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Iroquoian influence and American democracy

Democracy is a very hard term to define accurately, since it can and is used in variety of meanings. As a political structural system, it indicates that every member of a democratic society has the right to “control directly the details of the government”. (Gillin 704) Take the United States as an example. Although the US had a democratic governmental system since the seventeenth century, they were not always fully committed to the true meaning of the word. Until 1869, with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment, African-American men did not have the right to vote, and until 1920 neither did all the women. As can be seen, the meaning of word democracy shifts depending on the time period and social circumstances. J.L. Gillin gives an ideological definition of how the democracy should be organized. “Again democracy indicates the equality of opportunity as between individuals and different classes, not only political, but educational, social and economic, opportunity.” (704) He follows with a skeptical realization that a society with such an evolved democratic structure has not yet existed. (Gillin 704)

However, the Iroquois League came as close to that definition as possible. In words of an American lecturer C. Elmore Reaman: “Its democratic form of government more nearly approached perfection than any that has been tried to date.” (qtd. in Forgotten Founders 19) As an egalitarian governmental unit, it provided an equal position for every member within the society. The complex structural system prevented usurpation of power by one nation at the expense of the others. Public opinion and public contentment played a key role in the Iroquois government, enabling the public to directly control internal, as well as external affairs. In other words, there was little to no chance for a dominant force to rule over the rest. Equality, freedom, happiness and right of life came to the Iroquois and in fact to Native Americans in general as a second nature. Therefore, in spite of the popular notion (at least until fairly recently) that only Europeans influenced the “uncivilized” Indians, the impact and influence of colonization were mutual. Some may even argue that the impact of Native Americans on European settlers was far greater.

The course of seventeenth and eighteenth century can be characterized as a period of intensive European and American10 contact. The more European settlers became knowledgeable of the Native Americans’ customs and structure of their society, the more they started to realize all the deficiencies in the European governmental system. Johansen and Grinde provide a very suitable description of the European views of America in the colonial times in their book Exemplars of Liberty:

America became Europe's dream slate, an answer to every troublesome question, a cure for every ailment, from baldness, to poverty and tyranny. America provided a vision, and an outlet for a crowded, cloistered little continent: land for freeholds, and a spirit of freedom that must have had tremendous appeal among the crowded, coerced, and rack-rented of Europe. (Chapter 3)

As a land of free with plenty of space and food, the newly discovered American continent represented everything the tormented European settlers desired.

For purpose of pointing out the influence of the Iroquois on forming the union of colonies, one must particularly focus on the Anglo-Iroquoian political relations. In this sense the Iroquois were a necessary asset to the British.

Originally, the British Crown initiated diplomatic relations with the Six nations for fear of being surrounded by the French, since they “advanced south from the Saint Lawrence Valley and north from Louisiana,“ and would „hem the English between the mountains and the Atlantic”. (Forgotten Founders 26) Ambassadors were sent to Iroquoian territory to attend councils and seal the deal of alliance, and afterwards report to provincial governors. One in particular, a Pennsylvania’s governor Benjamin Franklin, became an essential and influential historical figure in a coming pursuit of new democratic system of government. (Forgotten Founders 27; Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 6)

The English colonists (along with the British Crown) were fully aware of how much the alliance with the Iroquois would determine the outcome of the Anglo-French war. Without the Iroquoian support the French would most likely dominate the majority of all colonies, gaining a substantial amount of power. Johansen notes that “The British decision to seek the Iroquois’ favor set in motion historical events that were to make North America a predominantly English-speaking continent”. (Forgotten Founders 28)

Although historically, the treaty councils, ensuring friendship and loyalty between the Iroquois and the British, can be dated back to the beginning of seventeenth century, the final insurance of Iroquois-English cooperation was sealed at the 1744 treaty council in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the council the Commissioners of Virginia cleverly expressed their relationship to the Six Nations. “We have a Chest of new Goods, and the Key is in our Pockets. You are our Brethren; the Great King11 is our common Father, and we will live with you, as Children ought to do, in Peace and Love.” (Van Doren, Boyd 54)

The 1744 treaty can also be marked as the first impulse towards the new American democratic system of government, when an Iroquois sachem Canassatego at the last day of the treaty council advised the colonists to unite, following the model of the Iroquois Confederacy. His famous speech served as a “rallying point” against the British tyranny long after (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 6), not to mention being an undeniable historical record of the Iroquoian influence on English settlers. Canassatego said:

We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger. Our wise Forefather established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighbouring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out one with another. (Van Doren, Boyd 78)

