 1787.
Also in the colonies of central and southern North America, towns were created and developed on the free and voluntary impulse of the colonists. Yet here, unlike New England, the Congregationalist system of Churches was not so widespread, and as a result the covenant ideas did not influence the foundation and development model of the towns.
In his description of the local situation in the United States between 1830-1840,[41] A. de Tocqueville repeatedly stressed a certain culture of self-government (from the town to the central government) that was deep-rooted in New England and, on the contrary, decidedly weaker elsewhere (even in states which were very close to New England, such as New York). He wrote: “In this part of the Union political life had its origin in the townships; and it may almost be said that each of them originally formed an independent nation”. And again: “When the kings of England afterwards asserted their supremacy, they were content to assume the central power of the state. (...) They are independent in all that concerns themselves alone; and among the inhabitants of New England. I believe that not a man is to be found who would acknowledge that the state has any right to interfere in their town affairs”.[42]
More than a century before the American Constitution, then, de Tocqueville identified in the events of New England attitudes which nowadays we would define as federalist attitudes.[43]

[1] M. Albertini, Il federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1979, p 57.
[2] M. Albertini, op. cit.
[3] P. Miller, “From the covenant to the revival”, in J.W. Smith & L.A. Jamison, The Shaping of American Religion, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 324-34.
[4] New England is the region to the east of the river Hudson, comprising the current states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
[5] Puritan contractualism (an integral part of the Puritan doctrine) was modelled on the forms of the more ancient “covenant” (typical legal expression of the English tradition) until it obscured the non-metaphysical meanings of the latter to become almost totally synonymous with it.
[6] See the entry “Covenant” in the Lessico Universale Treccani.
[7] D.S. Lutz, Popular Consent and Popular Control: Whig Theory in the Early State Constitutions, Baton Rouge La, Louisiana State University Press, 1980; G. Tarello, Storia della cultura giuridica moderna, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1976; E.S. Morgan, Visible Saints. The History of a Puritan Idea, Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1963; T. Bonazzi, Il sacro esperimento. Teologia e politica dell’America puritana, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1970; P. Miller, The New England Mind. The XVIIth Century, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1939; J.W. Gough, The Social Contract. A Critical Study of its Development, London, Oxford University Press, 1936; F. Sabetti, “Teoria e pratica del federalismo nordamericano”, in Federalismo, regionalismo, autonomismo: esperienze e proposte a confronto, Milan, Eured, 1992, pp. 11-41.
[8] “The Mayflower Compact November 11, 1620”; “The Cambridge agreement August 26, 1629”; “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut January 14, 1639”; “The New England Confederation May 19, 1643”; “The Cambridge Platform 1648” (all published in Documents of American History, edited by H.S. Commager, New York, Appleton-Century Crofts, 1962); Portsmouth Covenant January 7, 1638 in J.W. Gough, op. cit. Other definitions can be found in G. L. Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts, New York, MacMillan, 1960.
[9] Cf. D.S. Lutz, op. cit., p. 226.
[10] Cf. D.S. Lutz, op. cit., p. 226.
[11] G. Tarello, op. cit., p. 580.
[12] P. Miller, op. cit., pp. 540 ff.
[13] T. Bonazzi, op. cit., pp. 195 ff; E.S. Morgan, op. cit.
[14] T. Bonazzi, op. cit.; E.S. Morgan, op. cit.
[15] F. Sabetti, op. cit., p. 14.
[16] Cf. D.S. Lutz, op. cit., p. 225.
[17] Cf. D.S. Lutz, op. cit., p. 225.
[18] Aspects of federal theology are mentioned in T. Bonazzi, Il sacro esperimento, op. cit. For a fuller treatment, see P. Miller, The New England Mind. The XVIIIth Century, op. cit.
[19] Johannes Ecolampadio, Swiss reformer (1482-1531) is mentioned in H.C. Puech (ed.), Histoire des religions: le Christianisme, Paris, Librairie Gallimard, 1970-76.
[20] Martin Bucer, German theologian (1491-1551) is mentioned in H.C. Puech, op. cit., and in L.J. Trinterud, “The Origins of the Puritanism”, in Church History, XX, 1951, pp. 37-57.
[21] For an exhaustive analysis of the history of federal theology, see D.A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990.
[22] F.M. Powicke, The English Reformation, London, Oxford University Press, 1961. For a general picture of English history in the Reformation period, see G.M. Trevelyan, History of England, London, Longman, 1960.
[23] On the relationships between mediaeval foedera and Protestantism, see Hugh Trevor-Roper, Religion, the Reformation and Social Change, London, Macmillan, 1967. On the most famous foedera of the Middle Ages see also the celebrated, The Cambridge Medieval History, vol. VII, Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 1926.
