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I am an Indian.

               --Robert Beverley, 1705[1]

I wish I were at perfect liberty, to portray . . . the course
of political changes in this province. It would give you a
great idea of the spirit and resolution of the people, and
shew you, in a striking point of view, the deep roots of
American Independence in all the colonies. But it is not
prudent, to commit to writing such free speculations, in
the present state of things.
        Time which takes away the veil, may lay open the
secret springs of this surprising revolution (emphasis

               --John Adams to
      Abigail Adams
      July 10, 1776[2]

Europe did not discover America, but America was quite a discovery for Europe. For roughly three centuries before the American Revolution, the ideas which made it possible were being discovered, nurtured and embellished in the growing English and French colonies of North America, as images of America became a stable of European literature and philosophy. America provided a counterpoint for European convention and assumption. America became, for Europe and Europeans in America at once a dream and a reality, a fact and a fantasy, the real, and the ideal.

To appreciate the way in which European eyes opened on the "new world," we must take the phrase literally, with the excitement evoked in our own time by travel to the moon and planets. There was one electrifying difference: the voyagers of that time knew their new world was inhabited. They had only to look and learn, to drink in the bewildering newness and enchanting novelty of seeing it all for the first time.

Imagination often outran discovery. And what an arena for imagination America provided. Daniel Boorstin called it "a great reservoir of the unknown . . . until well into the nineteenth century."[3] To say that America helped shape Europe (and the converse) is a given: few today doubt the material gifts America provided Europeans, and Europeans who became Americans. To assert that America and its societies helped to fundamentally shape our ideas has become controversial, however, despite mounting evidence that the example of American Indian confederacies figured importantly in the evolution of democracy.

Our thesis has encountered some lively (and often ascerbic) intellectual heavy weather during the fifteen years we have been pursuing these ideas.[4] While debate is good and necessary to define the role of ideas in history, it also can cloud issues. We seek to add threads to the grand and varied tapestry of our history, not to detract from the existing record. Nor do we imply that the use of American Indian political concepts and symbols during the United States' formative years means that all of those who used them completely understood the societies from which they often drew inspiration. The creators of these images utilized (in Robert F. Berkhofer's words) "white man's Indians;"[5] who selected aspects of native cultures that suited their own desires for liberty, and perceived them in ways that met their needs at the time. This was the reality some of the architects of our early national identity created for themselves. It shaped their beliefs and, through them, their actions, whether or not they completely understood native political and cultural systems in a scientific sense.

Often, founders such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were in a position to understand significant portions of native experience, since they not only displayed a fascination with Indian societies, but also lived at a time when they could -- indeed, could not live without -- encountering native people and their social and political systems. The American Revolution occured only a few decades removed from a time when Euro-American settlement comprised but a few scattered islands in a virtual sea of native peoples. They could not help but be shaped by native example, as they chose to see it.

Our work in some ways builds on William Brandon's New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800.[6] Like Brandon, we are examining interpretations of American liberty. Brandon's primary focus is Europe, and he includes an examination of Spanish exploration, which we do not. Our analysis reaches into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while Brandon's stops at 1800. While we cross the Atlantic occasionally, our major focus is on the use of these ideas by Americans of European descent. We also place more emphasis than Brandon on the use of these ideas as agents of social and political change, especially of the ideas that comprise a distinct "American character."

We believe that American history will not be complete until its indigenous aspects have been recognized and incorporated into the teaching of history. We have assembled here a mosaic of fact and opinion which, taken together, indicates that the objective of the contemporary debate should be to define the role Native American precedents deserve in the broader ambit of American history. Our work is not encyclopedic, in that it does not attempt to repeat copiously documented accounts of our European heritage.

