The Native American Government That Inspired the US ConstitutionHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, Federalism, Political theory, Iroquois
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to debate what form of government the United States should have, there were no contemporary democracies in Europe from which they could draw inspiration. The most democratic forms of government that any of the convention members had personally encountered were those of Native American nations. Of particular interest was the Iroquois Confederacy, which historians have argued wielded a significant influence on the U.S. Constitution.
What evidence exists that the delegates studied Native governments? Descriptions of them appear in the three-volume handbook John Adams wrote for the convention surveying different types of governments and ideas about government. It included European philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu, whom U.S. history textbooks have long identified as constitutional influences; but it also included the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous governments, which many of the delegates knew through personal experience.
“You had the Cherokee chiefs having dinner with [Thomas] Jefferson’s father in Williamsburg, and then in the northern area of course you had this Philadelphia interaction with the Delaware and the Iroquois,” says Kirke Kickingbird, a lawyer, member of the Kiowa Tribe and coauthor with Lynn Kickingbird of Indians and the United States Constitution: A Forgotten Legacy.
Since the U.S. had trade and diplomatic relationships with Native governments, Kickingbird says, thinking the constitutional framers weren’t familiar with them is like saying, “Gosh, I didn’t know the Germans and the French knew each other.”
Similarities and Differences Between the Iroquois Confederacy and the US Constitution
The Iroquois Confederacy was in no way an exact model for the U.S. Constitution. However, it provided something that Locke and Montesquieu couldn’t: a real-life example of some of the political concepts the framers were interested in adopting in the U.S.
The Iroquois Confederacy dates back several centuries, to when the Great Peacemaker founded it by uniting five nations: the Mohawks, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida and the Seneca. In around 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Together, these six nations formed a multi-state government while maintaining their own individual governance.
This stacked-government model influenced constitutional framers’ thinking, says Donald A. Grinde, Jr., a professor of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo, member of the Yamasee nation and co-author with Bruce E. Johansen of Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.
The constitutional framers “cite the Iroquois and other Native governments as examples of [federalism],” he says. “Marriage and divorce is taken care of right in the village; it’s not a thing that the national government or the chiefs have to do with. Each tribe might have its own issues, but the Iroquois Confederacy is about…unification through mutual defense and it conducts foreign affairs.”
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