[24] Federal theology interpreted in the relationship between Adam and God the existence of an original contract, on the basis of which Adam should have obeyed the moral law that had been impressed on him by God. Yet Adam did not respect this obligation, broke the contractual terms and was damned. Along with him, also his offspring bore the marks of this damnation, which, in contrast to what Catholic orthodoxy taught, was no longer a natural and unavoidable fact, but was rather held to be in the categories of sins and failings, which allowed man to be considered as simply contractually responsible. The federal theologians recognised in man a dominant strain of voluntarism. In this vein, God (as is told in the bible), moved to pity, decided to allow man to make a transaction: He committed Himself to forgetting part of Adam’s responsibilities and man committed himself equally to serve Him. This was the “Alliance of the Old Testament”: a people, Israel, rose to become the race chosen by God and linked to Him through what the federal theologians called the theological covenant. Through Christ’s descent to earth and sacrifice, the theological covenant was offered to all mankind, but man remained free not to obligate himself contractually, or, having committed himself, not to fulfil his obligation. The essence of this theological covenant is a sort of proto-individualism, in as much as it involves man in his most intimate individuality and ultimately rests on his free consent.
[25] The references to the theological covenant abound in all the 17th-century political literature of the Puritans. Oliver Cromwell cites this covenant on many occasions, especially when he seeks to render his own political beliefs clearer and more explicit. See, for example, the letter to Lord Fleetwood, 22nd June 1655, which is transcribed in full in Oliver Cromwell’s letters and speeches (edited by Thomas Carlyle), Leipzig, Tauchnitz, 1861, vol. III, letter CXCIX, pp. 329-31.
[26] The common expression is “Mayflower Compact”. Nevertheless, Lutz (op. cit., p. 227) rightly argues that the term “compact” is improperly used as a synonym of the more appropriate term “covenant.”
[27] This and other important documents are included in H.S. Commager, Documents of American History, op. cit., p. 14.
[28] B. Baylin, G.S. Wood, The Great Republic: a History of the American People, Lexington, Massachusetts, D.C. Heath and Company, 1985.
[29] On the figure of J. Winthrop (1588-1649), see E.S. Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma. The Story of John Winthrop, Boston-Toronto, Little Brown Company, 1958.
[30] See for example J.T. Adams, The Founding of New England, Boston-Toronto, Little Brown Company, 1949.
[31] A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York, Alfred A. Knoff, 1956. Book 1,. chapter II is of fundamental importance for a precise understanding of the enormous influence of Puritan contractualism.
[32] Genesis: 17, 1-14; Exodus: 24, 1-11; Exodus: 32, 11-14; others are spread throughout the Old Testament or can be reconstructed from an interpretation of the New Testament.
[33] Not all authors interpret Puritan culture and contractualism as an anticipation of freedom. Tarello, for example (Storia della cultura puritana giuridica moderna, op. cit., p. 579) holds the covenant to be “terrible and illiberal” and gives it a role only in as much as it provided the form (but not the substance) for subsequent American constitutional development. Calamandrei (“Le origini costituzionalistiche delle colonie nordamericane”, in La nascita degli Stati Uniti d’America, edited by L. Bolis, Rome, Ed. Comunità, 1957, pp. 119-136) perceives in Puritanism a latent form (sometimes explicit) of totalitarianism and believes that the more strictly liberal aspects of the experience in New England derive directly from English traditions and Common Law.
[34] T. Bonazzi, op. cit., pp. 301-8.
[35] The public officials (“constables”), who were responsible for matters of public order, were initially nominated at the discretion of the General Court and had the task of representing the central government in the local communities. Nevertheless, already from 1635 onwards, the towns themselves were given the right to choose their own constables, who continued to fulfil tasks of public order, but could no longer be considered representatives of the central power. Cf. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, edited by N.B. Shurtleff, Boston, W. White, 1853-54, vol. 1, p. 172.
[36] “The first Charter of Massachusetts, March 4, 1626”; “The Cambridge Agreement, August 26, 1629”, re-published in the collection of primary documents, Documents of American History, edited by H.S. Commager, op. cit.
[37] The Three Constitutions of Connecticut, 1636, 1662, 1818, edited by C. Hoadly, Hartford, Connecticut, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1901, pp. 10-12.
[38] In the original documents of the time, the English term “confederacy” is frequently to be found, and, more rarely, the Latin equivalent confoederatio. The etymological root of both is foedus, which is used to describe the theological alliance between God and men, namely the covenant. During the 17th century, the diffusion of theological and religious terms to the spheres of politics and public law encouraged the progressive affirmation of an idea of “federation”, which was in some ways similar to the modern one. In spite of this, the 17th century “confederacy” can not be considered the equivalent of the modern “federacy” or “federation”. In fact, the concept of “absolute state sovereignty” was sufficiently clear to the founding fathers of 1787 (and it was to become even clearer during the 19th century), but in the Anglo-Saxon political culture of the 17th century (and particularly in New England) it was inconceivable to ascribe absolute sovereignty to anything other than God, such that the various confederations developed above all the concept of “contractual union” without touching on the complex problem of “state sovereignty”.
[39] Records of the Colony and Plantation of New Haven from 1636 to 1649, edited by C. Hoadly, Hartford, Connecticut, Tiffany & Company, 1857, pp. 110-113.
[40] For example, Portsmouth’s foundation Covenant (7th January 1638) has been republished in: Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation in New England, edited by J.R. Bartlett, Providence, Rhode Island, A.C. Green & Brothers, State Printers, 1856-65, p. 52.
[41] A. de Tocqueville, op. cit., Book I, Chapter V.
[42] A. de Tocqueville, op. cit., p. 65.
[43] M. Albertini, op. cit.




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