Thursday, September 17, 2009

Native American Influence on the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day. On this date we commemorate the Constitutional Convention signing this new governing document and beginning the process of making it the law of the land.

Here at American Creation, we have long debated the influences that motivated the Founding Fathers to draft the American Constitution. Everyone from John Locke to Rousseau, Montesquieu to the Holy Bible have been discussed at some length. And while these influences were undoubtedly important, to the formation of the Constitution, there is at least the possibility of a more local influence at play.

Recent scholarship on the history of the American Constitution has uncovered some interesting insights into the role that various Native American tribes may have had on the formation of the Constitution. James Mann, one of the leading writers on this topic, has stated the following with regards to this provocative Constitution/Native American connection:
So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government [from colonial Indian history] that some historians and activists have argued that the [Indians'] Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty.
And from the book, The Iroquois Constitution:
During the bi-centennial year of The Constitution of the United States, a number of books were written concerning the origin of that long-revered document. One of these, "The Genius of the People," alleged that after the many weeks of debate a committee led in part by South Carolina's John Rutledge, sat to discuss the wide range of disputations amongst the delegates...This Committee of Detail was having trouble deciding just how to formalize the many items of discussion into one document that would satisfy one and all. Rutledge proposed they model the new government they were forming into something along the lines of the Iroquois League of which he had observed in Albany. While there were many desirable, as well as undesirable, models from ancient and modern histories in Europe and what we know now as the Middle East, only the Iroquois had a system that seemed to meet most of the demands espoused by the many parties to the debates. The Genius of the People alleged that the Iroquois had a Constitution which began: "We the people, to form a union..."
Skeptics of course point out that the overwhelming majority of written material from the Founders present at the Constitutional Convention contains nothing of their debates regarding the Iroquois Indians. In addition, there are no records or written documents from the Iroquois Confederacy that could substantiate any claim as to their similarities with the government established in the Constitution. With that said, keep in mind two things: first the surviving written record of the Constitutional Convention is relatively small -- most of which is found in the writings of James Madison. The delegates agreed to keep it as such in order to protect the "legacies" of the various participants. Second, the Iroquois Confederacy was predominantly illiterate, meaning that a search for a written historical document would prove futile. However, if oral history is taken into account, some scholars of the Iroquois argue that the confederation they established has a very close resemblance to the Constitution.

Now, I am not saying that I agree with this Native American/Constitution theory. While it is quite an interesting proposal I personally believe that the evidence to support it is circumstantial at best. However, circumstantial evidence and oral history should not simply be discarded entirely. Native American involvement with the affairs of British colonials was vast to say the least. As a result, the exchange of goods, supplies and KNOWLEDGE would have been a natural occurrence.

Either way, this makes for a nice diversion from the traditional Bible-thumping, Locke-quoting, Montesquieu-loving, Eurocentric history that is almost the exclusive sources of any discussion on the origins of the U.S. Constitution.


J. L. Bell said...

The story that John Rutledge studied the Iroquois confederacy and brought it to the Constitutional Convention is a complete myth. Richard Barry, whose hagiographic life of Rutledge is unreliable in other ways as well, invented the story in 1942. Aside from Rutledge having been at the convention, not a single detail stands up to scrutiny.

I plan to discuss the problems with that story at length at Boston 1775 someday. For now, I will simply ask anyone to find any interpretation of the Iroquois confederacy’s founding treaty that begins, "We the people, to form a union..."

Brad Hart said...

As always, I LOVE hearing your commentary, Mr. Bell. Thanks for the insight. I too found the "We the People" statement to be a bit over the top.

Would you by chance know of any general sources refuting this Iroquois/Constitution claim? I'm not buying it either, but I did think it was interesting reading. I guess I brought it up here for that simple fact.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Brad, Mann's locution of "some historians and activists" seems wise, especially the "activists" part.

