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The Iriqouis and the Origins of American Democracy

Written by: Grinde, Dr. Donald A.    Posted on: 03/18/2003

Category: Educational

Source: CCN


Speech by Dr. Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Interdiscipli- nary Studies, Gettysburg College, and Crawford Research Fellow, 1987-1988. Delivered at Cornell University September 11, 1987.


First of all, I would like to thank the Iroquois people that I worked with some fifteen or more years ago. They gave me encouragement in this project since I did not receive much encouragement outside of the Iroquois people. I want to also thank the Indian Historian Press whose stated purpose, then as well as now, is to publish works by American Indian scholars and others that contribute to new viewpoints on American Indian history. Finally, I would like to thank Americans for Indian Opportunity and the Meredith Fund for research funds that made my present research possible.

Today, I would like to share with you some of the new data that I have found in the last year or so that supplements my earlier findings. I will focus on four items:

  1)  The Treaty Congress at Albany in August of 1775   2)  Benjamin Franklin and his ideas about the Covenant Chain   of the Iroquois.   3)  Thomas Paine and some of the things that he wrote that   have not been attributed to him.   4)  John Rutledge of South Carolina and how he learned of the   Great Law of the Iroquois, and how he helped to write the first   draft of the U. S. Constitution.

As Eugene Crawford Memorial Fellow for 1987-1988, my purpose will be to analyze, from a historian's viewpoint, the extent and impact of the Iroquois ideas on American democracy. This analysis will include, of course, the U. S. Constitu- tion. I want to make this study an integral part of the analysis of the Constitution. In the future, I want to make sure that when people talk about the roots of the Constitution, they include the ideas of the Iroquois. Ancient Greece and Rome, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, no doubt, influenced the thinking of the Founding Fathers, but Iroquois concepts had a profound influence upon the formation of our government as well. The ideas of the Iroquois influenced the thinking of the English and the French theorists of the eigh- teenth century also. I will also attempt to approach the Founding Fathers as human beings, and this is extremely important since I have found that it is the best way to look at them. When one looks for Iroquois ideas in the Founding Fathers, I have to always remember that these men were politicians.. Many of them, of course, had a good education for the times and were wealthy. However, most of them had a fairly long history of political activity in one way or another.

The noted Cherokee humorist, Will Rogers, said that politicians are like fog- horns; they call attention to the problems but they don't do a damned thing about them. When I read the Records of the Constitutional Convention and other materials leading up to the first draft of the Constitution, I see a lot of foghorn stuff. What about the problem of money and debts? What about the executive and legislative powers? How can we secure a stronger union? For brevity's sake, I will not go back to the Albany Plan of Union because I think that it will be discussed later, but Albany is an important place to begin the discussion of the Iroquois' influence on American democracy.

In August of 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress sent a group of treaty commissioners to speak with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy at Albany, New York. The Congress and the American people were contemplating independence and a long war. Already, there was much tension and the Congress did not want to fight a two front war against the British in the East and the Indians in the West. In the spring of 1775, Congress began to formulate a speech that was to be sent to the Iroquois in the summer of 1775. Signed by John Hancock, this speech recalls the history of the relations between the Iroquois and the American colonists since the 1740s. The speech quotes the Iroquois chief, Cannassatego, at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744. In that speech, Cannassatego admonishes the Americans to unite and become strong as the forefathers of the Iroquois had done under the Great Law. The speech from the Continental Congress said that the American people are united and have taken the advice of the Iroquois. The U. S. treaty commissioners added:

    "...the advice was good, it was kind.  They said to one     another, the Six Nations are a wise people, let us hearken     to their Council and teach our children to follow it.  Our     old men have done so.  They have frequently taken a single     arrow and said, children, see how easy it is broken, then     they have tied twelve together with strong cords--And our     strongest men could not break them--See said they--this is     what the Six Nations mean.  Divided a single man may destroy     you--United, you are a match for the whole world."

