The United States of Europe? Reflections on Federalism, Christian Values and the Public Philosophy

Alan JanikAustro-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.

Our suggestion…is to invent the federal idea anew and to realize it. That is not simple; for there is no historical example to rely upon.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, For Europe, 73

There is scarcely a topic about which more nonsense is spoken in discussions of European politics and the future of the European Union than the idea of the “United States of Europe”.  How frequently we hear the indignant cry, “God forbid, we certainly do not want a United States of Europe!” Less frequently we hear the ejaculation, “what we need is a United States of Europe!”. Least frequently we hear, “what we have is a United States of Europe!”

What all three views have in common is that they are expressions of commonplace sentiments positive or negative that are seldom linked to anything that might remotely count as precise knowledge of the development of the United States and its institutions. The laments usually follow upon disparaging remarks about some unfortunate bit of American policy or politics, be it foreign policy misadventures or episodes of domestic legislative gridlock, of which there have been all too many in the years since the European Union has come into being. The infrequent praise we hear is usually linked to American efficiency and business-like attitudes that get things done often in the face of huge obstacles. Yet, the question of what makes the United States “tick” politically, its institutions and the spirit that informs them when they function properly, is scarcely taken into consideration. This is a mistake; for there are indeed lesson for Europeans lurking in what they often take to be the morass of American democracy. Moreover, since mistrust or even outright fear of “Americanization” is an Old Saw among European conservatives, it requires more careful scrutiny here than the more infrequent mindless adulation that the United States is capable of evoking abroad. Both views are curiously “American” in their extreme character: America is almost always better than it detractors believe; worse than Americans (and their friends) claim when they get up on their chauvinistic high-horse.

Yet, two of the founding fathers of our Europe, Robert Schuman and his mentor in political philosophy, Jacques Maritain, were decidedly of the opinion that becoming America-like was the best thing that could happen to Europe. What they admired in the United States was summed up in a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s legendary Gettysburg Address that both were fond of citing in which Lincoln extolled his country for having institutionalized government “of the people, by the people and for the people” (Schuman, 2000, 52; Maritian, 1964, 97). For both of them this was anything but an empty phrase; rather, it put its finger on what was missing in war-torn Europe in the first half of the last century. Indeed, for Jacques Maritain it was nothing less than the best definition of democracy. Whereas Schuman’s admiration for the sovereignty of the people in the United States was largely from afar, Maritain’s enthusiasm was based upon extensive first-hand experience of nearly fifteen years of living in the United States from 1939 when he fled the Nazi conquest of France until his retirement from Princeton University in 1956 (except for the 3 years he spent as French ambassador to the Vatican in the later 40s). Moreover, that enthusiasm was deeply rooted in concrete encounters with Americans while living in New York, Princeton and Chicago. Indeed, his esteem for the United States was sufficiently great to move him to hold three lectures on America at the University of Chicago in 1956, later published as a book, incorporating those effusive, but by no means uncritical, Reflections upon America. They are worth the attention of European Christian Democrats today because, as Maritain himself emphasized, they are continuous with the central tenets in the political philosophy that so deeply influenced Robert Schuman’s concept of Europe. Precisely on that account relevant to the political malaise that is typical of today’s crisis-ridden European Union’s including the so-called “democracy deficit”. So there are at least prima facie grounds for being sceptical about pooh-poohing the relevance of the American experience to a European Union in search of itself.

What does the United States have to offer to the European Union? Why is it fundamentally mistaken to despair of a “United States of Europe”. Why did two of the most important European founding fathers take a position radically to the contrary considering the United States to be nothing less than a model for the new Europe that they envisioned? How is the American experience of unification relevant in Europe today? These are questions that need to be answered. In order answer them it will do well to reflect a bit on early American constitutional history, which contains crucial reminders of the importance as well as the difficulty of striving for “ever closer union” for Europeans. Briefly, a solid case can be made that the United States of America, 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 and exclusions that lead Europeans to despair of the Union’s future in the midst of the current crises. To be sure, it is less that Europeans should find straightforward solutions to European problems in America than that they should profit from the understanding the problems that have driven the development of American institutions as they relate them to their own. A study of those problem fields and the institutional solutions that have been found for them ought to illuminate contemporary European discussions of, say, federalism. Here America’s beginnings are particularly relevant.