Jack Forbes states that too often our history has been overly Eurocentric, providing us with textbooks which assume that everything begins in Europe and "where the history of Overseas Europeans is the central or only theme." In fact, these scholars are also "Americans" but they ignore their "native" roots often when they study the dynamics of the European colonial system. Such a viewpoint alienates American history not only from American Indians but also from the entire American public.[7]

"Overseas historians" seem to miss the evidence before their eyes: that during the Enlightenment, Europe was taking in new knowledge about the ordering of human affairs from all over the world. According to Julian Boyd, editor of Jefferson's papers and Franklin's Indian treaties,

In the realm of political thought, the Indian probably had a greater influence over civilized society than any other savage race. . . . Marc Lescarbot, Gabriel Sagard, and the authors of the great Jesuit Relations began in the 16th and 17th centuries by describing Indian society and ended by praising it with a praise that carried an implied criticism of the European political system. From this it was an easy step to put in the mouth of an American savage a blunt criticism of civilized political organization.

From these materials, wrote Boyd a half-century ago,

Montesquieu drew in part his inspiration for his Spirit of Laws and from the same sources emerged Rousseau's Social Contract. . . . [T]he French Revolution was but another link in the chain of influence that has stretched from the western frontiers to the capitals of Europe. . . . The Indian, therefore, was a factor of immense importance in the 18th century, far out of proportion to his actual numbers." [8]

Why, for example, if colonial Americans were so infatuated with Europe did they go to the trouble of a revolution to establish not only their own nation, but also their own identity? And why revolt in the name of "natural rights" exported in the books of European savants, when they had the European philosophers' original source material before their own eyes? Our thesis holds that the character of American democracy evolved importantly (although, of course, not soley), from the examples provided by American Indian confederacies which ringed the land borders of the British colonies. These examples provided a reality, as well as exercise for the imagination -- and it is imagination, above all, that foments revolutions. In this book, we attempt to provide a picture of how these native confederacies operated, and how important architects of American institutions, ideals and other character traits perceived them. We operate as much as we are able from the historical record per se, relaying as much of original accounts as possible.

We attempt to trace both events and ideas: life, liberty, happiness; government by reason and consent rather than coercion, religious toleration (and ultimately religious acceptance) instead of a state church; checks and balances, federalism; relative equality of property, equal rights before the law and the thorny problem of creating a government that can rule equitably across a broad geographic expanse. Native America had a substantial role in shaping all these ideas, as well as the events that turned colonies into a nation of states. In a way that may be difficult to understand from the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Native Americans were present at the conception of the United States. We owe part of our national soul to those who came before us on this soil.

As is the case with many histories, this book proceeds along a time line. Except for a few earlier premonitions, our historical study begins around 1600 with "Vox Americana," which summarizes early English and French traders', missionaries' and settlers' accounts of native political organization and attitudes toward liberty. "Perceptions of America's Native Democracies" continues this theme with brief descriptions of how Native American nations that bordered the British colonies ordered their affairs. "Natural Man in an Unnatural Land" examines the image of American Indian peoples in European popular culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; "Ennobling `Savages'" considers the degree to which the same image was reflected in the works of major French and British philosophers of the time. "Errand in the Wilderness" takes the story back across the Atlantic for a detailed study of Roger Williams's use of native precedents for political freedom and religious toleration. "The White Roots Reach Out" concentrates on the idea of federalism as seen through the eyes of Benjamin Franklin and mid-eighteenth century leaders of the Iroquois such as Canassatego and Hendrick (Tiyanoga), centering on the Albany Congress of 1754.

The revolutionary era begins with "Mohawks, Axes, and Taxes," an account of ways in which the image of the Indian was reflected in propaganda and popular art between 1763 and 1776. "A New Chapter" compares the images of native America as utilized by Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. The timeline resumes once again in "An American Synthesis," which organizes events (between roughly 1775 and 1786) around the founding of the Sons of Saint Tammany, a patriotic organization succeeding the Sons of Liberty, which combined European and Native American ideas and motifs. "Kindling a New Grand Council Fire" continues the study into the constitutional period. "The Persistence of an Idea" traces references to native ideas in governance (particularly those of the Iroquois) through the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and thus concludes our analysis.

