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Excerpts from:

By Bruce E. Johansen

Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois
and the Rationale for the
American Revolution

All of the Introduction and Afterword, as well as excerpts from Chapters 1 through 6, are included here for people interested in this subject but not feeling they have the time to read the entire book.


It is now time for a destructive order to be reversed, and it is well to inform other races that the aboriginal cultures of North America were not devoid of beauty. Futhermore, in denying the Indian his ancestral rights and heritages the white race is but robbing itself. America can be revived, rejuvenated, by recognizing a Native School of thought.


Chief Luther Standing Bear
Lakota (Sioux)
Land of the Spotted Eagle

The seeds for this book were sown in my mind during a late-summer day in 1975, by a young American Indian whose name I've long since forgotten. As a reporter for the Seattle Times, I had been researching a series of articles on Washington State Indian tribes. The research took me to Evergreen State College in Olympia, where a young woman, an undergraduate in the American Indian studies program, told me in passing that the Iroquois had played a key role in the evolution of American democracy.

          The idea at first struck me as disingenuous. I considered myself decently educated in American history, and to the best of my knowledge, government for and by the people had been invented by white men in powdered wigs. I asked the young woman where she had come by her information.

          "My grandmother told me," she said. That was hardly the kind of source one could use for a newspaper story. I asked whether she knew of any other sources. "You're the investigative reporter," she said. "You find them."

          Back at the city desk, treed cats and petty crime were much more newsworthy than two-centuries-past revels in the woods the width of a continent away. For a time I forgot the meeting at Evergreen, but never completely. The woman's challenge stayed with me through another year at the Times, the writing of a book on American Indians, and most of a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. I collected tantalizing shreds -- a piece of a quotation from Benjamin Franklin here, an allegation there. Individually, these meant little. Together, however, they began to assume the outline of a plausible argument that the Iroquois had indeed played a key role in the ideological birth of the United States, especially through Franklin's advocacy of federal union.

          Late in 1978, the time came to venture the topic for my Ph.D. dissertation in history and communications. I proposed an investigation of the role that Iroquois political and social thought had played in the thinking of Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Members of my supervisory committee were not enthusiastic. Doubtless out of concern for my academic safety, I was advised to test my water wings a little closer to the dock of established knowledge. The professors, however, did not deny my request. Rather, I was invited to flail as far out as I might before returning to the dock, colder, wetter, and presumably wiser.

          I plunged in, reading the published and unpublished papers of Franklin and Jefferson, along with all manner of revolutionary history, Iroquois ethnology, and whatever else came my way. Wandering through a maze of footnotes, I early on found an article by Felix Cohen, published in 1952. Cohen, probably the most outstanding scholar of American Indian law of his or any other age, argued the thesis I was investigating in the American Scholar. Like the Indian student I had encountered more than three years earlier, he seemed to be laying down the gauntlet -- providing a few enticing leads (summarized here in chapter one), with no footnotes or any other documentation.

          After several months of research, I found two dozen scholars who had raised the question since 1851, usually in the context of studies with other objectives. Many of them urged further study of the American Indians' (especially the Iroquois') contribution to the nation's formative ideology, particularly the ideas of federal union, public opinion in governance, political liberty, and the government's role in guaranteeing citizens' well-being -- "happiness," in the eighteenth-century sense.

          The most recent of these suggestions came through Donald Grinde, whose The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation (1979) reached me in the midst of my research. Grinde summarized much of what had been written to date, reserving special attention for Franklin, and then wrote that "more needs to be done, especially if America continues to view itself as a distinct entity set apart from many of the values of Western civilization." He also suggested that such a study could help dissolve negative stereotypes that many Euro-Americans still harbor toward American Indians' mental abilities and heritage.

          By this time, I was past worrying whether I had a story to tell. The question was how to tell it: how to engage readers (the first of whom would be my skeptical professors) with history from a new angle; how to overcome the sense of implausibility that I had felt when the idea of American Indian contributions to the national revolutionary heritage was first presented to me.

