A covenant is a morally informed, perpetual, consent-based agreement that depends primarily on the efforts of the covenanting parties themselves for monitoring and enforcement. In this way, covenants differ from the related concepts of contract and compact in their greater emphasis on the moral, as distinct from the legal claims and obligations of the parties involved. In the New England colonial context, covenant or foederal theology (foedus, Latin for covenant) inspired social and political beliefs that informed federations of church and civil communities.
Like conceptions of natural law and right, the covenant idea reflects a people’s beliefs about the origins and proper constitution of political society, giving meaning to ideas such as justice and liberty. From a political perspective, citizens bound by covenant were obliged to exceed the narrow specifications of an agreement, realizing the spirit as well as the letter of the law in their daily activities. The covenantal emphasis on voluntarism rendered individuals responsible to judge and be judged under the conditions of their pact. Several characteristics of covenanting emerge from the New England archetype: an emphasis on self-control as a part of self-rule, the primacy of commitments based in consent, the telos of a partnership with God, a resulting reorientation of authority among moral equals, and the prominence of deliberation and collective choice arrangements.
Covenants are related to other consent-based arrangements, including compacts and contracts, but each type uses different proportions of moral, ethical, and legal constraint to secure compliance. A covenant’s moral and ontological dimensions are primary. Compacts also reflect moral concerns, but its legal compulsions equal its moral claims. The legal dimension of a contract predominates. As a result, these agreements’ duration, scope, and means of enforcement also differ. Contracts are of limited duration, for limited purposes, and with limited liabilities, and are enforced by a third party.
Covenants and compacts are formal agreements witnessed by the highest relevant authority, religious or civil, respectively, suggesting a distinction between their “secular” and “sacred” qualities. In practice, however, secular and sacred agreements coexisted under the same covenantal rubric. Covenants and compacts did not always enjoy the status of law; nevertheless, they often acted as founding documents influencing a community’s public activity, including the establishment of a “due form of government.”
The “Agreement between the Settlers at New Plymouth” (the Mayflower Compact), November 11, 1620, is the oldest political covenant in the New World. It is considered a covenant because it invokes God as witness to the agreement. The Salem Covenant (1629) and Enlarged Salem Covenant (1636) articulate beliefs that informed developing civil and church communities. The Dedham Covenant (1636) founded a town government. The Cambridge Platform (1648) established the congregational system of covenanted churches in New England, setting the pattern for later civil and church federations. The Declaration of Independence (1776) follows the covenant form and, when linked to the frame of government supplied by either the Articles of Confederation (1781) or the U.S. Constitution (1787), established a national compact in the federal tradition.
Barbara Allen, “Martin Luther King’s Civil Disobedience and the American Covenant Tradition,” Publius: The Journal of Federalism 30, no. 4 (Fall 2000): 71–113; Daniel J. Elazar, The Covenant Tradition in Politics, 4 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995–98); and Donald S. Lutz, The Origins of American Constitutionalism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988).