Most studies of the modern world hold that the first significant modern democracy was established in the United States during and after the American Revolution. This assertion usually goes unchallenged in our history books, but there is hard evidence that the League of the Iroquois, with its representative form of democracy, not only predated the United States Constitution but also shaped the evolution and development of the ideas that shaped that document, and other fundamental expressions of the American character. There had been ancient forms of direct democracies in Europe's past which used the whole corpus of citizens in a Greek city-state such as Athens, but the success of such ventures was fleeting. Such direct democracies declined and republics and eventually empires replaced these noble experiments.

Magna Charta and the struggle over parliamentary representation were attempts to create democratic principles within an authoritarian structure, but they failed to kindle freedom and equality.[9] Consequently, for almost 2000 years (after the decline of Greek city states such as Athens), there was no working democracy on European soil. When Europeans came to the Americas, they came from divine right monarchies or oligarchies calling themselves independent republics. Once these Europeans came to America, they began to create governmental structures and ask that these written charters be sanctioned by the companies and sovereigns that ruled over the colonies on the Atlantic Seaboard. Geography certainly played a role in the evolution of home rule in America since the main governing bodies of the colonies were an ocean away. From the beginning of European colonization, colonial legislative assemblies and written charters played an important part in forging a unique colonial identity while maintaining advantageous ties with the mother country.

The use of the American Indian as a symbol of liberty and unity fostered an imagery in the American mind that appears in the American consciousness before, during and after the American Revolution. The lifelong fascination of such founders as Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson with Iroquois culture was also present in the public mind as well. The Boston Tea Party and Thomas Paine's natural rights arguments in Common Sense utilized this symbolic imagery quite effectively, and people on both sides of the Atlantic understood the message of liberty and freedom regardless of their point of view in the struggle. In our nation's formative years, the free use of "Great Tree," "UNITE OR DIE," "chain of friendship" and "League of Friendship" indicates that such imagery and symbolism was present in the popular mind and in the vocabulary of the leaders of the era.

The Iroquois people have consistently preserved these insights in their oral and written traditions even during long periods when American society in general has chosen to ignore the impact of Iroquois and other native American political theories. Someday, when the dominant society becomes more concerned about reciprocity and less about superiority and domination, we may all be able to join hands and celebrate the diverse roots of the American democratic tradition without the blinders of indifference and cultural arrogance.

A fundamental purpose of this book is to let American Indian voices be heard on the issue of Iroquois political theory and its role in the development of American governmental structures. Another theme has been to examine the face to face exchange of ideas between Native Americans and sympathetic Euroamericans. Many Euroamericans like Franklin and Wilson wanted to institute a society and government that preserved "native rights" that they had observed and experienced among Native American peoples. On a fundamental level, Americans and the Iroquois people believed that people should be governed under a fixed corpus of laws. They reasoned that an unwritten constitution such as the British model was based on the assumption that government was benign, but their experience taught them to be suspicious of monarchies and government power. Thus, the Americans followed a philosophy that government was potentially oppressive and needed to have its powers clearly defined and limited.

In 1988, the circle of influence was finally completed. A group of British intellectuals proposed that the unwritten English constitution (a system of common and case law) be replaced by a written document that established citizens' rights. This group believed that the British should borrow heavily from the American model by insuring the rights of citizens and regional governments, establishing judiciary independence and placing checks on the British executive branch.[10] In essence, there is now a movement to reform the British government using the American constitution as a model.

After perusing the historical record, it would seem that the question today is not whether the native American confederacies influenced American democratic ideals, but to what degree. Certainly, there is overwhelming evidence that the Iroquois lectured colonial and revolutionary leaders on the virtues of unity and served as an example of democracy for Europeans and colonial Americans. During the framing and ratification process of the United States Constitution, The American Museum recalled this interaction repeatedly. In modern America, there is a tendency to take unification for granted and focus on rights and powers outlined in the Constitution. But unity was of paramount importance in the minds of the founders and the American people, and the Civil War is testimony that the subsequent struggle to maintain unity in America was a complex, belabored and difficult process.

