At this time of crisis and division in American politics, when the popular vote and the electoral college vote are so far apart, I am reminded of Ben Franklin’s famous saying, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately.” While this maxim is well known, it is less well known that the advice originally came from the Mohawk Chief Canassatego, who in the early 1740s told Franklin to unify the colonies, counseling, “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 such strength and power. Therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”
Arguably, American federalism has been the foremost political contribution of the United States. 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 that many of the founders admired. Since most of the colonies had more contact and trade with the Indians than they did with other colonies, the Iroquois preference for local government made sense to them.
The Iroquois Confederacy was the only living, breathing democracy the founders had witnessed when it came time to Declare Independence and later cobble together the Constitution when the Articles of Confederation were found wanting. Though Franklin and Jefferson were acquainted with the ideas of Locke and Rousseau, there were no examples in the current European continent of democracy in action. In contrast, early colonists imagined that the American Indians were somehow descended from the Ancient Romans, and inherited their democratic traditions from them.
During this time, Ben Franklin, Conrad Weiser, Thomas Paine, William Johnson, James Madison and John Adams all visited with the Iroquois for extended periods to study their government and organization. Their proximity to the Eastern colonies enabled these visits to be frequent and numerous.
The colonists’ first attempt to organize 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. Franklin named the organizing 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 recognized and respected as long as it doesn’t hurt another.
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 saw 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 where they had escaped from. They did not want to go back to the European way of life, but to form a new society that was neither civilized nor savage.
To Jefferson, the key to that difference was the notion of property v 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 came from Locke, but also 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, not inherited wealth or religion. Important considerations were how well does a man speak, is a he a good person, can he 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 they took great pains not to become angry when criticized. 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. (Trump is the first dramatic departure from this ideal.) 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, who were as the name suggests all women. (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. (The two party system came later.)
At the Council, each tribe had a role. The Iroquois Confederacy was made up of Five Nations originally; later a sixth Nation, the Tuscaroras, were added. The original Five Nations were: the Mohawks, the Senecas, the Oneidas, the Cayugas and the Onandagas. First, the Mohawks convened and divided into three parties – two to discuss and one to listen for errors. Then, they referred the matter 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 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 well-being of everyone. Public opinion and approval was 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.
When the colonists landed, they did not find a vast empty frontier in the New World, but an ancient civilization spread out across North America. It’s clear that the Indians represented freedom in the colonists mind. 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, the sovereignty of the people all derive from Native traditions. Even the language of Franklin’s famous 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.
Especially after the Declaration of Independence, the founders were scrambling to form a government, and undeniably looked primarily to the Five Nations for positive examples. Ben 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 in twenty odd years. It’s already lasted far longer – perhaps under Trump that will change.