In the absence of a European democratic model, the Founding Fathers turned to the apparently perfect state of the Iroquois Five Nations as a template for a federal United States, combining the best of both worlds, writes C.K. Ballatore.
Benjamin Franklin’s saying, ‘We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately’, seems more pertinent than ever. It is not widely known, however, that the advice originally came from the Mohawk Chief Canassatego, who, in the early 1740s, told Franklin to unify the colonies, counselling:
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 neighbouring nations. We are a powerful confederacy; and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire such strength and power. Therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.
Arguably, federalism has been the Unites States’ foremost political contribution. The pattern of states within a nation held together not by clannishness or geography but by shared values mimics the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. Since most of the colonies had more contact and trade with the Indians than they did with one another, the Iroquois preference for local government made sense.
The Iroquois Confederacy was the only living, breathing democracy the founders had witnessed when the time came to declare independence and, later, cobble together the Constitution when the Articles of Confederation were found wanting. Although Franklin and Jefferson were acquainted with the ideas of Locke and Rousseau, there were no current examples in Europe of democracy in action. In contrast, early colonists imagined that the American Indians lived in a perfect state of nature and were somehow descended from the Ancient Romans. As early as 1580, Michel de Montaigne wrote admiringly of the natives of the New World in his essay, On Cannibals:
I do not find that there is anything barbaric or savage about this nation, according to what I’ve been told, unless we are to call barbarism whatever differs from our own customs. Indeed, we seem to have no other standard of truth and reason than the opinions and customs of our own country. There at home is always the perfect religion, the perfect legal system – the perfect and most accomplished way of doing everything. These people are wild in the same sense that fruits are, produced by nature, alone, in her ordinary way. Indeed, in that land, it is we who refuse to alter our artificial ways and reject the common order that ought rather to be called wild, or savage. In them the most natural virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous, whereas we have bastardised them and adopted them solely to our corrupt taste. Even so, the flavour and delicacy of some of the wild fruits from those countries is excellent, even to our taste, better than our cultivated ones. After all, it would hardly be reason-
able that artificial breeding should be able to outdo our great and powerful mother, Nature. We have so burdened the beauty and richness of her works by our innovations that we have entirely stifled her. Yet whenever she shines forth in her purity she puts our vain and frivolous enterprises amazingly to shame.
Later, in the late 1600s, the first colonial historian of the Indians, Cadwallader Colden, wrote that without ‘Men of experience among the Five Nations to advise and direct them on all emergencies of importance’, the British colonists would be sunk. Colden even attributed French dominance in early colonial America to their ties with the Five Nations.
The colonists’ first attempt to organise as a cohesive state was at the Albany Conference in 1754, where representatives from each of the colonies attended, as well as many Iroquois Indians, including the Mohawk chief Canassatego. Franklin named the organising body the Grand Council, after the Grand Council of the Iroquois.
In the Iroquois tradition, the Grand Council does not interfere with local tribal matters. Each tribe has its own ‘constitution’ that governs the laws of their land, independent of the other tribes. In addition, they convene regularly with the other tribes to discuss matters that affect all of them, especially the decision to wage war. Otherwise, each tribe’s and each individual’s autonomy is recognised and respected as long as it does not hurt another. Franklin greatly admired this system of government and chastised the other colonists when they failed to cohere:
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.
The notion of personal freedom and liberty also descended from the Iroquois and, most notably, from the Mohawks, who had the most contact with the British colonists. Many colonists, in keeping with Montaigne, saw the Indian way of life as a ‘recapitulation of Eden’. When the founders tried to capture this in the laws of the New World, they aimed at describing a way of life akin to a state of nature, as they observed in the Indians. Hence, Jefferson replaced the right of property that was safeguarded in European constitutions with the right to happiness.
While the Magna Carta also treated the question of inalienable rights (in a more limited way), the last thing Jefferson and the other founders wanted was an imitation of the world from which they had escaped. They did not want to go back to the European way of life, but to form a new society that was neither civilised nor savage.