At that time, Benjamin Franklin was engaged in publishing the recorded proceedings of the treaty councils that enjoyed constantly growing interest. Through them, he became more involved in the diplomatic relations with the Iroquois and was being simultaneously very observant, not only of the Iroquoian perception of freedom and equality, but also the federalist structure of their society. (Forgotten Founders 39) He realized that following the example of the Iroquois Confederacy as a perfect counterpoint to the existing British monarchy would unify differently thinking colonies and not diminish their independency. (Johansen 44) The colonies themselves were not keen on this idea for fear of losing power and sovereignty over their own territory. Franklin’s frustration with the colonies can be seen as expressed in a letter to James Parker in 1751:

It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies. (Forgotten Founders 45)

In 1754 at Albany Congress the attitude of the colonies toward a federal union changed. As Johansen notes, there were two reasons behind assembling the Albany Congress: to confirm Iroquois-English cooperation against the French in the Seven Years War and to authorize the colonial union. (47) Much like the Lancaster treaty in 1744, the Albany Congress also had a strong historical figure, an Iroquois sachem Tiyanoga (English name Hendrick), who urged the English colonies to overcome their differences and form a union, same as Canassatego did a decade ago. "In the mean time we desire, that you will strengthen yourselves, and bring as many into this Covenant Chain as you possibly can." (qtd. in Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 6) This time the proposed plan was successful. Benjamin Franklin in cooperation with a selected committee was assigned to “prepare and receive Plans or Schemes for the Union of the Colonies”. (Forgotten Founders 47) The Albany Plan of Union ensured that all thirteen colonies remained autonomous, apart from certain powers regarding the interests of all the involved parties, such as protection against any potential enemy. These powers were appointed to the general government called Grand Council to which forty-eight representatives were elected. As the head of the general government a president-general was chosen by the English King. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 6; Forgotten Founders 48) As Johansen skillfully points out, Franklin’s plan was a mixture of “Crown’s demands for control, the colonists’ desires for autonomy in a loose union, and the Iroquois’ stated advocacy of a Colonial union similar to theirs in structure and function”. (48) Unfortunately, the new constructed plan of Colonial union was rejected by both the colonies and the British monarchy. On the side of the colonists the plan shattered on legislative grounds, whilst the British government feared losing authority over their own colonies, since the Albany Plan was too politically nonrestrictive. (Forgotten Founders 49, 50)

The evidence of the Iroquoian influence in drawing up the Albany Plan is undeniable, from the general idea of autonomy of each colony due to their diversity, geographical locations and remaining skeptical views of the other colonies; through the same name of the appointed government, even to the number of electives in the general government. The constant mistrust and suspicion between the individual settlements, amplified by the fear of being controlled by somebody else, caused another Iroquoian democratic element to be included into the Albany Plan, that being the right of veto. “One colony could veto the action of the rest of the body.” (Forgotten Founders 48) Therefore even the small colonies could direct the course of actions of the union and not be dominated or absorbed by a bigger, more populous colony.

There was, however, a slight difference between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Albany Plan of Union, namely the reasons behind the appointment of forty-eight delegates. The different number of Iroquois sachems elected from each nation was most likely based on tradition, possibly referring to the order in which the individual nations joined the confederacy, whereas the number of elected representatives for the Grand Council of United Colonies was based on the size, population and military contributions of each colony. (Forgotten Founders 49) Even though, the Albany Plan of Union originally failed to pass, Franklin continued to trust in its beneficial properties and usefulness as a perfect model of alliance for the diverse group of colonies. His vision came true almost two decades later.

By the end of eighteenth century the colonies found themselves being again exposed to a possible threat by the French and more importantly by the British Crown which did not approve of the growing democratic thinking among their settlements. The colonies realized they could fight the British only with joint effort. The commissioners of the newly united colonies expressed their view of collaboration, in reference to the Iroquois Great Law at the Second Continental Congress meeting with the Six Nations in 1775 (Forgotten Founders 50):

They have frequently taken a single arrow and said, Children, see how easily it is broken. Then they have taken and tied twelve12 arrows together with a strong string or cord and our strongest men could not break them… Divided, a single man may destroy you; united, you are a match for the whole world. (gtd. in Forgotten Founders 51)