The toasts and concerns of the Society of Saint Tammany demonstrated how the common people of Philadelphia and other parts of America felt about their "native Constitutional American Liberties" before, during and after the American Revolution.[11] Problems of unity would plague Americans until after the Civil War.The founders desired unity with local freedom and autonomy but with strong diplomatic and military leadership, and they saw a working model in the Iroquois Confederacy. Many of the issues debated at the Constitutional Convention such as slavery, territorial expansion, states rights, and commerce were manifestations of the larger problem of unity.

Benjamin Franklin, James Wilson, John Rutledge and the American people clearly perceived that the kinship state of the Iroquois could operate over vast geographic expanses and yet maintain human freedoms, so they borrowed some of the political structures of the Iroquois to create a nation state (based on geographic identity) that balanced the personal freedoms and federalism of the kinship state with the coercive collective powers of European political systems. With these facts in mind, Iroquois political theory and imagery should take its rightful place in American intellectual history as one of the theoretical roots of American democracy.

American Indians were a symbol of a new emerging American identity in the eighteenth century. To this day, the federal eagle is emblazoned on the back of our One Dollar bills clutching a bundle of arrows reminiscent of the meeting with the Twelve United Colonies and the Iroquois in 1775 (such imagery also recalls Section 57 of the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy).[12] The eagle perched atop the Tree of Peace clutching five arrows is still symbolic of the power and unity of the Iroquois Confederacy. Indeed to the Iroquois, the eagle represents "foresight, prudence, wisdom, and not the least, sovereignty." The Saint Tammany Society recalled this eagle imagery less than a year before the Constitutional Convention.[13]

Covenant chain imagery was also used on early U. S. money and in the toasts of the Saint Tammany Society.[14] In addition, Iroquois prophecy was used as a propaganda device in France.

If the political and philosophical gifts of the Iroquois can be brought to a popular level of awareness in the American mind perhaps the bitterness, indifference and paternalism towards American Indians would subside. Once this happens, the influence of American Indian people can be fully appreciated without the cultural myopia so prevalent in American society today. Knowledge and awareness are always humbling experiences if they are truthful. However, unity and a renewed strength through freedom can also emerge through a new consciousness of the Iroquois roots of American democratic thought. Various early attempts at union and creating a new government (including the United States Constitution) were in some measure, a product of the interaction of Native peoples and Euroamericans and is deeply rooted in North American soil.

Evidence of the intellectual transference of American Indian governmental theories to the American people is clearly present in the colonial, revolutionary and early national records of the United States and in the oral and written traditions of the Iroquois. It is important to reiterate that the Albany Plan was extracted from the Great Law of the Iroquois and that the press during ratification noted that the plan had a strong "resemblance to the . . . new constitution."[15] With this statement in mind, it is easy to assert that the Iroquois had a profound impact on American notions about unity, territorial expansion, the origins of sovereignty in the people and universal suffrage.

John Adams, in his Defence of American Constitutions believed that Indian governments provided an excellent example of the separation of the three branches of government, and he urged further study of American Indian governments in 1787 when the framers met. Adams believed that American Indian governments gave Americans great insight into the pre-monarchial past of Europe. Debates in the Constitutional Convention and James Wilson's notes recall American Indian concepts of sovereignty and unity. Editorial opinion during the Constitutional Convention urged the usage of parts of the Iroquois Constitution. In other aspects, American Indian ideas held out a promise for a better democracy after the ratification of the Constitution in such areas as the abolition of slavery, women's rights, children's rights and the rights of mother earth. In a very real sense, our democracy is still unfolding, and the Iroquois and other American Indian peoples still have much to teach contemporary and future generations.

