Did the Founding Fathers Really Get Many of Their Ideas of Liberty from the Iroquois?Fact & Fiction
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.
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its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law.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.