The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution

Larry Holzwarth - May 5, 2022

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Benjamin Franklin’s famed Join or Die drawing advocating union between the colonies for mutual protection and strength. Library of Congress

10. Franklin’s Albany Plan of 1754

In March 1751, concerned with the need for colonial unity to provide for defense against the French and their Native allies, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to one of his printing partners, James Parker. In it, he wrote, “…It would be a very strange thing, if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies…” Franklin’s backhanded comment on the Iroquois as “ignorant savages” did not diminish his enthusiasm for their form of government, and he proposed a “Grand Council” of representatives from the colonies, overseen by a governor under the authority of the British Crown. He advocated for a united colonial government, modeled on the Iroquois Confederation.

Three years later he presented it as a form of colonial government at the Albany Conference, called to address mutual colonial defense. George Washington had just surrendered a small force of Virginia militia, and full-blown war with France was imminent. The Albany Conference rejected Franklin’s plan, as did the British Board of Trade, which had initially called for the conference. Franklin’s plan remained in the back of his mind, and following the French and Indian War, he again brought it to the fore during the Second Continental Congress, as that body deliberated the new form of government to be installed after the 13 colonies became 13 independent states by the declaration in 1776. Those deliberations led to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1777, the document by which the United States was governed for the next decade.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
John Dickinson, who had initially opposed independence, led the committee which wrote the subsequent Articles of Confederation. Library of Congress

11. The Articles of Confederation and the Iroquois Confederation

In November 1777, with the Revolutionary War well underway, the Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and sent it to the states for ratification. It then proceeded to use the document to guide its conduct while awaiting the states’ responses. From that time on Congress called itself the Confederation Congress, though most of the people continued to refer to it as the Continental Congress, often with expletives deemed suitable. In some ways, the new government resembled the Iroquois Confederation. There was but one governing body, the Congress itself. There was no executive, no federal departments, and no judiciary. Most of the issues internal to each state remained the business of that state. Congress needed near consensus to pass most legislation, could not enact taxes, and had no dominant leader. Its members were appointed by the states, not elected by the people.

Benjamin Franklin departed for France in December, 1776, otherwise, the similarities between the Articles and the Iroquois Confederation would possibly have been greater. By 1777 most of the Iroquois supported the British in their war against the Americans. In 1778 and 1779 devastating punitive raids led by John Sullivan and ordered by George Washington broke the power of the Iroquois across New York and Pennsylvania. Many of the six tribes fled their lands to the British-held territories around the Great Lakes, in Ontario, and west of the Ohio River. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, many were displaced still further. The Articles of Confederation remained in effect for a few years after the war, though its limitations as a national instrument were quickly revealed. Those areas most resembling the Iroquois law made it least effective as the basis for a national government. In 1787, delegates gathered to address the deficiencies.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A mural in the Wisconsin Supreme Court building depicts the signing of the US Constitution in 1787. Wikimedia

12. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention were not as enamored of the Iroquois Confederation

With very few exceptions, which includes George Washington, the men who gathered in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation in 1787 were educated in classics. Several spoke and read ancient Greek and Latin. They were well-versed in the history of classical antiquity, the democracies of the Greek city-states, the Roman Republic, and others. Over half of the delegates were trained lawyers, most owned considerable property, and a full three quarters had served in the Continental or Confederation Congress. Notably absent was Thomas Jefferson, then serving in France. The 55 men who took part in the convention did not all sign the resulting Constitution, just 39 did. Those who abstained did so for diverse reasons, among them the absence of a Bill of Rights. They referred to the classics, the law, the British Parliament, and even mythology during their debates.

One of their first actions was to elect George Washington to preside over the convention. He accepted, and then for the most part removed himself from formal debates. They also decided their proceedings would be conducted in secrecy. Formal minutes of discussions were not recorded, posterity was left to consider the notes taken by the framers when studying the actions of the convention. James Madison’s notes remain the most in-depth record of the convention, and they were not published until 1836, following his death that year. To enforce the secret nature of the discussions, the windows of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, were kept shut. The delegates considered, argued, proposed, debated, and contended in sweltering heat throughout the long summer. What they produced was far removed from the Great Law of the Iroquois which governed their confederation.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
At 81, Benjamin Franklin was too frail to engage in most of the debates during the Constitutional Convention. Library of Congress

13. Benjamin Franklin had little participation in the Constitutional Convention

Benjamin Franklin is often cited as a source of the Iroquois influence in the American Constitution. He did attend the Convention, and no doubt offered sage advice when asked. But he seldom participated in the debates and discussions which shaped the document. His advocacy of a Grand Council form of government, as in the Albany Plan, was quickly dismissed when the delegates accepted the form of government in three branches, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary. The adoption of a bicameral legislative, with an upper and lower house, further separated the Constitution from the Iroquois, which had a single deliberative body. Proportional representation in the lower house, the House of Representatives, has been linked to the Great Council. But the Constitution links representation to population, the Iroquois to hierarchy within the Confederation, based on geography. Geographic location determined the importance of a tribe to the defense of the Confederation.