Unity is a major concept in this speech by the Congress, and it is one of the foremost concepts of the Iroquois Great Law. Unity is not a novel concept, but the way in which the Iroquois did it, fascinated Europeans and particularly, American colonists. Hence, the treaty commissioners at Albany, in 1775, were not just engaging in the rhetoric of Iroquois diplomacy, they were demonstrating that they had a knowledge of and were using parts of the Great Law in their deliberations even before independence was declared. The speech goes on to point out that the American people have delegated leaders to go to Philadelphia and kindle a great fire and plant a Great Tree to become strong like the Iroquois. At the conclusion of the analogy, the treaty commissioners invited the Iroquois to come to Philadelphia to their "Grand Council".

A few days after this speech, the treaty commissioners tell the Iroquois that:

"We live upon the same ground with you--the same island is our common birthplace. We desire to sit down under the same Tree of Peace with you; let us water its roots and cherish its growth, till the large leaves and flourishing branches shall extend to the setting sun and reach the skies."

In some more references to Iroquois cosmology, the Americans say when this

"island began to shake and tremble along the Eastern Shore, and the Sun darkened by a Black cloud which arose from beyond the great water, we kindled up a Great Council Fire at Philadelphia...so...that we are now twelve colonies united as one man...And...As God has put it into our hearts to love the Six Nations...we now make the chain of friendship so that nothing but an evil spirit can or will attempt to break it."

Through these words, we can see the extent of the Continental Congress' knowl- edge of the Great Law of the Iroquois and its cosmology a year before the Declaration of Independence. In an analysis of this cultural and intellectual exchange, it is significant (since it often goes unnoticed) that the Iroquois people delegated leaders or had self-appointed people to educate the colonists to the wisdom of unity.

A generation before the conference at Albany in 1775, the Mohawk Chief, Hend- rick, had admonished the colonists to unify. In August of 1775, when the Iroquois chiefs had asked the Americans who should speak for the Iroquois at the conference, the Americans immediately asked that Abraham be appointed the main speaker. Abraham was the adopted brother of Hendrick, and the Americans remembered his words urging unity at the Albany conference in 1754. It should be noted that the treaty commissioners recognized that Abraham and Hendrick were part of an Iroquois tradition to teach the American people strength through unity. After he is made speaker, Abraham rose and stated that he was glad that "...your grandfathers had inculcated the doctrine into their children...". He noted that an invitation had been extended to go to Philadelphia where the Great Tree was planted and "...sit under it and water its roots, till the branches should flourish and reach to heaven...". Abraham said, "This the Six Nations say shall be done." In May of 1776, the Iroquois chiefs would go to Philadel- phia as the Continental Congress was readying itself for independence (the Iroquois camped outside of Independence Hall in the square). After John Hancock welcomed the Iroquois chiefs to the Congress as "brothers", an Onondaga chief named the President of the Continental Congress, (John Hancock), "Karanduawn, or the Great Tree", on June 11, 1776.

In effect, the Iroquois were present during the debates on independence and when a draft of the Articles of Confederation was introduced (this draft was a revision of Franklin's Albany Plan and it has been demonstrated that it was borrowed from the Iroquois Great Law). With the Iroquois in the halls of government on the eve of independence, it is no longer a question of whether the Iroquois had an impact on the nature of American government but rather it now becomes a question of degree. We can now see that both the Americans and the Iroquois were aware of the interchange of ideas for over a generation. Essen- tially, the Iroquois had a tradition of instructing, cajoling and admonishing the colonies to unity, and the Americans were cognizant of this process in some very profound ways.

Now, I would like to discuss Benjamin Franklin and his knowledge of Iroquois imagery and ideas. Franklin, of course, was the author of the Albany Plan of Union. However, an examination of the oral traditions about Franklin has yielded some interesting insights into Franklin's use of Iroquois ideas. By looking at the record of the people that knew Franklin in England before the Revolution and in France during the Revolution, it is apparent that Franklin talked a great deal about the Iroquois. In England, Franklin's circle of friends gave him a silver tea service that was engraved "keep bright the chain" because it was one of his favorite phrases. His friends remarked that he used it often and that they sought Franklin's ideas about American Indians.