In essence, American democracy is a synthesis of Native American and European political theories; there is an abundance of inferential and direct evidence to support the thesis that American government was influenced by Native American political concepts. There is simply too much historical evidence, in the founders' own words, of how they appreciated native political organizations to argue that it was all a figment of their imaginations, or a public-relations ploy by a bunch of press-release packing American Indian activists two hundred years after the creation of the Constitution.

The founders did not copy the British Constitution, the Magna Charta, the Ancients, or the Iroquois Confederacy, but they did examine and use European and American Indian ideas in the creation of our American government. The fundamental ideas that formulated our political identity arose out of a blending of European and American antecendents, acting in concert, at a time when the character of native American societies was a subject of inquiry not only by the founders of the United States, but also by important European philosophers, whose concepts of "natural man" and "natural law" were, in turn, exported to America. Our political traditions are not the product of any single heritage, but of a unique amalgam which is incomplete without an awareness of our American Indian roots. With the decline of American liberalism in the 1970s, political scientists and theorists began to turn to an examination of the Non-Lockean ideas that have "shaped major dimensions of American democratic experiences and concerns." They realized that the clarification of Non-Lockean elements of American democratic theory served "more than the purposes of historical scholarship." Since these elements of Non-Lockean thought suggested areas needed for the "renewal" of the foundations of democratic liberalism, it is important to examine them in order to critique "elitism, tacit consent, nonparticipatory citizenship, and the absence of virtue" in modern democratic societies.[16]

American Indian confederacies provided an historical example -- not the only one, to be sure, but a very important one. These are profoundly important ideas which bear on how dearly we all hold our liberty, personal freedoms, and respect for those of others. We are not about to suggest that we junk references to the Magna Charta, the Roman Republic, the Greeks, or other European precedents in our remembrance of national history, but that we include an indigenous, American aspect. If history is to be an honest record of our past, we must complete the picture. History is discovery, through the debate of many voices, not just a few "expert" opinions. Out of this debate will grow a more complete, accurate, and honest understanding of the ideas that shaped the character of America. We hope that the evidence and argument we present here will help contribute to such an understanding.


  1. Robert Beverley, The History and Present State of Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1947), p. 9. Beverley was Virginia's first native-born historian. A recent article on him states that the main question in his discourse is "natural liberty versus authority." Obviously, Beverley admired natural liberty among American Indians. (See Robert D. Arner, "The Quest for Freedom: Style and Meaning in Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia," The Southern Literary Journal, VIII, p. 98).

  2. John Adams to Abigail Adams, July 10, 1776 in Lyman H. Butterfield, ed., The Book of Abigail and John: Selected Letters of the Adams Family, 1762-1784 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), p. 143.

  3. Daniel Boorstin, The Colonial Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 160.

  4. Regarding the debate over these issues, see Elisabeth Tooker, "The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League," Ethnohistory, XXXV, 4, pp. 305-336. Tooker believes that the Iroquois played no role at all in the evolution of American democracy. But to state such unsubstantiated generalizations about the origins of American political theory is very similar to the misconception that all relations with the "savage" Indians and "civilized" Europeans were hostile, see Francis Jennings, The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), p. xvi. For more on the debate of this issue, see also Bruce E. Johansen, "Native American Societies and the Evolution of Democracy in America, 1600-1800: A Commentary," Ethnohistory, XXXVII, 3 (1990), in press, with Professor Tooker's reply; Donald A. Grinde, Jr., "Iroquoian Political Concept and the Genesis of American Government: Further Research and Contentions," Northeast Indian Quarterly, VI, 4, (Winter 1989), pp. 10-21; and Bruce E. Johansen and Donald A. Grinde, Jr., "The Debate Regarding Native American Precedents for Democracy: A Recent Historiography," American Indian Culture and Research Journal, XIV, 1, in press.