I recall that Ben Franklin was familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy, and according to this website

As early as 1744, Ben Franklin was using his publishing capabilities to turn out quotes from an Onandaga* Tadadaho (speaker) Canasetoga, giving advice to the American colonists as their first whiffs of dissatisfaction with their countrymen in England were brewing:
Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the five nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful Confederacy, and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another. (Johansen 1998:8)

More than a quarter century before the American colonists were even considering independence from Britain, Canasetoga was urging confederation. Not only was independence not a forgone conclusion, but confederation amongst the colonies was long from a forgone conclusion. Their existed a separateness of spirit amongst the American colonies, indeed, right up until the Civil War. Canasetoga's remarks could easily have had some influence on the emerging American mind. One can also easily imagine from this quote that Iroquois thinking and its influence on the framers could have extended beyond this one quote. This in and of itself is noteworthy; when one takes into account that no less an integral figure than Ben Franklin was printing this material, it becomes even more noteworthy.

I can't vouch for the website, which backs an Iroquois-Founding connection, but at first blush, it seems to be a well-sourced and viable argument.

On the other hand, at first blush I'd say that the Iroquois influence was more conceptual than literal, or as Ben himself put it,

Franklin has been quoted as saying "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 yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies." (Payne 1996:609)


Brad Hart said...

Great quote from Franklin, Tom! Like I said before, this Iroquois/Constitution connection may be entirely circumstantial, but it has captured my imagination. Now, I admit that this may be just another stupid De Vinci Code/treasure map on the back of the DoI type thing, but I think it's worth a little further inquiry.

I'd be interested to hear what Mr. Bell has to say about your Franklin quotes. Also, I'm still waiting for the correction on John Rutledge. And if there's anyone with sources to refute this it would be Mr. Bell. He's always on his game.

jimmiraybob said...

“Iroquois had a Constitution which began: ‘We the people, to form a union...’”

I’ve looked into the Iroquois Confederation and read versions of the “constitution” (The Iroquois Book of the Great Law or Great Binding Law) that bound the Confederate Council of tribal nations

• Mohawk: People Possessors of the Flint
• Onondaga: People on the Hills
• Seneca: Great Hill People
• Oneida: Granite People
• Cayuga: People at the Mucky Land
• And later, Tuscarora: Shirt Wearing People became the Sixth Nation

and have never seen anything that looks like this. (see here and here for the apparent genesis of the phrase.)
But, as the constitution was an oral tradition since the15th – 16th century and I'm sure there are probable other translations who knows.

However, there are intriguing parallels, at least conceptually, between the Great Law and the confederation of the colonies – Articles of Confederation and Constitution. For instance:

• The desire to unite for security and enhanced trade
• The idea that a united confederacy would (and did) lead to peace over warfare and thus securing ……
• Divided government – multiple branches
• Deliberation on common issues
• Division between peacetime and wartime authority (divide between the civil and military)
• Intra Nation/tribe regulation
• Religious toleration
• An emphasis on virtuous behavior to sustain the confederacy ("Hearken, that peace may continue unto future days! "Always listen to the words of the Great Creator, for he has spoken. "United people, let not evil find lodging in your minds. "For the Great Creator has spoken and the cause of Peace shall not become old. "The cause of peace shall not die if you remember the Great Creator.")

• Elections
• Official symbols
• Laws pertaining to emigration
• Laws governing foreign policy
• War policy (powers & rights)
• Treason/Succession
• Rights of the citizenry (tribal members)

Apparently Franklin became quite involved in Indian affairs; printing treaty reports and participating in negotiations and diplomatic missions. At least one major colonial concern was how to unite and defend against the French – which, I believe, is where the quote originates that TVD cites. Concern with tribal relations was the pressing issue to the colonies – probably of more immediate concern than most and certainly central to everything from security to trade to property rights. Franklin, Washington and Jefferson all had to deal with ongoing diplomatic relations in complex times – I can’t imagine a scenario that, over a span of some 50 years leading up to the DOI, that the mass of the founders wouldn’t have been influenced by such a powerful and influential relationship as that with the Iroquois Confederation (of course there were others also).

Here’s another source that covers Franklin and Jefferson and gives some good insight into these relations (make of it what you will I can’t verify its veracity).

This is a fascinating subject Brad and I’m glad that you brought it up. I think that the much stronger documentary case is for ancient Greco-Roman and later European and Enlightenment philosophical and political sources as influences on the Constitution (and of course the Hebrew and Christian influences) but you have to wonder how much influence that the local living embodiment of many of the underlying organizational principles had on the founders – to paraphrase Franklin, if they can do it why can’t we.

jimmiraybob said...