When Franklin goes to France in late 1776 as the Congress' Minister to France, he was welcomed as a hero. There was a rumor that he was coming with 100 American Indian warriors. Once in France, Franklin "...loved to cite and to practice faithfully the proverb of his friends, the American Indians, "Keep the chain of friendship bright and shining", when discussing the concept of liberty among distinguished French philosophers like Turgot, Helvetius, La Rochefoucault and Condorcet. French observers in the salons stated that Franklin would dis- cuss the politics of the Indians with great exactness and interest. Further- more, Franklin thought the ways of American Indians more conducive to the good life than the ways of "...Civilized Nations". Frequently, Franklin used the French curiosity about Native Americans and particularly the Iroquois to his personal and diplomatic advantage.

When Franklin came back to America after the Revolution, he became a member in the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany in Philadelphia. This was a society of non-Indians that dressed up as Indians, entertained Indian delegations to Phila- delphia, stood for a unicameral legislature like Franklin, and freely used Iroquois ideas and imagery in its rhetoric. In 1785, George Washington attended a St. Tammany society meeting in Richmond, Virginia. Washington was called our "Great Grand Sachem" and our "brother" by the society. Franklin was often toasted as "brother" also. During the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wrote several letters to American Indians like "the old chief", "the...Beloved Indian Woman", and the "Cornstalk". These terms and names were used by the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany. Since they were written on June 30, 1787 after the bitter controversy over the Virginia and New Jersey Plans were resolved, they may well be "coded" letters to the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany. The Saint Tammany Society was intensely interested in the outcome of the Constitutional Convention and the structure of the new government. At any rate, Franklin stated in one of these letters that:

"I am sorry that the Great Council fire of our nation is not now burning, so that you cannot do business there. In a few months, the coals will be rak'd out of the ashes and will again be rekindled."

Franklin also had designed currency using the Iroquois Covenant Chain at the beginning of the Revolution that was reissued in 1787. The currency depicted a Covenant Chain of thirteen links with an admonition to unite. Hence, there is plenty of evidence that Franklin continued and cultivated his interest in the Iroquois after he used their ideas of unity to forge the Albany Plan of Union in 1754.

Thomas Paine was also influenced by the Iroquois. Although it is generally not acknowledged, Thomas Paine was a secretary to an Iroquois Treaty at Easton, Pennsylvania in early 1777. It appears that Paine heard an Iroquois prophecy about struggling beasts that would shake the very foundation of the League of the Iroquois. In the end, lesser beast (the Americans) would win and take up the ideas of the Iroquois. A pamphlet published by the Continental Congress recounts a similar prophecy. It is printed in France in 1777 before the French publicly began to support the American cause. Thomas Paine was appointed to the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the Continental Congress in April of 1777. He may have sent over to Franklin an account of the prophecy since Franklin and the other American ministers to France were constantly asking for good news (the good news would come late in 1777 with the victory at Saratoga). Again, it is important to note that the Continental Congress is writing propaganda using the imagery and prophecies of the Iroquois since they knew that the French were fascinated by Iroquois ideas. After Paine leaves America for France, he was reputed to have talked a great deal about the Iroquois.

Finally, there is John Rutledge of South Carolina, chairman of the Committee of Detail that writes the first draft of the U. S. Constitution. According to his biographer, Rutledge learned of the Great Law while attending the Stamp Act Congress in New York City as a young man. During the Stamp Act Congress, Rut- ledge rented a cab and rode out to see Sir William Johnson and some Mohawks camped on the edge of Greenwich Village. Sir William Johnson was upset about the Stamp Act because it was cutting into his Indian trade. Sir William Johnson had come down in the fall from Albany to get supplies for the Indian trade. Johnson greeted Rutledge by saying: "I see you've come to comb the King's hair", and Rutledge was puzzled by this phrase (an obvious allusion to the evil Onondaga wizard, Tadodaho, that Hiawatha tamed to pave the way for the creation of the Great Law of the Iroquois). In this way, Johnson characterized the Stamp Act Congress as attempting to pacify the King's mind about taxation and other things. With this opening remark, John Rutledge sits down and has a few glasses of rum with Johnson and the Mohawks and gets his first lesson about the Great Law of the Iroquois.

