New Europe and the Old U.S.A.

Europe’s Founding Fathers believed becoming more like America was the best thing that could happen to Europe: a review of how 13 Colonies became the United States

Opinion | Allan Janik | December 2012 / January 2013

This essay is excerpted from a previously unpublished monograph "The United States of Europe? – Reflections on Federalism, Christian Values and the Public Philosophy" that can be found in full here

There is scarcely a topic about which more nonsense is spoken in discussions of the future of the European Union than the idea of the "United States of Europe". Positive and negative sentiments about the future of the Union are seldom linked to anything that makes sense, to any evidence that might count as precise knowledge, for example, of the development of the United States itself and its institutions.

This is a mistake, as there are lessons for Europeans lurking in what they often take to be the morass of American democracy.

Two of Europe’s founding fathers, Robert Schuman and his mentor in political philosophy, Jacques Maritain, were of the opinion that becoming America-like was the best thing that could happen to Europe. What they admired in the U.S. was summed up in a phrase from Abraham Lincoln, in which he extolled his country for having institutionalised government "of the people, by the people and for the people." For both of them, this put the finger on what was missing in war-torn Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

How is the American experience of unification relevant in Europe today? A solid case can be made that the U.S.A., on the basis of both its institutional structures and the spirit of social hope that vivifies those institutions, is capable of dealing precisely with the sorts of issues that lead Europeans to despair of the Union’s future in the midst of the current crises.

Uniting America’s original 13 colonies was not a simple matter. In fact, the initial effort to do so failed miserably for reasons that ought to be recognisable to Europeans today. When the Second Continental Congress met in 1775, there was very little sense of a common identity. Citizens of the colonies certainly did not think of themselves as Americans. Those differences can scarcely be overestimated: Some of the colonies were free, others slave-holding; some were small, others were large; some had great populations, others were large in relation to wealth. These latter considerations were of paramount importance in determining an answer to the crucial question: How should the cost of financing the War of Independence be equitably distributed?

From the start, the Congress could only do what the individual colonies allowed and that meant very little, so anxious were they to protect their individual sovereignty. Thus after the war, the individual colonies concerned themselves with the repayment of their own debts without considering the common debt they shared. Since Congress could not levy taxes, it was incapable of paying its debts, for example to France, which had largely financed the war. Without the power to tax, Congress was helpless. This sad state of affairs left little choice but to convene yet another assembly to provide the basis for a robust union with an effective central government.

The result was the U.S. Constitution, which stipulates a clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government with a view to establishing a harmonious system of "checks and balances" between the various branches of government.

However, those checks and balances were also present in the very structures that create legislation. The first clause of the constitution takes up the problem of achieving something resembling equality between the states on the basis of a bi-cameral legislature: a lower chamber, the House of Representatives, in which population distribution determines the number of representatives, who are directly elected; and an upper chamber, the Senate, in which each state has an equal number of representatives.

Thus the principle of majority rule was balanced by recognition of the equality of the constitutive political entities. It is hard to see how a populous, culturally diverse country with several dozen political units could be equitably governed otherwise. To make a long story short, America’s political unity was the result of realising that severe financial crisis can only be coped with on the basis of increasing federal power.

If this is at all right, then the cry for more Europe is in a sense a cry for more America, i.e., an appeal to understand and learn from the American experience in the course of creating the robust federalism that today’s Europe requires and ultimately in shaping a truly European identity.

Austro-American philosopher and intellectual historian Allan Janik is Senior Research Fellow of the Brenner Archives at the University of Innsbruck and Honorary Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna. He is author (with Steven Toulmin) of Wittgenstein’s Vienna.

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