Did the Founding Fathers Really Get Many of Their Ideas of Liberty from the Iroquois?





7-21-05

Jack Rakove is Coe Professor of History and American Studies, Professor of Political Science, at Stanford University.

Editor's Note: On Monday July 4th the New York Times published an op ed by journalist James Mann that made broad claims about the influence of the Iroquois on American constitutional history. Specifically, he argued that the Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by Indian ideas of liberty and that our very form of government was shaped in decisive ways by Indian influences at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. True? Others have advanced this argument in the past and even convinced NY State a few years ago to adopt this view in teaching assignments. We asked Stanford historian Jack Rakove to assess the legitimacy of Mann's argument.

 

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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its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law.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. -- James Mann, in the NYT (7-4-05)

The English colonists did not need the Indians to tell them about federalism or self-government. The New England Confederation was organized as early as 1643. The claim of influence is based on a very strange idea of causality: Franklin at the Albany Conference in 1754 learned about federalism and self-government from the Iroquois and then 33 years later at Philadelphia passed on these ideas to his fellow delegates at the Convention. Never mind that Franklin was very elderly and scarcely spoke at the Convention. For discussion of the issue see articles by Elisabeth Tooker in Ethnohistory vols 35 (1988) and 37 (1990).--Gordon Wood

When I studied for my oral exams back in 1970-1971, I did not read a single work relating in any sustained way to the history of Native Americans. There were not that many then worth reading, and even in my special field of early American history, where the hottest and most innovative historical writing was taking place, the subject commanded little apparent interest.

That has all changed since, of course. One cannot imagine preparing the early American field without reading the works of James Merrell, Dan Richter, Richard White, and others. Equally noteworthy is the way in which the very conceptualization of the field, the perspective from which it is viewed and reconstructed, has changed.

It therefore seems appropriate that the New York Times has just marked the 229th anniversary of American independence by allowing Charles Mann, author of the soon-to-be-published Before 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus to preview his book on its op-ed page. (By the way, am I wrong to think that the NYT has been doing more of this recently? Call your publicist!) Mann is a journalist, so we can expect the work to be something of a synthesis that won't tell historians much that they do not already know. But what disappointed me about this piece is that it recapitulates the tired and dubious argument about the purported Iroquois influence on the Constitution, and the more general proposition that important elements of Euro-American democratic culture have origins in "the democratic, informal brashness of American Indian culture."

What's wrong with the Iroquois influence hypothesis? There are two principal and, I think, fatal objections to the idea that anything in the Constitution can be explained with reference to the precedents of the Haudenosaunee confederation.

The first is a simple evidentiary matter. The voluminous records we have for the constitutional debates of the late 1780s contain no significant references to the Iroquois. It is of course possible that the framers and ratifiers went out of their way to suppress the evidence, out of embarrassment that they were so intellectually dependent on the indigenous sources of their political ideas. But these kinds of arguments from silence or conspiratorial suppression are difficult for historians to credit.

But, it is objected, there were no real European antecedents and sources for the institutions that Americans created, or for the democratic mores by which they came to live. Again, this is a claim that cannot escape serious scrutiny. All the key political concepts that were the stuff of American political discourse before the Revolution and after, had obvious European antecedents and referents: bicameralism, separation of powers, confederations, and the like. Even on the egalitarian side of the political ledger, 17th-century English society did give rise, after all, to the radical sentiments and practices we associate particularly with the period of the Civil War and Commonwealth, the Levellers and the Putney debates, and the abolition of the House of Lords and the monatchy. And on this side of the water, New England colonists managed to set up town meetings before they had made much progress creating vocabularies of Indian words. The same can of course be said for the famous meeting of the Virginia assembly in 1619.

None of this is to deny that prolonged contact between the aboriginal and colonizing populations were important elements in the shaping of colonial society and culture. Whether those contacts left a significant political legacy, however, is a very different question.