Nor did the framers give consideration to hereditary positions within the government, at least no more than in passing. There is little doubt that George Washington could have assumed the role of a constitutional monarch, as in Great Britain. Titles of nobility and hereditary government positions were quickly dismissed by the delegates in Philadelphia. The closest they came to that was the establishment of two senators per state in the upper house, appointed by the states rather than elected by the people. None of the offices of the government were appointed along matrilineal lines. Nothing existed to preclude any citizen from directly addressing their representatives, senators, or even the Chief Executive on matters deemed pertinent to the citizen. Even the appointed Senators were limited to terms of six years, though they could be reappointed at the will of the individual states.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
John Rutledge of South Carolina has been said to have read from the Iroquois Constitution at the convention, but the word he allegedly read do not appear in the Great Law. Wikimedia

14. Evidence of Iroquois influence on the framers of the Constitution is scant

The records left by the framers recording the events in Philadelphia in 1787 contain very few mentions of the Iroquois Confederation, and none of substance. That does not mean they weren’t discussed by men who certainly knew of the Iroquois. It just means none of the participants considered such discussions, if any occurred, to have been of significant importance to record for posterity. Some writers who support the Iroquois influence thesis did so by citing, as a source, family oral traditions handed down by the descendants of some of the Founders. One such case concerned John Rutledge of South Carolina. According to the story, which has been repeated over and over online and in magazine and newspaper columns, Rutledge read passages from the Iroquois Great Law to his fellow delegates, including the words, “We the People”. No contemporaneous record of such an act has been found.

Rutledge was purported to have read the words, part of a passage with eerie similarities to the eventual Preamble to the Constitution, from a parchment document over two centuries old. At that time, the Five Tribes of the Iroquois had no written language, and their laws were encoded in wampum via symbols. While a translation into English could have been possible, it seems unlikely. The words read as if contemporaneous to the late 18th century, the time of the Convention, rather than the early 16th century, supposedly the era of the parchment being written. Other writers argue that Thomas Jefferson was also influenced in shaping his views by the Natives in Virginia, evidenced by his own writings in his Notes on the State of Virginia. However, Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention, and his Notes indicate he urged Native Americans to assimilate into an agrarian society.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A scene of Washington presiding over the signing of the Constitution in 1787. United States Capitol

15. The Constitution’s elements and American democracy were discussed for years prior to the Revolution

The precept adopted by the Founders when they debated the form of American government in 1787 were all well known among them. Bicameral legislative bodies existed in several European governments, including in Holland, and of course in the United Kingdom, where Parliament consisted of an elected lower house, Commons, and a hereditary House of Lords. At the time of the American Revolution, elected colonial legislatures had debated laws and ordinances, including internal taxation, for decades. The idea of a body of representatives voting democratically on issues affecting those who elected them had been present in American society since the Virginia Assembly first convened in 1619. Within a few years, the New England town meeting had taken hold as a form of a democratic government there. Yet the practice persists of linking American democratic notions to those of the Iroquois Confederation.

Americans at the time of the Constitutional Convention were certainly aware of the existence of the Iroquois, though the extent of their knowledge of the Native’s practices and government varied widely. Most of the framers of the Constitution had some knowledge of their government, having met many of the Iroquois leaders prior to and after the Revolutionary War. At the time, those framers were already sitting together in a Congress, with some similarities to the Great Council of the Iroquois, at least as regards what their assemblage was intended to accomplish. Were they emulating the Iroquois and their notions of democratic government? Some continue to contend they were, and that they adopted attitudes which influenced the shaping of the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights, though concrete evidence of that as the fact remains elusive.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Mohawk war chief and political leader known to the English and Americans as Joseph Brant. Wikimedia

16. Some claim the Iroquois did possess a bicameral legislature, and an executive

In recent years, to give support to the Iroquois influence thesis, some writers have argued the Great Council of the Iroquois was a de facto bicameral legislative body. The appearance of having two houses came from the manner in which the council deliberated. According to this argument, issues before the council were first debated by the Mohawk and the Seneca. After they reached consensus, the issue appeared before the Oneida and Cayuga. If they reached consensus the issue appeared before the Onondaga, who implemented the decision across the Confederation. Unless they disagreed, in which case the issue was returned to the tribes for further deliberation. If it again cleared the process with consensus, the Onondaga implemented the decision. This process gave the Onondaga, which had the most seats on the council, the authority to veto, and the other tribes the ability to override such vetoes.