In late July, 1787, twenty years after the Stamp Act Congress, John Rutledge found himself chairing the Committee of Detail at the Constitutional Convention. The Committee was charged with taking all of the resolutions that had been passed in Convention and drafting a document that could be polished and refined through debate on the floor of the convention. Rutledge's biographer states that he opened the meeting with some passages from the Great Law of the Iro- quois. The main passages relate to the sovereignty of the people, peace and unity. Rutledge had asserted earlier that a great empire was being created so it must be firmly rooted in American soil. With this said, Rutledge bent over and began the task of drafting the Constitution.

Pressure in the printed media was already being brought to bear upon the Framers of the U. S. Constitution. In the August, 1787 issue of The American Museum (a Philadelphia magazine), "A Fable - Addressed to the Federal Convention" was printed that used the bundle of arrows imagery of the Iroquois Constitution (Section 57) and styled the Iroquois as "fathers" urging unity to their "sons". No doubt, the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany were, in part responsible for this reference. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 69, felt compelled to address an editorial written by 'Tamony' that expressed reservations about the executive powers in the proposed constitution. Appearing in Virginia and Pennsylvania newspapers, the editorial clearly represented the fears of the St. Tammany Society of a strong executive in peacetime. These examples are but a few of the references to the Iroquois roots of American government.

The major thing to remember is that if you know the code words like "combing the King's hair" or "keep the chain bright" the Iroquois influence can be easily seen. Indeed, there seems to be a kind of ignoring of these references in the records. This ignoring of important references glosses over the fact that Iroquois images were used frequently in eighteenth century America.

But to modern scholars such references probably appear as anomalies since many people are unfamiliar with the rhetoric and imagery of the Iroquois. In short, the attitude might be: "What's this, Thomas Paine writing an Indian treaty?" What does this have to do with political theory or his ideas?

In conclusion, I think that the concept of unity was an important transference that went on for generations bewteen the colonists and the Iroquois. Rutledge recalled that exchange as he began to write the first draft of the Constitution (the press of Philadelphia and the Saint Tammany society were also bound to remind him and the other delegates to the convention of the American roots of our unity and freedom). Federalism is another important concept here. The Iroquois had a working federalism that gave maximum internal freedom while providing for a strong defense.

I think it is time to take away the veil that has deprived Americans from realizing the Iroquois roots of American democracy. The new evidence that we have all brought to bear here is extremely exciting. I hope that it will convince people that when they look at the origins of American democracy that one can no longer look only to the ancient Greeks and John Locke for sources but you must also look to the Great Law of the Iroquois as a valid source of ideas for the formation of our nation. With evidence at hand, the question is not whether the Iroquois had an influence on formation of the American govern- ment but to what degree.

The next job. after this conference, is to increase cross-cultural kinds of studies. I think that research funds in the institutions that study Indians should be allocated in ways that reflect more the interests and questions that are important to Indian people. Certainly, American Indian people and American Indian scholars should have a greater say over research priorities and the allocation of funds in places like the Smithsonian Institution. In the final analysis, it was the Iroquois people that came to me and said "we're interested in this, are you interested in the Iroquois roots of American democracy?" In the future, questions that American Indian people deem important should have a great deal of validity in institutions of culture and learning, i.e. the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian. Let us hope that the call is heeded. Why can't people recognize that Native Americans have priorit- ies about their history? American Indian people should not be ignored in their pursuit of a new Native American history.

Thank you.

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