Response by Charles C. Mann 7-21-05

Prof Rakove says that what"disappointed" him about my article"is that it recapitulates the tired and dubious argument about the purported Iroquois influence on the Constitution." Had he actually read the piece, he would not have been so disappointed. My article specifically criticized that argument as follows:

"...some historians and activists have argued that the 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." **Not at all like** -- I don't know how to be clearer than that.

Instead of the straw man that Prof Rakove does battle with, I proposed a cultural argument -- that the well-known democratic spirit had much to do with colonial contact with the Indians of the eastern seaboard, including and especially the Iroquois. In other words, I was saying (as Prof. Rakove puts it in his piece)"that prolonged contact between the aboriginal and colonizing populations were important elements [sic] in the shaping of colonial society and culture." Why he seems to think I was saying something else is mystifying to me.



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travis marshman - 1/6/2010

look here...

http://www.senate.gov/reference/resources/pdf/hconres331.pdf


Bruce Vincent Conway - 9/9/2008

Just reminiscing here over some of my honours level mathematics courses. One method of proof is via reductio ad absurdum (reductum ad absurdum?).
That is: assume indians and their constitution had no infuence whatsoever on the American Constitution.

Remember, we're not trying to prove, for instance, that Chief Canassatego grabbed a quill and scratched out a fully-formed Constitution for their white brothers. We're merely trying to prove influence, through oral, written and graphical evidence. One might argue, for instance, that a bundle of thirteen arrows on The Great Seal of the U.S. is one example of influence. Or, one might argue that there was another reason for this - placating the indians for example.

Or, Chief Canassatego's words:

Brethren, We the Six Nations heartily recommend Union and a good agreement between you our Brethren, never disagree but preserve a strict Friendship for one another and thereby you as well as we will become stronger. Our Wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations . . . we are a powerful Confederacy, and if you observe the same methods . . . you will acquire fresh strength and power.

I guess one has to define, very precisely, what is meant by influence.


Seth Cable Tubman - 1/24/2007

Unfortunately, both of those books are written by the so-called "historians" who are currently under debate in this article! I am currently reading articles by both men for an upper-level American history class. What you must understand, is that Grinde and Johansen are more interested in squeezing evidence in to prove their thesis, then they are in using accurate and honest historography methods. Proper historiographical methods are to read carefully and critically, a wide range of primary source materials (diaries, letters, objects, artwork, etc.). As you read sources, you develop an idea of an area in which you feel there is not accurate secondary source material for. Once you've picked out the area, you begin to develop a thesis--a statement which can be proven or disproven--and then begin finding sources which agree with your thesis. Once you have done that, you must find evidence that refutes your thesis. Then you provide specific arguments of why the counterevidence is hogwash. You may then develop your ideas into a paper for a class or conference, article for an academic journal, or thesis for a degree or book. My point is, you do NOT create a thesis out of thin air, and then find evidence to support it. You use the evidence to find a thesis. This argument should be moot anyway, because white scholars could not read the Iroquois language until the late-19th century--more than a century AFTER the Constitution was written, and almost a century and a half AFTER Benjamin Franklin's failed Albany Plan of Union. In other words, the ideas of the Constituion came from John Locke, the Commonwealth, the Act of Union 1707 (which formed the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland) the Swiss city-states, the Roman Republic, and the Greek city-states. Sorry to all you Iroquois influence theory people, but there was little to no influence.


Seth Cable Tubman - 1/24/2007

Which is nice, but not the issue under discussion. They're talking about the origin of the ideas of the Constitution.


John M Shaw - 3/17/2006

Although I have great admiration for Professor Rakove's constitutional scholarship, two significant books belie his weak rebuttal. Anyone interested in the "Iroquois influence thesis" must read:
1) Exemplar of Liberty by Donald Grinde and bruce Johansen; and 2) Debating Democracy by Bruce Johansen.


Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 7/30/2005

The precedent for the federal system can be seen in the United Colonies of New England (1643), then considered without English precedent. Among the leaders who conceived the United Colonies of New England was Plymouth Colony's Edward Winslow, who had studied the text of the Union of Utrecht (1579)that established the federal system that became known as the United Provinces of the Netherlands, or as Winslow referred to them, the United States.
This is discussed in my book, Pilgrim Edward Winslow: New England's First International Diplomat (Boston: NEHGS,2004), p. 211 and p. 26.