Uniting America’s original thirteen colonies was not a simple matter. In fact the initial effort to do so failed miserably in a way that was obvious to everyone; moreover, it did so for reasons that ought to be recognizable to Europeans today, so similar are the problems facing those who would create a state out of existing political units.  The fact that the American colonies were (somewhat) more homogeneous and considerably younger than their European counterparts should not mislead us here. Briefly, throwing off the British yoke was something that only all thirteen colonies together could accomplish. However, when the Second Continental Congress met in 1775 there was very little sense of a common identity despite the desperate need to carry on the war for independence from Britain together. Citizens of the colonies certainly did not think of themselves as Americans then. The issues which pressed the need for union upon the reluctant colonies can be grouped under at least three rubrics: 1) diplomatic matters bearing upon alliances, war and peace, 2) matters of trade and taxation and a common currency, 3) contested matters between the states such as boundaries and western expansion. The Articles of Confederation, passed by the Continental Congress in 1777 but only ratified by all the states in 1781, incorporated several efforts to specify the form of co-operation that the common undertaking of thirteen very different political entities required (Feinberg, 2002). Those differences can scarcely be overestimated: some of the colonies were free, others slave-holding; some were small, others were large; some had (relatively) large populations, others were large in the sense of being wealthy without necessarily having a huge population. These latter considerations were of paramount importance in determining an answer to the crucial question: how should the cost of financing the war be equitably distributed. It would be this issue, in fact a form of financial crisis, upon which the Articles would founder, that would force them into a federation with strong central authority. 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 first and foremost with the repayment of their own debts without any consideration of the common debt at all. Since the Congress could not levy taxes, it was incapable of paying its debts, for example, to France, which had largely financed the war (the descendants of Pierre-Augstine Caron de Beaumarchais, creator of the Marriage of Figaro and the Barber of Seville as well as a wealthy supporter of the fledgling country, for example, were only repaid the debt owed to him more that fifty years after the Revolutionary War ended and some thirty-six years after his death). By the end of the war the “Continentals”, the currency that Congress had produced were inflated to the point of worthlessness. Without the power to tax Congress was helpless. That helplessness had far-reaching consequences. After the war Congress found itself incapable of paying the minute 625-man army that it maintained. Military action against the Spanish, who closed New Orleans to American commerce or the Barbary pirates, who held American ships for ransom was impossible because the government simply had no money. The founders of the articles strove to establish a weak union and they got what the wanted much to the young state’s detriment. The problem was that this very weakness prevented them from solving their common problems. So the order of the day had to be “back to the drawing board”: a constitution was necessary to create a “more perfect union” as the preamble put it in a phrase that is decidedly more dramatic than meets the eye today. From the very start, then, the issue of states’ rights (as it is called) over against the federal government was an absolutely central tension within American politics as it remains to be down to today. As already noted there were problems about representation from the beginning bearing upon the different sizes of the states and, indeed, the very way of determining size itself. However, those problems did not end there. From the start it was less than clear that representatives were first and foremost representatives of something that we today might term the American people as a whole or merely the representatives of their constituents in the individual states. This, like all of the quandaries discussed here, is a problem that any large state made up of constituent states necessarily must face. The United States is, if you like, the laboratory, where the first serious experiments in large-scale democracy were carried out. It is for that reason that those experiments, both the successful ones and the less successful ones are important for Europe today (as they are for any large-scale form of democracy).

The sad state of affairs in the wake of the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, to give them their full name, left little choice but to convene yet another assembly initially to emend the Articles and thus to provide the basis for a robust union with an effective central government. The result, produced between the end of May and late September 1787 was the U.S. Constitution as we know it. It is far beyond the scope of this presentation to supply anything like an account of all of the achievements involved. Yet, a couple of crucial points can be made here. The document stipulates a clear separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government with a view (along the lines of the model that Montesquieu adopted from Polybius) to establishing a harmonious system of “checks and balances” between the various branches of government in which no single one of them dominated over the other two. However, those checks and balances should were also present in the very structures that create legislation. It is noteworthy, for example that the very first clause of the constitution takes up the problem of achieving something resembling equality between the states on the basis of a bicameral 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 had equal number of representatives (originally appointed by the respective state legislatures). 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 with in it could be equitably governed otherwise. Some such development is in all likelihood part of the European Union’s future given its current state of disarray and this enormous challenges facing it. Be that as it may, the system of checks and balances wisely recognizes that government is always enmeshed, not only in controversies about specific policies, but also in what might be termed “fields” of political controversy in which those policy discussions are embedded, starting with the question of “states rights”, which never really disappear and bear a curious resemblance to European debates about subsidiarity that change from time to time but the tension between the center and the periphery will always be present in one form or other. The United States is certainly not the Super-State of European fears. In any case, the same first article that establishes the nature of the legislature endows it with the right to tax and stipulates what tax money can be used for, i.e., sustaining the military. Also unlike the Articles the constitution explicitly states that congress has the right to regulate commerce between the states. To make long story short, America’s political unity was the result of realizing that severe financial crisis can only be coped with on the basis of increasing federal power. However, that by no means implies an absolute transfer of authority from local to federal government once and for all. Without using the word Americans are very conscious of the importance of subsidiarity as a way of conceiving the relations between federal, state and local authority. At the same time, they are aware that the boundaries between these authorities are always politically contested, i.e., that politics pervades public life, which for that reason must be based upon civility with respect to dissent – something that Americans are sadly prone to forget from time to time with the civil war (the most destructively brutal war in history up to then) as the prime example. When civility disappears from public life, we end up those particularly ugly modes of intransigence that characterize American politics from time to time to the despair of many Americans and their friends internationally. Naturally, incivility and the populism that frequently accompanies it stokes the fires of America’s critics including some European’s, whose totally dismissive attitude to the U.S. rests upon a highly one-sided perspective on its complex development. Be that as it may, what is certainly clear is that the founding fathers built a certain transparency into American politics that, dismaying as it sometimes might seem, more or less ensures that you get what you see. The point is that America is always a bit better off than it seems to be because its political institutions further dynamic, critical spirits. Hardly anybody understood that better than Jacques Maritain, to whom it is necessary to return by way of conclusion. The reasons for his virtually boundless admiration for the United States explains a lot about the political values that make America what it is.

