Charles C. Mann: What the Founding Fathers Owed to the Iroquois

Charles C. Mann, in the NYT (7-4-05):

[Charles C. Mann is the author of the forthcoming "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."]

... So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government that 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its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. 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.

For two centuries after Plymouth Rock, the border between natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent. In a way difficult to imagine now, Europeans and Indians mingled, the historian Gary Nash has written, as "trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts."

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, the aging John Adams recalled the Massachusetts of his youth as a multiracial society. "Aaron Pomham, the priest, and Moses Pomham, the King of the Punkapaug and Neponsit Tribes, were frequent visitors at my father's house," he wrote nostalgically. Growing up in Quincy, Mass., the young Adams frequently visited a neighboring Indian family, "where I never failed to be treated with whortleberries, blackberries, strawberries or apples, plums, peaches, etc." Benjamin Franklin was equally familiar with Indian company; representing the Pennsylvania colony, he negotiated with the Iroquois in 1754. A close friend was Conrad Weiser, an adopted Mohawk who at the talks was the Indians' unofficial host.

As many colonists observed, the limited Indian governments reflected levels of personal autonomy unheard of in Europe. "Every man is free," a frontiersman, Robert Rogers, told a disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no person, white or Indian, sachem or slave, has any right to deprive anyone else of his freedom. The Iroquois, Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, held "such absolute notions of liberty that they allow of no kind of superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from their territories." (Colden, surveyor general of New York, was another Mohawk adoptee.)

Not every European admired this democratic spirit. Indians "think every one ought to be left to his own opinion, without being thwarted," the Flemish missionary monk Louis Hennepin wrote in 1683. "There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America," a fellow missionary unhappily observed. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses - they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit."

Indians, for their part, were horrified to encounter European social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper. When the 17th-century French adventurer Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron de Lahontan, tried to convince the Huron, the Iroquois's northern neighbors, of Europe's natural superiority, the Indians scoffed.

Because Europeans had to kowtow to their social betters, Lahontan later reported, "they brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having." Individual Indians, he wrote "value themselves above anything that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give for it, that one's as much master as another, and since men are all made of the same clay there should be no distinction or superiority among them."

INFLUENCED by their proximity to Indians - by being around living, breathing role models of human liberty - European colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes. Lahontan was an example, despite his noble title; his account highlighted Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. Both the clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Lahontan was goading, tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French officials to force a French education upon the Indians, complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters. The attempts, the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen reported, were "everywhere unsuccessful."

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members - surrounded by examples of free life - always had the option of voting with their feet.

It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life. But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of American Indian culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, aristocrat and peasant alike. Others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility. ...

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