Another historical event of Iroquois-English relations was a year later, when the Continental Congress discussed the question of independence. Naturally, the Iroquois sachems were once again present. During the meeting, an Onondaga chief gave an Iroquoian name to the president of the Congress John Hancock (Karanduawn; meaning the Great Tree) as a symbolic gesture of their friendship and loyalty towards one another. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 8) A committee headed by Thomas Jefferson (also an admirer of the evolved political organization of the Iroquois) was appointed to draw up the Declaration of Independence (Forgotten Founders 64), which would be then adopted on July 4th 1776. Johansen further argues that Jefferson’s ideas of liberty and equality were observed from the Indian way of thinking. Jefferson viewed Europe with its feudalistic system of government as two-classed society with “wolves and sheep”, or “horses and riders”. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 8) The wolves and riders obviously represented the upper classes which held all the power, leaving the poor as sheep (or horses) to blindly follow their masters’ dictations. He argued that simplicity is the key, meaning that less governmental supervision and restrictions lead to a more successful society, as he saw a living proof in the Iroquois. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 8) He expressed his views in a letter to Edward Carrington in 1787 stating: “I am convinced that those societies [as the Indians] which live without government enjoy in their general mass and infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.” (gtd. in Forgotten Founders 63)

After the English colonies freed themselves from the reign of the British monarchy and declared their independence and sovereignty over their land, they needed to establish a new government, along with their own new constitution. Precisely then, Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union became a suitable example for the first American constitution called Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, or as Johansen perceived the new document as only “repackaged” Albany Plan. (50) However, the needs and demands of all thirteenth colonies gradually changed and the recently formed federative government required drafting a new constitution that would fulfill colonies’ new requirements. Therefore the Articles of Confederation were in 1789 replaced by the United States Constitution as it is known nowadays.

As every controversial thesis, the debate of the Iroquois influence on the Founding Fathers and the impact of their ideas of freedom, democracy and equality on the evolution of the United States are still causing quite a stir between many American scholars, historians and ethnologists. Either side of the Iroquois influence thesis13 offer sufficient evidence for their arguments, unfortunately there is not a one clear-cut answer for this issue. The area of study has only fairly recently been a subject of a historical investigation, partially due to negligence of the Iroquoian records and sources. In words of A. Irving Hallowell: “Since most history has been written by the conquerors, the influence of the primitive people upon American civilization has seldom been the subject of dispassionate consideration.” (qtd. in Forgotten Founders 13)

The strongest advocates of the Iroquois influence on American democratic thought are two scholars of American Indian History Bruce E. Johansen and Dr. Donald A. Grinde Jr. Focus of their research is concentrated on the strong possibility that the Iroquois “played a key role in the ideological birth of the United States” (Forgotten Founders 8), particularly in shaping the democratic ideas of the two of the most influential American historical figures, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The research did not question, whether the Iroquois inspired the democratic notions of Euro-American colonists, but how extensive was their influence. (“The Iroquois and the Origins of American Democracy”)

As a reason for English settlers’ decision to escape their fate and newly establish themselves in the New World was the dissatisfaction with their current situation in Great Britain and the unfairness of their socio-economic circumstances caused by the monarchial system of government. (Hiltner, Grinde) After an encounter with the indigenous peoples of North America, a new counterpoint to the European order presented itself in form of democratic native societies. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 1) Their liberal and autonomous notions offered a new perspective upon the natural and social status of an individual. As Johansen and Grinde observed, the European colonists were puzzled by the egalitarian structure of the native societies, the lack of aristocracy, religious freedom, government dependent on public opinion and their understanding of freedom and natural rights of life, liberty and happiness given by the Creator, not by kings or queens. (Exemplars of Liberty Introduction; Forgotten Founders 68) These democratic ideas were slowly incorporating themselves into minds of the settlers and were later considered to be the fundamental rights of every human being and can be seen in almost every major American document as well as in the government of the United States. Political scientist Samuel Payne Jr. states that:

life, liberty, and happiness [incorporated in] (Declaration of Independence); government by reason and consent rather than coercion (Albany Plan and Articles of Confederation); religious tolerance,…, checks and balances, federalism (United States Constitution); and relative equality of property, equal rights before the law … (Bill of Rights) (Payne 607)

However, some scholars opposed to the Iroquois (and Native American in general) influence thesis argue that these ideas came from the ideology of philosophers, such as John Locke or Jean Jacques Rousseau as figures of European Enlightenment, which to a certain degree was true, but as Johansen and Grinde point out, Locke and Rousseau “derived ideas about democracy in a workable form from travelers' accounts of American Indian governmental structures”. (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 4) In all probability, they read journals written by American missionaries who were direct observers of the Indian way of life. The native societies were again the source of the ideas, this time in minds of the enlightened European philosophers.