John Edward Philips - 7/21/2005

I admit I am not a specialist on this area, so I am going to frame this as a question, and I do hope to get an answer.

I remember from reading _The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution_ by Bernard Bailyn, that the one American idea that was utterly alien to the British was the suggestion of a federal empire. "Imperium in Imperio!" they screamed, and refused to even consider it.

If British political tradition was not the source for federalism, what was? Couldn't the Iroquois Federation have been part of it?


Oscar Chamberlain - 7/14/2005

Clayton, I'm inclined to agree. Once caveat: the same prejudice that you note could have led writers not to refer to any such inspiration either because they discounted the source in their own contemplation or because tribal practice would not have been a convincing authority for readers.


Clayton Earl Cramer - 7/14/2005

I've read a lot of the materials connected with the formation of our government. There is plenty of discussion of classical models (good and bad), of English traditions--and essentially nothing that fits into this notion of Indian liberty as a model or influence. No surprise; even Americans with strong sympathy and respect for the Indians, like Thomas Jefferson, still didn't see them as cultural equals.


Clayton Earl Cramer - 7/14/2005

I've read a lot of the materials connected with the formation of our government. There is plenty of discussion of classical models (good and bad), of English traditions--and essentially nothing that fits into this notion of Indian liberty as a model or influence. No surprise; even Americans with strong sympathy and respect for the Indians, like Thomas Jefferson, still didn't see them as cultural equals.


Van L. Hayhow - 7/13/2005

I actually have that book. I have forgotten why i picked it up. It was beautifully printed, but I have to say that I didn't find the argument particularly compelling. That isn't to say that Franklin might not have picked up some ideas from the meeting, but to make it a major issue struck me as a stretch.


Louis N Proyect - 7/13/2005

Didn't see a reference to this in the comments. If it appeared already, my apologies.

F O R G O T T E N F O U N D E R S

By Bruce E. Johansen

Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois
and the Rationale for the
American Revolution

http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/FF.html


David Lynn Ghere - 7/13/2005

Jeff, Why the fixation on the Iroquois and the Great Law? I specifically entitled my response: “Native Americans and liberty.” Mann used the Iroquois as a major example for a much broader discussion. You cannot refute the entire discussion simply because some activists have exaggerated the impact of the one example. Moreover, the original question was: Where did the Founding Fathers get their ideas of liberty? All Mann (and I) have argued is that one of the sources of those ideas was nearly three centuries of European and Euro-American fascination with the individual autonomy and limited governmental authority exhibited by many Native American societies. This view is supported by a vast array of colonial documentation, numerous descriptions of Native America published in Europe, and the intellectual writings of the Enlightenment, particularly those by Rousseau. The fact that contact with Native America provided one source of ideas about liberty does not deny that there were other sources, or even other more important sources. The Founding Fathers were quite familiar with their own English political heritage as well as the historical examples of Greek democracy and Roman republicanism and I think that these had strong influences on their ideas about liberty. However, it is interesting that the Greek, Roman and English efforts at self-government without a king had each resulted in dictatorships while the Founding Fathers were surrounded by working examples of self-government and individual liberty that had not led to dictatorships.


Jeff Powell - 7/11/2005

To say that the colonists indentified similarities between their political heritage/emerging thoughts and that of the Native Americans, is not the same as to say they were "infulenced." It is more likely Franklin and others found similarities in thought and ideology with the Native Americans and used them as a defence of their heritage and emerging coloinal system. There is little evidence that the Great Law was a catalyst... See Jack P. Greene for a discussion of the Walpole and Real Whig infuence on American political thought.


Jeff Powell - 7/11/2005

To say that the colonists indentified similarities between their political heritage and that of the Native Americans, is not the same as to say they were "infulenced." It is more likely Franklin and others found similarities in thought and ideology with the Native Americans and used them to defend their emerging coloinal system. There is little evidence that the Great Law was a catalyst... See Jack P. Greene for a discussion of the Walpole and Real Whig infuence on American political thought.