It was the spirit of the American people, something that Maritain experienced in the concrete in his encounters with the likes of Saul Alinsky, John U. Nef, Dorothy Day, Mortimer Adler and Walter Lippmann to name but a few and not as a mere abstraction (Döring, 180 et passim). On Maritain’s view “the democratic way of life at work in everyday existence” (Maritain, 1964, 95) was what made American society the best and fullest instance of political society yet to emerge. Such a society was au fond Christian both in its historical roots and above all in spirit precisely because in America “the tears and sufferings of the persecuted and the unfortunate are transmuted into a perpetual effort to improve human destiny and the make life bearable; they are transfigured into optimism and creativity.” (Maritain, 1964, 50) Briefly, what often has been the source of resignation and withdrawal from public affairs in Europe has, in the best of circumstances, a way of pressing Americans to participate in them. To be sure Maritain was under no illusions that America was perfect: he clearly saw and analysed her enormous problems coming to grips with the evil forces set into motion by greed, sexuality and above all racial prejudice there. He insightfully sensed a hidden conflict between the spirit of the people, the values that motivate them unreflectively in everyday life, and the logic of action that their social structures imposed upon them, the rituals of industrial civilization, as he called them. Thus he perceived in the dynamics of American life a form of social hope that was potentially capable of rising to the challenges that confronted Americans. What Americans needed to be able to realize their own potential was an explicit philosophy (Maritain, 1964, 58-71) that would articulate the values that Americans put into practice daily. To be sure the “public philosophy” that he advocated was hardly not the sort of thing that could be developed in courses and textbooks in the first instance but existential reflection on the values required for a thriving common life that issues in practicing those values. The potential implicit in unreflective practice should be actualized in reflective practice (to put a Thomistic twist upon a commonplace notion in business education today, Schön, 1983) Moreover, Maritain was certainly not alone in his pursuit of such a “philosophy” for America and a-fortiori the West. Shortly before Maritain’s Chicago lectures the social critic Walter Lippmann had published his celebrated Essays in the Public Philosophy whose aims was to make Americans aware that political leadership was less a matter of creating policy in accord with popular sentiments, i.e., with what is perceived as winning votes, than it was of working for what was objectively good for society (Lippmann, 1955, 28). Of course, the latter is neither uncontroversial nor easy to determine but the point is that the on-going debates about public policy ought to be grounded the substance of the issues and not merely in political whims In terms more familiar to us today his impassioned plea was for an open society pursuing the common good on the basis upon civil courage and thus have an heroic dimension. He and Maritain had been in contact since 1939 when Maritain was still in France and Lippmann’s project was first taking shape.  Both Maritian and Lipmann took civility to be of the very essence of public life and each in his own particular way strove to promote civility by exemplifying it. The Christian potential that Maritain perceived in American public life was not something that could be developed theoretically, not the kind of thing that social scientists analyse (which is not to deny the relevance of their investigations), but a matter of concrete action on the basis of the collective wisdom acquired through reflective practice of engaged citizens. For Maritain there was great hope for realizing Christian values in American society precisely because the seat of American politics was the community. This is what distinguished American politics from its European party-focused counterpart: “historically, the great fact is that this country was born of politico-religious communities whose own autonomous behaviour, traditions and self-government have left an indelible impression on the general mood of the American people” (Maritain, 1964, 93) Moreover the very plurality of those communities formed “a swarming multiplicity” of self-organized associations that buzzed with efforts to realize common concerns albeit not without their tensions. The centrality of the community in American life carried with it a certain distrust of The State but formed a perfect breeding-ground for a vital democracy capable of realizing brotherly love when citizens are capable of rising to the challenges they confront.

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.



Cohn-Bendit, Daniel and Verhofstadt, Guy. 2012. Für Europa. Translated by Philipp Blom. München: Carl Hanser Verlag.

Doering, Bernard. 1995. In Jacques Maritian Face à la Modernité. Eds. Michel Bressollette and René Mougel. Toulouse: Presse Universitaires du Mirail. pp.178-201.

Feinberg, Barbara Silberdick. 2002. The Articles of Confederation: The First Constitution of the United States. Brookfield, CN: Twenty-First Century Books.

Lippmann, Walter. 1955. Essays in the Public Philosophy. New York: The New American Library-Mentor.

Maritain, Jacques. 1964. Reflections on America. Garden City: Doubleday.

Schön, Donald. 1983 The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Schuman, Robert 2000. Pour l’Europe. Genève: Les Èditions Nagel et Guillaume Briquet.

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