When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to debate what form of government the United States should have, there was no contemporary democracy in Europe from which they could draw inspiration. The most democratic forms of government that one of the convention members personally encountered were those of Native American nations. Of particular interest was the Iroquois Confederacy, which historians have argued wielded significant influence over the US Constitution.
What evidence is there that the delegates studied Indigenous governments? Descriptions of them appear in the three-volume manual that John Adams wrote for the convention examining different types of government and ideas about government. It included European philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu, whom American history textbooks have long identified as constitutional influences; but it also included the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous governments, which many delegates knew from personal experience.
“You made the Cherokee chefs dine with [Thomas] Jefferson’s dad in Williamsburg, then in the North Zone of course, you had that Philadelphia interaction with the Delaware and the Iroquois, ”says Kirke kickingbird, lawyer, member of the Kiowa Tribe and co-author with Lynn Kickingbird of Indians and the Constitution of the United States: A Forgotten Legacy.
Since the United States had trade and diplomatic relations with Indigenous governments, Kickingbird says, to think the constitutional draftsmen didn’t know them is like saying, “My God, I didn’t know the Germans and the French knew each other.” .
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Similarities and Differences Between the Iroquois Confederacy and the U.S. Constitution
The Iroquois Confederacy was by no means an exact model of the American Constitution. However, it provided something that Locke and Montesquieu could not: a real-life example of some of the political concepts the drafters wanted to adopt in the United States.
The Iroquois Confederacy dates back several centuries to the time when the Grand Peacemaker founded it by uniting five nations: the Mohawks, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida and Seneca. Around 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Together, these six nations have formed a multi-state government while maintaining their own individual governance.
This model of stacked government influenced the thinking of constitutional drafters, says Donald A. Grinde, Jr., professor of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo, member of the Yamasee Nation and co-author with Bruce E. Johansen of Exemplary of Freedom: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.
Constitutional writers “cite the Iroquois and other Indigenous governments as examples of [federalism], “he said.” Marriage and divorce are taken care of directly in the village; it is not something the national government or the chiefs have to do. Each tribe can have its own problems, but the Iroquois Confederacy concerns… unification through mutual defense and conducts foreign affairs.
The heads of the six nations were hereditary rulers, which the editors wanted to avoid, given their grievances with British King George III. Yet the editors “sought to borrow aspects of the Iroquois government which enabled them to assert the sovereignty of the people over vast geographic areas since they found no government in Europe with these characteristics.” Grinde and Johansen write in Copy of freedom.
Congress officially recognizes the influence of the Iroquois
The fact that many writers looked to Indigenous governments for inspiration did not prevent them from seeing Indigenous people as inferior. This disconnection is evident in a 1751 letter by Benjamin Franklin describing the need for the 13 colonies to form a “Voluntary Union” similar to that of the Iroquois Confederacy:
“It would be a very strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages were able to form a plan for such a union, and could execute it in such a way that it has endured for ages and seems indissoluble; and yet such a union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be assumed to want an equal understanding of their interests.
The prejudice and violence of the United States against Native Americans may have helped to mask the interest of editors in their governments. However, public awareness of this link increased around the bicentenary of 1987 marking the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.
“Oren Lyons, who was a Faith Keeper for the Iroquois Confederacy, went to the Special Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and brought up this topic,” Grinde says. “And then I went to Washington and testified before the Special Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.”
This motivated committee chairman Daniel Inoue of Hawaii to help Congress pass a 1988 resolution formally recognizing the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the Constitution of the United States. In addition to this recognition, the resolution reaffirmed “the continued government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States established in the Constitution” – a recognition of the legitimacy and sovereignty of Indigenous nations and their governments.