          Immersion in the records of the time had surprised me. I had not realized how tightly Franklin's experience with the Iroquois had been woven into his development of revolutionary theory and his advocacy of federal union. To understand how all this had come to be, I had to remove myself as much as possible from the assumptions of the twentieth century, to try to visualize America as Franklin knew it.

          I would need to describe the Iroquois he knew, not celluloid caricatures concocted from bogus history, but well-organized polities governed by a system that one contemporary of Franklin's, Cadwallader Colden, wrote had "outdone the Romans." Colden was writing of a social and political system so old that the immigrant Europeans knew nothing of its origins -- a federal union of five (and later six) Indian nations that had put into practice concepts of popular participation and natural rights that the European savants had thus far only theorized. The Iroquoian system, expressed through its constitution, "The Great Law of Peace," rested on assumptions foreign to the monarchies of Europe: it regarded leaders as servants of the people, rather than their masters, and made provisions for the leaders' impeachment for errant behavior. The Iroquois' law and custom upheld freedom of expression in political and religious matters, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes. It provided for political participation by women and the relatively equitable distribution of wealth. These distinctly democratic tendencies sound familiar in light of subsequent American political history -- yet few people today (other than American Indians and students of their heritage) know that a republic existed on our soil before anyone here had ever heard of John Locke, or Cato, the Magna Charta, Rousseau, Franklin, or Jefferson.

          To describe the Iroquoian system would not be enough, however. I would have to show how the unique geopolitical context of the mid-eighteenth century brought together Iroquois and Colonial leaders -- the dean of whom was Franklin -- in an atmosphere favoring the communication of political and social ideas: how, in essence, the American frontier became a laboratory for democracy precisely at a time when Colonial leaders were searching for alternatives to what they regarded as European tyranny and class stratification.

          Once assembled, the pieces of this historical puzzle assumed an amazingly fine fit. The Iroquois, the premier Indian military power in eastern North America, occupied a pivotal geographical position between the rival French of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English of the Eastern Seaboard. Barely a million Anglo-Americans lived in communities scattered along the East Coast, islands in a sea of American Indian peoples that stretched far inland, as far as anyone who spoke English then knew, into the boundless mountains and forests of a continent much larger than Europe. The days when Euro-Americans could not have survived in America without Indian help had passed, but the new Americans still were learning to wear Indian clothing, eat Indian corn and potatoes, and follow Indian trails and watercourses, using Indian snowshoes and canoes. Indians and Europeans were more often at peace than at war -- a fact missed by telescoped history that focuses on conflict.

          At times, Indian peace was as important to the history of the continent as Indian war, and the mid-eighteenth century was such a time. Out of English efforts at alliance with the Iroquois came a need for treaty councils, which brought together leaders of both cultures. And from the earliest days of his professional life, Franklin was drawn to the diplomatic and ideological interchange of these councils -- first as a printer of their proceedings, then as a Colonial envoy, the beginning of one of the most distinguished diplomatic careers in American history. Out of these councils grew an early campaign by Franklin for Colonial union on a federal model, very similar to the Iroquois system.

          Contact with Indians and their ways of ordering life left a definite imprint on Franklin and others who were seeking, during the prerevolutionary period, alternatives to a European order against which revolution would be made. To Jefferson, as well as Franklin, the Indians had what the colonists wanted: societies free of oppression and class stratification. The Iroquois and other Indian nations fired the imaginations of the revolution's architects. As Henry Steele Commager has written, America acted the Enlightenment as European radicals dreamed it. Extensive, intimate contact with Indian nations was a major reason for this difference.

          This book has two major purposes. First, it seeks to weave a few new threads into the tapestry of American revolutionary history, to begin the telling of a larger story that has lain largely forgotten, scattered around dusty archives, for more than two centuries. By arguing that American Indians (principally the Iroquois) played a major role in shaping the ideas of Franklin (and thus, the American Revolution) I do not mean to demean or denigrate European influences. I mean not to subtract from the existing record, but to add an indigenous aspect, to show how America has been a creation of all its peoples.

