In the 16th century, Johannes Althusius(1557-1630) developed a federal political theory against the prevailing theocratic tendencies of the Calvinist minority. Against Calvinist theocrats, who insisted on the sovereignty of God in political matters, according to which the Calvinist polity was “regarded as a corporate body in terrotirial hierarchical communities…”(Føllesdal, 2010) Althusius suggested a politically neutral, contractualist federal state according to which the government was not authorized to enforce any religious dogma, be it Calvinist, Lutheran or Roman Catholic. For Althusius, “Accommodation of dissent and diversity prevailed over any interest in subordinating political powers to religion or vice versa.”
Rather than basing his federal political order on the entitlement of the individual to negative liberty, Althusius acknowledged that
Since humans are fundamentally dependent on others for the reliable provision of requirements of a comfortable and holy life, we require communities and associations that are both instrumentally and intrinsically important for supporting [subsidia] our needs. Families, guilds, cities, provinces, states and other associations owe their legitimacy and claims to political power to their various roles in enabling a holy life, rather than to individuals’ interest in autonomy. Each association claims autonomy within its own sphere against intervention by other associations. Borrowing a term originally used for the alliance between God and men, Althusius holds that associations enter into secular agreements—pactum foederis—to live together in mutual benevolence(Føllesdal, 2010).
This assertion by Althusius of the relative autonomy of each sphere from intervention by other spheres was a seminal and essential defining moment in the development of federal political thought, according to which a non-unitary form of sovereignty in which the rights of individuals are guaranteed by at least two political powers(with the individual owing political obligation to each political power as well)(Føllesdal, 2010).
Montesquieu was one of the West’s most important thinkers for federalist political theory. He argued that certain forms of federalism combined the best of large and small political units. As consisting partially of small states, citizens could participate in practices such as republican participation and could avoid unilateral domination by a centralized, unitary sovereign. On the other hand, such a federal political order could benefit from military security and so be secure from intervention or inference from without by other sovereign states(Føllesdal, 2010).
Føllesdal, Andreas, “Federalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2010/entries/federalism/>.