This article discusses the primary structures Johannes Althusius’ constitutionalism, as explained in his Politica: Politics Methodically Set Forth and Illustrated with Sacred and Profane Examples published in 1603. The first of these structures and the theme that Althusius is most famous for, is his scheme of grand republican federalism. The second is the public office of the ephors. The discussion is not primarily historical, however. The main aim, instead, is to assess the potential relevance of Althusius’ thinking for present-day constitutionalism. After centuries of at best scant relevance owing to the dominance of the statist paradigm in constitutional doctrine and practice, the decline of this paradigm is now creating considerable new interest in Althusius’ thinking.
The discussion starts off with a concise account of the statist paradigm, which was at its advent in Althusius’ days. Thereafter follows an exposition of his federalism which consists of a set of associations, beginning with the closest-knit association, namely the family, spiralling out into the most encompassing association, which is the commonwealth or realm, with collegia, cities and provinces in between. The office of the supreme magistrate is dealt with under this heading. This discussion also focusses pertinently on the question of sovereignty, which in Althusian conceptualisation was a diffuse popular sovereignty in contrast to that of his statist opponents, more specifically Jean Bodin, and in posterity, Thomas Hobbes.
Then follows an assessment of the public office of the (council of the) ephors, which assists the supreme magistrate in executing his responsibilities in accordance with the law and the covenant between the commonwealth and the magistrate and serves a as counterbalance of authority and power against the sovereign.
Against this backdrop Althusius’ constitutional thinking is evaluated. First, his constitutionalism is placed in historical context in contrast to (1) classical polis-based thought; (2) medieval imperial thinking and (3) modern statist constitutionalism. Secondly, Althusius’ communitarian anthropology, which is in part the basis for his federalism, and which constitutes an anticipatory response to liberal individualism is assessed. Lastly it is argued that Althusius’ federalism provides a valuable source for improving on the state-departmentalisation of power separation and checks and balances, currently still sway in terms of the statist paradigm.