The process as described leaves questions, the most obvious being: What of the Tuscarora? They joined the Confederation in 1722. If one of the five preceding tribes, say for instance the Oneida, failed to concede with all of the others the issue remained undecided, hardly a democratic result. Nor was this feature present in the plan for a colonial Great Council proposed by Franklin in 1754 at Albany. And as noted elsewhere, the Iroquois law apportioned sachems to the council based on the perceived importance of each tribe to the confederation, rather than on population. At one time the Seneca were the largest tribe of the Confederation by population. But the Onondaga held the highest number of sachems on the council, based on hereditary right of accession. The true political power of the Iroquois Confederation lay with the matriarchs who decided who represented their tribes on the council.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Great Peace of the Iroquois contains religious, social, and cultural laws as well as those governing tribal and foreign relations. Wikimedia

17. The Constitution of the Iroquois Confederation is a long and complex document

The Iroquois Constitution, variably called the Great Peace, Grand Peace, Great Law, and other names covers a vast array of cultures, laws, and religions. In one translation, described as “…at best it can be reconstructed from legend and spoken history” it runs through 117 separate articles. It covers law, the relationship of the member tribes, religious observances, emigration, relationships with outsiders, the power to declare war, the process of changes to the law and other governmental issues, and even the conduct of funerals and periods of mourning. As such it is a legal document, a treaty between the Five Tribes, and a collection of religious rites. It begins with the words, “I am Dekanawidah and with the Five Nations’ Confederate Lords I plant the Tree of Great Peace.” It does not contain the words “We the People”, alleged by some to have been so quoted from it by John Rutledge.

It established the Onondaga as the keepers of the council fire, and the Mohawk “…Lords as the heads and the leaders of the Five Nations Confederacy”. In contrast, the US Constitution did not name a specific state as the supreme state, and instead went to great lengths to prevent one state from dominating the others. The Great Law of Peace also specifies no laws can be passed in the Great Council without the Mohawk Lords’ being present. It contains many other significant differences which make the Confederation less a democracy than autocracy. The autocracy comes from the power of the sachems, the hereditary nature of their positions, and the authority of the matriarchs when appointing them. It also distributes representation unequally between the tribes, and it offers no process for amendments. Lastly, it is a given law, akin to those presented to the Israelites described in the Hebrew Bible.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A tribute to Skenandoa, also known as Shenandoah, Oneida Nation

18. The elected Pine Tree Chiefs could sit on the Great Council

The Iroquois allowed for the election of so-called Pine Tree Chiefs to be elected to sit at the Great Council. These were men who had distinguished themselves through their leadership, warrior skills, oratory, or abilities at diplomacy. Their positions were not hereditary, nor could they designate their own successor. If they opposed consensus during deliberations they were allowed to remain, but their arguments were no longer allowed to be presented to the council. One Pine Tree Chief, known as Skenandoa, or Shenandoah, violated Iroquois policy during the Revolutionary War. Working with a matriarch Skenandoah delivered over 250 (although several sources claim different amounts) bushels of maize to the American encampment at Valley Forge during the spring of 1778. There, he met with George Washington before returning to the Oneida lands in New York. The other five nations of the Iroquois were then allied with the British.

Some Tuscarora warriors joined with Skenandoah and his Oneida band in action against the British during the Revolutionary War. The Tuscarora had joined the original five tribes of the confederation in 1722, having migrated to the New York region from Virginia and North Carolina. Although accepted into the confederation, they were granted no seats at the Great Council. They had no sachem to speak for them, and could not send Pine Tree Chiefs to the council. Instead, the Tuscarora had to petition the Cayuga to present their grievances or issues of concern to the sachems, and accept the decisions of the council without protest. Thus the Tuscarora had no means to participate in the government of the Confederation of which they were a member, as either individuals or through tribal representation.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
American troops destroy the Iroquois settlement of Newtown during the Sullivan Expedition in 1779. Wikimedia