    Contemporary historians are often clouded by their own misperceptions of American Indians. Isabel Thompson Kelsay's recent biography (in a refereed scholarly press) of Joseph Brant engages in blatant stereotyping when she characterizes, without a shred of evidence, Joseph Brant's family in this way.

    [the Mohawks] . . . all craved rum; it was their greatest pleasure, and when really thirsty any of them would give everything he possessed for a dram of "that Darling Water." There is no reason to suppose that Joseph [Brant's] parents were any better, or any worse, than this.

    See Isabel T. Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1984), pp. 40-41.

    Actually, alcoholism was pervasive in Euro-American society. David Ramsay, M.D. in his History of South Carolina (Charleston: David Longworth, 1809), II, p. 391 flatly states that "drunkenness may be called an endemic vice of Carolina." As a physician, Ramsay observed that the majority of the population abused "spirituous liquors." Often, the insults to Native American people are more insidious. Bernard Bailyn's recent work, The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction (New York: Knopf, 1986) has nothing to do with American Indians. Instead, it examines the English origins of the early colonists who came to North America. Such titles validate the stereotypes that American Indians were either sub-human or did not even exist in Eastern North America. With such characterizations persisting into the 1980s in the writing of the "New Indian history," Native Americans may well wonder if much progress has been made in rewriting American history to include them in a balanced and realistic way.

  5. Robert F. Berkhofer, The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to Present (New York: Knopf, 1978).

  6. William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986)

  7. Jack Forbes, "Americanism is the Answer," Akwesasne Notes, VI,1, p. 37.

  8. Julian Boyd, "Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indian," in Meet Dr. Franklin, ed. Ray Lokken, Jr., (Philadelphia: Franklin Institute, 1981), p. 240. However, some European historians have noticed the impact of non-Western ideas on Enlightenment thought. In J.O. Lindsay, ed., The New Cambridge Modern History: The Old Regime, 1713-1763 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), VII, p. 65, it is observed that the use which writers like Montesquie . . . made of a . . . noble savage to point criticism of European conditions was an indication of how much the impact of other civilizations was affecting European ways of thought.

  9. Indeed, some Americans at the time of the ratification of the Constitution rejected the notion that Magna Charta was relevant to them. An editorial in the Charleston Columbian Herald, June 12, 1788 states that Americans "have no more to do with Magna Charta than with the Alcoran [Koran] . . . as Americans, [we] have no dependence upon this boasted Magna Charta, [since] this government is for the people of the United States."

  10. This analysis is much like the critique by John Adams in his Defence. Adams argued effectively that a precise separation of powers like the American Indians was a good alternative system. See "British Group Starts Pushing for a Written Constitution," San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 1988.

  11. Pennsylvania Chronicle, May 4, 1772.

  12. White Roots of Peace, The Great Law of Peace of the Longhouse People (Rooseveltown, New York: White Roots of Peace, 1971), Section 57.

  13. J. N. B. Hewitt to Arthur C. Parker, September 11, 1912, Hewitt Letters, Box 2, NAA, Smithsonian Institution. In 1786, the Saint Tammany made a toast stating: "May the 13 fires glow in one blended blaze and illumine the Eagle in his flight to the stars" (see Pennsylvania Evening Herald, May 6, 1786).

  14. Pennsylvania Packet, May 5, 1785, and Freeman's Journal, May 2, 1785. For a discussion of the strengthening of traditional Iroquois values, see Wallace (Mad Bear) Anderson to Paul A. W. Wallace, August 29, 1959 in Paul A. Wallace Papers, Box 7, in APS. See also David S. Blanchard, "Pattern of Tradition and Change, the Re-creation of Iroquois Culture at Kahnawake," (Unpublished University of Chicago Ph.D. dissertation, 1982), and for a discussion of national identity in a larger context see Beeman, Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

  15. American Museum (February 1789), p. 190.

  16. Quotes from Joyotpaul Chaudhuri, ed., The Non-Lockean Roots of American Democratic Thought (Tucson: University of Arizona, 1977), p. ix.

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