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
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