Focusing primarily on the Iroquois, they were continually present during the major historical events of the evolution of the United States of America. Canassatego’s speech of union, Hendrick’s speech a decade later on the same subject were the first signs of involvement of the Iroquois in the American political evolution, not to mention the close alliance, strengthened by the series of treaties, between the Six Nations and the colonies enabled mutual exchange of beliefs and views. William Starna and George Hamell challenge, in their essay “History and the Burden of Proof”, Grinde and Johansen’s position on Canassatego’s role in the “intellectual transference of Indian political philosophy on Americans”. (438) Starna and Hamell note that the position of Canassatego in relation to the colonists was not as noble as Grinde and Johansen perceive it. The Iroquois stuck between two great European powers, the French and the British, were aware of the potential danger both parties posed for the future of the Iroquois Confederacy. (Starna, Hamell 438) In reality, Canassatego’s diplomatic maneuvers were to ensure the security and stability of his own people. As far as his speech about union goes, the Iroquois identified political, economic and military dangers that the lack of unity of English colonies meant for their own development. Elisabeth Tooker, one of the most outspoken opponents of the Iroquois influence thesis, offered her own understanding of Canassatego’s speech, saying: “If you want us [Six Nations] to aid you in this latest conflict with France, you had best to get your act together.” The Iroquois saw their potential doom if they would ally with quarrelling English colonies, not being able to set aside their differences and pursue a mutual goal. (322)

Additional issue raised by Starna and Hamell, regarding Johansen and Grinde’s credibility as representatives of the Iroquois influence thesis, was the speech of the Mohawk chief Hendrick at the 1754 Albany Congress, in which he supposedly repeated the idea of union following the model of Iroquois Confederacy. Starna and Hamell disregard this idea based on the lack of sufficient and credible evidence. According to their research, there is not any official record stating that Hendrick said anything about a union modeled by the Iroquois Confederacy. (446) On the contrary, Hendrick was in his speech referring to a renewal of the Anglo-Iroquois alliance, which was crucial to the Iroquois as a security measure against the French. (Starna, Hamell 447) “Receiving none [assistance from the English], they rebuked their so-called colonial partners for their lack of unity, incompetence, and laxness, all to no avail.” (Starna, Hamell 450) Either side of the alliance saw practical advantages in one another, which, however, does not discredit the plausible influence the Iroquois may have had on the later development of the colonist union.

Another controversial question arisen from the debate of Iroquois influence is its impact on the Founding Fathers, especially on Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Grinde and Johansen strongly advocate that Indians “left a definite imprint on Franklin and others”. As a perfectly working socio-political system, the Iroquois offered an alternative to the European order that so many colonists sought. (Forgotten Founders 10) It was previously mentioned that Franklin maintained a very close relationship with the Iroquois, at first only publishing the treaty accounts, but later also participating in the treaty councils as well. (Forgotten Founders 52) Such a close proximity must have caused an exchange of ideas of federalism, natural rights and others. Franklin proposed that the colonies unite in one federal body of government under a single legislature. “If the Iroquois can do it, why can’t we?” (qtd. in Forgotten Founders 48) Therefore, the 1754 Albany Plan of Union might have, for the most part, been based on the model of the Iroquois Confederacy; it was, however, not ratified by any of the colonies. Elisabeth Tooker states that this event was only a proof for the fact that “at least some whites and some Indians in the eighteenth century realized the advantages of the confederation”. (310)

Benjamin Franklin (as well as Jefferson) did not focus solely on the Iroquoian model of government. He sought what he calls a “happy mediocrity”; a combination of European cultural aspects with the pre-political Iroquoian governmental factors. (Forgotten Founders 55) What he tried to accomplish was a model of government and society, combining the best of both worlds. Thomas Jefferson’s respect for the Iroquois and his focus on the fundamental rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which were the ground stones of the Iroquois Great Law of Peace, are expressed in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,-- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. (Forgotten Founders 65)

Historically, before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, twenty-one Iroquois sachems were invited to attend the Congress debating the issue of independence. “With the Iroquois chiefs inside the halls of Congress on the eve of American Independence, the impact of Iroquois ideas on the founders is unmistakable.” (Exemplars of Liberty Chapter 8)