19. Life in the Iroquois Confederation varied among the tribes

The Iroquois people of central and upstate New York lived in towns, consisting of long houses built of poles and bark. By the time of the Sullivan Expedition of the Revolutionary War, many had glass panes in their windows. When a man married, he left his family and moved into the home of his wife’s family. Many of the long houses held several extended families or clans. The head of the family, and seat of power within the clans, was the matriarch. The daily lives of men and women were defined to some extent by the Great Law. Men hunted, fished, trapped, conducted raids on enemies, acted as couriers between towns, and debated issues. Women cared for the home, raised the children, planted and harvested the crops, cooked the food. Women also made the final decisions over legal matters such as land use and divisions of property. Only women owned land.

Men made the legal decisions regarding treaties, trade agreements, and whether or not to go to war. Within the tribes, internal decisions affecting only their settlements were made by their chiefs, who were selected by the clan matriarch. Thus the Iroquois was more of a union of allied nations than an operating democracy. None of the five, and eventually six, tribes elected their chiefs except under special circumstances, and even they required the approval of the matriarch. Among the tribes, the Mohawk were the most prone to war, with their Algonquian neighbors as well as the European settlers during the colonial period. Individual tribes could go to war without the approval of the Great Council, and frequently did.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Though dismissed by most scholars, the notion of Iroquois influence on the Constitution is unlikely to go away. Wikimedia

20. Did the Iroquois Confederation influence the Founders when they created the Constitution?

There are some scholars and historians who believe without question the Iroquois Confederation served as the basis of deliberation which led to the US Constitution. However, the notes and subsequent writings of the delegates who were there do not support the contention. There is no doubt several of the framers, especially those from New York and Pennsylvania, as well as George Washington and John Adams, were aware of the Iroquois form of government. Subsequent anecdotal evidence, such as the story of John Rutledge reading from the Iroquois Great Law to the delegates is proved false. The words Rutledge is said to have read, which formed the basis of the Preamble to the Constitution, do not appear in the Iroquois Constitution. No other delegate recorded Rutledge’s reading Iroquois law to the delegates. Native governments may have been discussed, but there is little evidence to support serious consideration.

Moreover, the Iroquois system was and is based on hereditary positions, a system which the delegates in Philadelphia deliberately strove to avoid. They had, after all, just fought a long and bloody war to free themselves of such a government. The Founders created a system which operated under majority rule, with safeguards to protect the rights of the minority. They rejected the idea of a consensus democracy as practiced by the Iroquois (and which is the basis of government in Switzerland, Austria, and other western nations today). In 2014 Politifact considered the issue of Iroquois influence on the Constitution of the United States and found it to be “mostly false”. They noted, “…Major elements of the Iroquois system are altogether absent in the US government…” and further observed the precedents of European governments were more influential. Nonetheless, those convinced of Iroquois influence are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Great Seal”. Article, National Museum of American Diplomacy. Online

“Beaver Wars”. Article, Ohio History Central. Online

“Iroquois Wars”. Zach Parrott, Tabitha Marshall, The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 7, 2006

“Franklin Listens When I Speak: Tellings of the Friendship Between Benjamin Franklin and Skenandoah, An Oneida Chief”. Paula Underwood. 1996

“Seth Newhouse’s Traditional History and Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy”. William N. Fenton, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. May 16, 1949

“Key Treaties Defining the Boundaries Separating English and Native American Territories in Virginia”. Article, Virginia Places. Online

“Alexander Spotswood, (1676-1740)”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“One of the Most Important American Documents You’ve Never Heard Of “. Nicole Eustace, Literary Hub. April 29, 2021. Online

“Canasatego Forgotten Founding Father”. Article, Book of Mormon Evidence. August 18, 2020. Online

“The Great Indian Treaty of 1744”. Article, Uncharted Lancaster. September 3, 2018. Online

“From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751”. Benjamin Franklin. Online

“Albany Plan of Union, 1754”. Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“Articles of Confederation (1777)”. Article, Milestone Documents, National Archives. Online

“Meet the Framers of the Constitution”. Biographical index, National Archives. Online

“1787: Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention”. James Madison, National Archives. Online

“Constitutional Convention”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Notes on the State of Virginia”. Thomas Jefferson. 1785

“What is the Great Law of Peace”. Article, Law Information, Bartley Law Office. Online

“Viral meme says ‘Constitution owes its notion of democracy to the Iroquois'”. Louis Jacobson, Politifact. December 2, 2014. Online

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