By Nathaniel Rome
One month after signing the United States Constitution, Benjamin Franklin offered support to another federalist movement: the unification of Europe. He believed that the states of Europe could follow the historical trajectory of the thirteen American colonies and form a federal union.
In the summer of 1787, Ben Franklin served as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. With the Articles of Confederation stumbling at each step, Franklin and his fellow delegates debated, and eventually constructed, an entirely new federal system. Franklin gave the final speech before the signing of the Constitution on September 17th. He noted that the world was watching and expected the American experiment in self-governance to crumble.
However, Franklin did not simply wish to defy the old-world observers. He wished to inspire them. In October, Franklin wrote a letter to a Rodolphe-Ferdinand Grand, a French banker and close friend, to inform him of the progress of Constitutional ratification. Franklin attached a copy of the Constitution with the letter, and suggested that Europe seek a similar federation.
Franklin wrote: “[If the Constitution is ratified], I do not see why you might not in Europe carry the Project of good Henry the 4th into Execution, by forming a Federal Union and One Grand Republic of all the different States and Kingdoms by means of a like Convention, for we had many interests to reconcile.”
In other words: if the American colonies could overcome their seemingly irreconcilable differences to build a federal state, why couldn’t the Europeans?
In the letter, Franklin refers to a plan by French King Henry IV (1553-1610). Henry IV’s “Grand Design”—which was the brainchild of his principal advisor, the Duke of Sully—aimed to create a “political system by which all Europe might be regulated and governed as one family.” The plan called for a union of fifteen Christian European states based on respect for religious differences, freedom of commerce, peace among members, and a unified military. A senate comprised of delegates from the member states was to “determine all the civil, political, and religious affairs of Europe, whether within itself or with its neighbors.”
Henry IV was unable to enact this Grand Design, as he was cut down by an assassin’s blade in Paris in 1610. Eight years later, the 30 Years War—a conflict of the very nature that Henry IV’s Grand Design sought to avoid—broke out, causing devastation only matched by the tragedies of the 20th century.
However, the Grand Design lived on. It attracted the attention of Immanuel Kant, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Abbé de St. Pierre. The Grand Design was republished at numerous inflection points for the European political order, including immediately following the American Declaration of Independence, the defeat of Napoleon, and the conclusion of the First World War.
Ben Franklin was not the only American to take an interest in Henry IV’s plan for a united Europe. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams also owned a copy of Sully’s account of Henry IV’s Grand Design. William Penn’s proposal for a European parliament echoed many themes of Henry IV’s plan. When James Madison was solicited to provide to Congress a list of “indispensable” books, he included the Grand Design.
In 1871, American historian Edward Everett Hale, in an article about the Grand Design, echoed Franklin’s sentiment from a century prior: “Is there any reason why American should be the only continent for permanent peace? Is Europe to be given over to permanent war? Or may Europe, in the future, learn its great lesson from this side of the water?” Hale wrote this during the Franco-Prussian War. It would take another eight decades—and two world wars—for anything resembling Henry IV’s Grand Design to develop in Europe.
For as long as there has been a United States, there have been Americans offering forward the American federal model as a way to cure Europe’s ills. For Franklin, this was a matter of faith since the American system, at the time, was nothing more than a document. For Hale, it was a matter of experience, since the federal system had been shown to guarantee peace better than the European balance of power. For Americans after WWII, up to and including today, it was also a matter of interest, since a united Europe was viewed as the best way to promote American security and liberal values.
Nothing embodies this sentiment better than John F. Kennedy’s July 4th, 1962 address. Kennedy, standing outside the building where Franklin and his fellow delegates signed the Constitution, said: “The nations of Western Europe, long divided by feuds far more bitter than any which existed among the 13 colonies, are today joining together, seeking, as our forefathers sought, to find freedom in diversity and in unity, strength. The United States looks on this vast new enterprise with hope and admiration.”
Nathaniel Rome is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies International Relations.