David Lynn Ghere - 7/11/2005

Professor Rakove attempts to repudiate the Op/Ed column of James Mann, first by focusing on only one of the 22 paragraphs, and then by agreeing with Mann on the one point that Rakove thinks he is repudiating. Professor Rakove correctly points out that the direct links between the Iroquois Confederacy and the U. S. Constitution have been exaggerated by some historians and activists. James Mann said, “some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible.” Mann then cited three major discrepancies between the two government systems. Professor Rakove, James Mann and nearly all historians agree on this narrow issue. The dispute comes at the end of the paragraph where Mann said, “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.” One wishes that Professor Rakove had responded to this statement or the ideas expressed in the other 21 paragraphs.
The remainder of Mann’s piece provides numerous examples of how Native American concepts of freedom, liberty, individual autonomy and limited governmental power influenced the colonists. Prior to 1787, Europeans and Euro-Americans had almost three centuries of contact with Native American societies who had very different ideas concerning political organization and fundamental political concepts. Many of these societies operated without the central authority, legal system and punitive coercive power that most Europeans considered necessary to control society. James Mann correctly claims that this exposure to different political systems and concepts was one of the factors which stimulated the political ideas of both the colonists and intellectuals in Europe. Professor Rakove ignores all of Mann’s arguments and examples concerning the idea of liberty as well as the title of his own piece when he focuses solely on the political structure outlined in the Constitution rather than the Founding Fathers ideas of liberty. If Professor Rakove must focus on government structure, he should consider the similarities of the Albany Plan of Government or the Articles of Confederation to the Iroquois Confederacy. After the failure of the Articles, the U. S. Constitution was a shift away from a structure similar to the Iroquois government.

David L. Ghere, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History
University of Minnesota


Nathaniel Brian Bates - 7/11/2005

I have heard three possible explanations for the rise of democratic norms in America:

1)Greece/Rome
2)the Hebraic Commonwealth
3)Native American Influences.

I tend toward the first explanation, with some of the second and third mixed in. However, one thing that they ALL have in common is that ALL are either tribal or once removed from tribal societies. Athens and Rome were both comprised of "tribes" of a sort (in Rome they were even voting units). Hebrew society was once tribal. Native American societies are still tribal.

Tribal societies that are egalitarian, that are not hierarchical WITHIN the tribe, seem to be the schools of democracy. Tribal hierarchies comprised of hereditary chiefs and priests seem to be inorganic innovations over earlier tribal organizations. I would stand by this one regardless of the voracity of Mann's claims.

What do we learn from this? Too much "civilization" is not good for the soul.

Bates


Vernon Clayson - 7/11/2005

No, no, the sentence and thought is all wrong, it wasn't liberty in question, it was liberation, as in liberating the Iroqouis from their land. This could even be stretched, in retrospect, to further endorse the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, the land of the Iroquois in the hands of the non-Indians would surely benefit the government as a higher revenue tax base.


Sheldon M. Stern - 7/11/2005

P.S. Mann cites John Adams' recollection of an Indian chief visiting his father's house to help "prove" Iroquois influence on constititional government. It is, of course, proof of nothing and equivalent to saying that because Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to the White House that proves that TR believed in racial equality.


Sheldon M. Stern - 7/11/2005

Unfortunately, despite the fact that Prof. Rakove is absolutely right, Mann's book will undoubtedly be received with great enthusiasm in American secondary schools. As I demonstrated in my 2003 study of state history standards for the Fordham Foundation, available at www.edexcellence.net, several states already teach this mythology, without, for example, ever mentioning the intellectual and institutional experimentation in the state constitutions after 1776, etc. As teachers once said to me after I argued that they were completely wrong about a key historical issue: "I don't believe that." History is about evidence and facts but if it is instead based on beliefs, and all beliefs are considered equally valid so as to not offend anyone, then all conclusions are equally true.

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