Nonetheless, Levy offers a piece of evidence that contradicts Grinde and Johansen’s argumentation of the Iroquois influence upon Thomas Jefferson. Levy quotes Jefferson’s speech made to "Captain Hendrick, The Delawares, Mohiccons, and Munries", encouraging Indians to adopt Euro-American agricultural system. (594) In other words, start cultivating plants and domesticating animals after the European model. Jefferson said: “when you once have property, you will want laws and magistrates to protect your property and persons…You will find that our laws are good for this purpose” (qtd. in Levy 594) His statement directly confronts the fundamental principles of the Iroquois who did not determine the status of an individual based on the amount of land property, the way Europeans did, but considered land as means of survival. In addition, Jefferson claimed that after the owner dies, his wife and children inherit his land, which again fully contradicts the Iroquois matrilineal kinship system. (Levy 549)

Although the Albany Plan may have had strong resemblance to the League of the Six Nations, Levy, Payne and Tooker argue that it did not further influence the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution. The only remaining aspect from the Albany Plan in the Articles of Confederation was “the basic outline of the confederation”. (Levy 613) But what if the English colonists already knew the concept of a confederacy, even before encountering the Iroquois League? Payne asserts that colonies Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut and New Haven formed a confederacy as early as 1643, prior to the first contact with the Iroquois. As it was called, the New England Confederation was governed by eight commissioners, two for each colony, elected by their individual governments, and had its own constitution “The Articles of Confederation”. The purpose for the confederation was, to some aspects similar to the Iroquois League, to unite armies, fight wars and negotiate alliances. (611) Since the English-Iroquois relation had not yet been established, the English colonies must have had another example of a perfectly working governmental system. Such models were offered in Europe, most notably the Swiss Confederacy or the United Provinces of the Netherlands. (Payne 612) According to Payne, the intellectual foundations of the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution came from Great Britain “above all”. (605) His statement, however, lacks historical credibility. As Grinde and Johansen point out, if the source of intellectual political thought was derived from the British Crown, there would be no reason for the English colonists to leave their homeland or go through the American Revolution in the first place. (“Sauce for the Goose” 631) Precisely the reason for their departure was to find an alternative to the British governmental structure.

Other sources for inspiration, derived from the European concepts, are to be found in empires of ancient Greece and Rome, the aristocratic republic of Venice (Griffis qtd. in Tooker 323,324), the Achaean league14, the Lycian Confederacy15, or the Amphictyonic council16. (Payne 618) Payne’s conclusion states that the Iroquois definitely did not influence the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, nor the United States Constitution, since they would have probably drafted the U.S. Constitution even if they never had encountered the Iroquois League. The Six Nations united their battling nations without having to draw from any previous model of democratic government, why should then the founders of the United States of America do so? (Payne 620) His statement though seems a bit far-fetched and oversimplified; it is more of his assumption than a proof, since it lacks any legitimate historical evidence.

Nevertheless, the comparison of the Great Law of Peace with the U.S. Constitution offers undeniable evidence of the Iroquois influence. The two-bodied American governmental structure, divided into Senate and the House of Representatives, strongly resembles the Iroquois Grand Council with its Elder and Younger Brothers. Even the Preamble of the US Constitution beginning with: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility” is believed to be derived from a Haudenosaunee treaty back in 1520, used by John Rutledge in 1787 Continental Convention, saying: “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order”. (The Preamble to the Constitution)

However, two major differences are as equally fascinating as their similarities. As Oren Lyons states in his speech in front of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, the U.S. Constitution did not share the Great Law’s ideology regarding women and slaves. (13) The concept of slavery was unknown and the egalitarian social organization prevented superiority of one gender over the other. After all women were the carriers of hereditary titles and property.

Grinde and Johansen, on the other hand, never diminished either the European, or the Indian contributions to the evolution of the United States of America. They saw it as a mixture of both, “fusing the native peoples’ state of nature and Europe’s monarchical state into a unique, agrarian civilization”. (Forgotten Founders 69) Their intention was to simply give enough evidence for the Iroquois to be acknowledged as crucial contributors to the development of the American democratic thought, to add the indigenous aspect to the American political history, which has been, for the most part, Eurocentric.

Their efforts proved to be successful. On December 2nd 1987 United States Senate held a hearing dedicated to the acknowledgement of the Iroquois influence on the development of the U.S. Constitution. (Select Committee on Indian Affairs 3) A concurrent resolution was offered stating:

Whereas the original framers of the Constitution, including most notably, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, are known to have greatly admired the concepts, principles and governmental practices of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy; and,

Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was explicitly modeled upon the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself (Select Committee on Indian Affairs 3,4)

Although, the debate about the Iroquois influence thesis is not by far resolved, the Iroquois finally got the recognition for their contributions as they rightfully deserve.

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