The Native American Source for the Declaration and the Constitution
In the standard high school history textbooks, the primary sources of the ideas behind the Constitution are almost entirely from western Europe. We read about English common law, laws from ancient Greece and Rome, and French civil law. Then, by some sort of magic, the Framers added their original genius, ideas about democracy, separation of powers, federalism, and so on, to the mix and, behold, the Constitution was created.
All well and good. Certainly ancient Greece and Rome, medieval England, and the minds of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and others were vital contributions to the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But one source, hiding in plain sight, so to speak, is frequently overlooked. This is the contribution of native Americans, particularly the Iroquois, to the mix. The Iroquois constitution, called the Great Law of Peace, or Gayanashagowa, contains many echoes of our Constitution, and in a number of respects, is more advanced in thought than the Constitution that resulted from the Convention of 1787.
This is not something I made up. If you read the original documents from the time, from people like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, you will easily see that they deeply acknowledged their debt to the Iroquois and other native Americans. It's no accident that the protestors at the Boston Tea Party chose to disguise themselves as Indians. They did this out of respect for the democratic and free nature of Indian society - something they were trying to establish in the face of what they considered British tyranny.
Who were the Iroquois? Here's how the Wikipedia article on the Iroquois describes it:
The Iroquois Confederacy (Haudenosaunee, also known as the League of Peace and Power, Five Nations, or Six Nations, mostly Six nations now a days) is a group of First Nations/Native Americans. It was made up of six tribes: the Mohawks, the Oneidas, the Onondagas, the Cayugas, and the Senecas. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, joined after the original five nations were formed. They are also sometimes called the people of the Long house. They are often referred to as Iroquois, a term that some members of the group consider derogatory.
The Union of Nations was established prior to major European contact, complete with a constitution known as the Gayanashagowa (or "Great Law of Peace") with the help of a memory device in the form of special beads called wampum that have inherent spiritual value (wampum has been inaccurately compared to money in other cultures). Most anthropologists have traditionally speculated that this constitution was created between the middle 1400s and early 1600s. However, recent archaeological studies have suggested the accuracy of the account found in oral tradition, which argues that the federation was formed around August 31, 1142 based on a coinciding solar eclipse (see Fields and Mann, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, vol. 21, #2). Some Westerners have also suggested that the Great Law of Peace was written with European help, although some dismiss this notion as racist.
The Iroquois were not simply passive observers of the conflict between the French and British. They were a formidable military power. In fact, they held the balance of power in the West for the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Francis Parkman, the famous 19th century historian, the Iroquois were at the height of their power in the 17th century, with a population of around 12,000 people. Our image of native Americans comes mainly from those John Ford westerns, that they were savages who scalped innocent white settlers who just wanted to farm on the empty prairie. This is not how Benjamin Franklin, who negotiated a treaty with the Iroquois, saw them.
"It would be a 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 insoluble; and yet that a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies.
At the time, Franklin proposed a plan, called the Albany Plan of Union, based on the Great Law of Peace, to unite the colonies. About 40 Iroquois representatives, led by Chief Hendrick of the Mohawk, urged such a union because it had worked so well for the Iroquois. The white "savages", unfortunately, could not agree. A number of historians cite the Albany Plan as a predecessor to our Constitution. They don't always mention that its basis was a native American constitution that had been functioning continuously for hundreds of years.
On June 11, 1776, the Continental Congress, in the midst of debating the text of the Declaration of Independence, formally invited visiting Iroquois chiefs into the meeting hall. Read about it here. There a speech was delivered, in which they were addressed as "Brothers" and told of the delegates' wish that the "friendship" between them would "continue as long as the sun shall shine" and the "waters run." The speech also expressed the hope that the new Americans and the Iroquois act "as one people, and have but one heart." After this speech, an Onondaga chief requested permission to give Hancock an Indian name. The Congress graciously consented, and so the president was renamed "Karanduawn, or the Great Tree." Like I said, I'm not making this up.
Recent historians have taken note of the Iroquois contribution to our political thought. At a conference at Cornell University in 1987, the 200th anniversary of the Ratification of the Constitution, 200 historians and scholars gathered to examine how the Great Law of Peace was indeed the source of the Constitution. Here's how it was described:
Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, an Onondaga, states The Great Law of Peace includes "freedom of speech, freedom of religion, [and] the right of women to participate in government. Separation of power in government and checks and balances within government are traceable to our Iroquois constitution—ideas learned by colonists."
The central idea underlying Iroquois political philosophy is that peace is the will of the Creator, and the ultimate spiritual goal and natural order among humans. The principles of Iroquois government embodied in The Great Law of Peace were transmitted by a historical figure called the Peacemaker. His teachings emphasize the power of Reason to assure Righteousness, Justice and Health among humans. Peace came to the Iroquois, not through war and conquest, but through the exercise of Reason guided by the spiritual mind. The Iroquois League is based not on force of arms or rule of law, but spiritual concepts of natural law applied to human society.
At the planting of a Tree of Peace in Philadelphia in 1986, Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp explained, "In the beginning, when our Creator made humans, everything needed to survive was provided. Our Creator asked only one thing: Never forget to appreciate the gifts of Mother Earth. Our people were instructed how to be grateful and how to survive.
"But during a dark age in our history 1000 years ago, humans no longer listened to the original instructions. Our Creator became sad, because there was so much crime, dishonesty, injustice and war.
"So Creator sent a Peacemaker with a message to be righteous and just, and make a good future for our children seven generations to come. He called all warring people together and told them as long as there was killing there would be no peace of mind. There must be a concerted effort by humans for peace to prevail. Through logic, reasoning and spiritual means, he inspired the warriors to bury their weapons and planted atop a sacred Tree of Peace."
Here's a description of the Great Law of Peace, from the Official Six Nations Web Site. Peace was more than the absence of war - the Iroquois considered it as harmony with nature, one's surroundings, and one's brothers.
You can read the excellent book Forgotten Founders, by Bruce Johansen, online, for free. Mr. Johansen examines not only the Great Law of Peace, but also other native American influences on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The Great Law was far more democratic than either document. Women had full equality - in fact, they sort of ran the show. The men turned in all their assets, except for their guns and arrows for fighting, to the women to manage. The long house was a true democracy, where everyone could speak their mind. Ideas such as free speech, later incorporated into the Bill of Rights, were first written down here. The idea of separation of powers and federalism was not only written down but practiced. Each nation preserved its own sovereignty but also agreed to the rights of the Iroquois nation for matters such as defense. The Iroquois didn't have to wrestle with the "peculiar institution" of slavery because it was unknown. A modern historian, faced with all the facts, could easily conclude that the Constitution was based on this native American document and then was debased by the fierce political horsetrading that occurred at the Convention in 1787. Maybe this is too extreme a position. At the least, however, the contributions of the native Americans to our fundamental documents should be both acknowledged and celebrated, instead of being invisible.
By the way, the thing about scalping - it was a European invention. The British placed a bounty on the scalp of an Indian. The Indians considered scalping as barbaric and only resorted to it out of self defense. Makes you think about who the savages really were.