Another resource – apparently suitable for grade 9 and up :) and with some original source documents.

Some of the text is available at Google Books.. This from p. 60:

Iroquois Constitution - In all cases the procedures must be as follows: when the Mohawk and Seneca Lords have unanimously agreed upon a question, they shall report their decision to the Cayuga and Oneida Lords who shall deliberate upon the questions and report a unanimous decision to the Mohawk Lords. The Mohawk Lords will then report the standing of the case to the Fire Keepers, who shall render a decision as they see fit in case of a disagreement by the two bodies, or confirm the decisions of the two bodies if they are identical.

U.S. ConstitutionEvery bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate shall, before it become a law, be presented to the President of the United States; of he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his objections to the house in which it shall have originated, who shall … reconsider it. If after such reconsideration two-thirds of that house shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other house, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two-thirds of that house, it shall become law.

I'm not trying to make a case for direct influence but the similarities in theme are pretty interesting.

J. L. Bell said...

The most sustained examination of the Iroquois confederation treaty/U.S. constitution theory was published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1996. Here’s the table of contents for that issue. Lingua Franca summed up the discussion.

Basically, the idea has gained very little traction among historians of the period because of the paucity of evidence. However, it’s become popular among some people outside that field, mostly (in my eyes) as an article of political faith rather than because of solid evidence.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that some general principles appear in both the Iroquois confederation treaty and the U.S. Constitution. The problem with seeing that as evidence of Iroquois influence is that those same principles also appear in the British constitution, pre-Revolutionary colonial governments, and the writings of European political thinkers. Furthermore, the parallels aren’t really parallel.

jimmiraybob’s example above of how decisions had to be approved at several layers is one such example. Colonial governments usually had two legislative chambers, and new laws had to be approved by the governor and then the Privy Council in London. It’s easy to see how that system led to the 1789 federal government’s two legislative chambers and presidential veto.

The Iroquois process involved unanimous consent from the leaders of two nations, then unanimous consent from the leaders of two others, and then a deciding body if necessary. The parallel in the early U.S. of A. would have been unanimous consent by the leaders of Virginia and Pennsylvania, then unanimous consent by the leaders of Massachusetts and New York, then a tie-breaking council. Clearly the American government doesn’t operate like that.

J. L. Bell said...

Benjamin Franklin’s 1751 letter appears here. I think the "six Nations of ignorant Savages” phrase shows that he wasn’t treating the Iroquois with intellectual respect. He wasn’t saying, “They united, so we should, too.” He was saying, “Even they united, so why haven’t we?”

The Constitutional Convention came over a quarter-century later. The thirteen colonies had already united under the Articles of Confederation. Meanwhile, the Iroquois Confederation had split under the pressures of the Revolutionary War, with most of the nations allying with Britain and one with the Continentals. Not surprisingly, there are few if any references to the Iroquois example in the 1780s discussion of a new U.S. constitution.

The History Man said...

There were many American soldiers that not only feared the involvement of the Iroquois on the side of the English but hoped that the Confederation would stop that involvement. I am sure that there could very well have been conversation during the time of the Constitutional Convention that included the Iroquois Confederation as it was quite a feat that they had accomplished in bringing all of the tribes together. So many things went into the making of our Constitution that it wouldn't surprise me at all. It is fun to think that may have happened. As far as empirical data is concerned, I am not sure. I know that those who had association with the Iroquois at that time had respect for them, while those who hadn't were a bit snobbish and looked down on them.

The History Man
US Historical Documents

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for all those sources, Jimmyraybob. I look forward to reading them. Also, thinks for mentioning the William & Mary Quarterly article, Mr. Bell. After reading it, I am further convinced that my original hypothesis (that the Iroquois Confederacy/Constitution link) is almost entirely based on circumstantial evidence.

Of course that doesn't mean that this connection isn't fun or interesting to think about. But hey, it's fun and interesting to think about an invisible treasure map being on the back of the DoI. Since we all insist upon relying on primary source material to defend our various arguments on this blog, I think we are required to conclude that the totality of the available evidence leads towards an almost exclusive Eurocentric influence on the Constitution. Maybe the Confederation was in the back of the delegates minds, but that's as far as I think it went. Clearly their focus was on their ancestral lands across the Atlantic.