To Jefferson, the key to that difference was the notion of property versus the notion of happiness. If happiness is defined by the freedom from tyranny and want, then these two ideas are in direct opposition. It is the accumulation beyond what one needs that is the main impediment to liberty for all. This idea was derived from Locke, as well as from the colonists’ direct experience with the Indians. In contrast to European societies, the Iroquois culture was one based on the natural aristocracy of merit, rather than inherited wealth or religion. More important considerations were how well a man speaks, whether he is a good person or whether he can hunt with mercy and accuracy. The sachems, or chiefs, were public servants and, as such, they were supposed to be poorer and more stoic than the rest of the tribe. Indian ‘kings’ never looked toward their own interests before the public good and took great pains not to become angry when criticised. To appoint a merchant in charge of public affairs would be scandalous, not only because of the conflict of interest, but because merchants were known to lie as part of their trade. Hence, the Articles of Confederation prohibited public servants from receiving even a modest salary.
The restraint on public servants was reinforced by the Iroquois system of checks and balances. For example, all the sachems were men; but they were selected by the Clan Mothers. (Sadly, the social and spiritual equity of men and women among the Iroquois was not echoed by the American founders.)
Moreover, though the tribes, like the colonies, were of varying sizes and thereby smaller or larger presences at the Grand Council, each tribe only had two votes. In this way, the smaller tribes were protected. The American founders adopted a similar paradigm both in Congress and via the electoral college. The Council was a unicameral body, similar to what was proposed at Albany and in the Articles of Confederation by the original founders.
At the Council, each tribe had a role. The Iroquois Confederacy was made up of Five Nations, originally: the Mohawks, the Senecas, the Oneidas, the Cayugas and the Onandagas; later a sixth Nation, the Tuscaroras, was added. First, the Mohawks convened and divided into three parties: two to discuss and one to listen for errors. The matter was then referred to the Seneca statesmen (older brothers) to consider. On the opposite side of the longhouse, the Cayuga and Oneida statesmen (younger brothers) listened, then contributed and voted. Unlike the British Parliament, and later like the US Congress, there was no interrupting speakers. For final consideration, the matter would be referred to the Onandagas (the firekeepers). If there was a tie, the Onandagas would break it. It was a system which relied on the consent of the governed and it was the first of its kind that the founders had witnessed.
In Iroquois culture, no man has the right to rule another. Instead, the tribes are governed by the Great Law of Peace for the wellbeing of everyone. Public opinion and approval were required of any large undertaking. If a sachem acted out of accordance with the public good, there was a process by which he was impeached. This was rare, however, and overall the smaller local governments were less vulnerable to corruption because of their size and autonomy. This also appealed to Jefferson, who believed that through the freedom of press the people would be kept informed regarding their affairs. He wrote, in 1787:
The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, our very first object should be to keep that right, and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter ... I am convinced that those [Indian] societies who live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.
When the colonists landed, they did not find a vast empty frontier in the New World, but an ancient civilisation spread out across North America. It is clear that the Indians represented freedom in the colonists’ minds; in several instances, the colonists expressed their discontent with British rule, most notably the Whiskey Rebellion and the Boston Tea Party, by dressing like Indians. Native American names and imagery dot the United States’ history.
More than any other nation, the US was formed on ideas: the commitment to representative democracy, checks and balances, the notion of freedom and natural rights, the value of public opinion and consent and the sovereignty of the people all derive from Native traditions. Even the language of Franklin’s final speech to the Constitutional Convention, titled ‘A Rising, Not a Setting Sun’, echoes the legend of Hiawatha and the influence of Iroquois ideals and beliefs.
After the Declaration of Independence, the founders scrambled to form a government and looked primarily to the Five Nations for positive examples. Franklin attested:
Happiness is more generally and equally diffused among Savages than in civilized societies. No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.
The idea was to incorporate the best of both worlds, at least until the Constitution was revised some 20 years later. It has already lasted far longer and it will be interesting to see how long it survives.
C.K. Ballatore is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about disaster relief in Pakistan.