          In the telling, this story also seeks to demolish what remains of stereotypical assumptions that American Indians were somehow too simpleminded to engage in effective social and political organization. No one may doubt any longer that there has been more to history, much more, than the simple opposition of "savagery" and "civilization." History's popular writers have served us with many kinds of savages, noble and vicious, "good Indians" and "bad Indians," nearly always as beings too preoccupied with the essentials of the hunt to engage in philosophy and statecraft.

          This was simply not the case. Franklin and his fellow founders knew differently. They learned from American Indians, by assimilating into their vision of the future, aspects of American Indian wisdom and beauty. Our task is to relearn history as they experienced it, in all its richness and complexity, and thereby to arrive at a more complete understanding of what we were, what we are, and what we may become.

-- Bruce E. Johansen
Seattle, Washington
July 1981

From CHAPTER ONE A Composite Culture:

          . . . Unlike the physical aspects of this amalgam, the intellectual contributions of American Indians to Euro-American culture have only lightly, and for the most part recently, been studied by a few historians, anthropologists, scholars of law, and others. Where physical artifacts may be traced more or less directly, the communication of ideas may, most often, only be inferred from those islands of knowledge remaining in written records. These written records are almost exclusively of Euro-American origin, and often leave blind spots that may be partly filled only by records based on Indian oral history.

          Paul Bohanan, writing in the introduction of Beyond the Frontier (1967), which he coedited with Fred Plog, stressed the need to "tear away the veils of ethnocentricism," which he asserted have often kept scholars from seeing that peoples whom they had relegated to the category of "primitive" possessed "institutions as complex and histories as full as our own." A. Irving Hallowell, to make a similar point, quoted Bernard de Voto:

Most American history has been written as if history were a function soley of white culture -- in spite of the fact that well into the nineteenth century the Indians were one of the principal determinants of historical events. Those of us who work in frontier history are repeatedly nonplussed to discover how little has been done for us in regard to the one force bearing on our field that was active everywhere. . . . American historians have made shockingly little effort to understand the life, the societies, the cultures, the thinking and the feeling of the Indians, and disastrously little effort to understand how all these affected white men and their societies.[1]

To De Voto's assertion, Hallowell added: "Since most history has been written by the conquerers, the influence of the primitive people upon American civilization has seldom been the subject of dispassionate consideration."

          Felix Cohen, author of the Handbook of Indian Law, the basic reference book of his field, also advised a similar course of study and a similar break with prevailing ethnocentricism. Writing in the American Scholar (1952), Cohen said:

When the Roman legions conquered Greece, Roman historians wrote with as little imagination as did the European historians who have written of the white man's conquest of America. What the Roman historians did not see was that captive Greece would take captive conquering Rome and that Greek science, Greek philosophy and a Greek book, known as Septaugint, translated into the Latin tongue, would guide the civilized world and bring the tramp of pilgrim feet to Rome a thousand years after the last Roman regiment was destroyed.

American historians, wrote Cohen, had too often paid attention to military victories and changing land boundaries, while failing to "see that in agriculture, in government, in sport, in education and in our views of nature and our fellow men, it is the first Americans who have taken captive their battlefield conquerers." American historians "have seen America only as an imitation of Europe," Cohen asserted. In his view, "The real epic of America is the yet unfinished story of the Americanization of the white man."

          Cohen's broad indictment does not include all scholars, nor all historians. The question of American Indian influence on the intellectual traditions of Euro-American culture has been raised, especially during the last thirty years. These questions, however, have not yet been examined in the depth that the complexity of Indian contributions warrant.

          To raise such questions is not to ignore, nor to negate, the profound influence of Europe on American intellectual development. It is, rather, to add a few new brush strokes to an as yet unfinished portrait. It is to explore the intellectual trade between cultures that has made America unique, built from contributions not only by Europeans and American Indians, but also by almost every other major cultural and ethnic group that has taken up residence in the Americas.

          What follows is only a first step, tracing the way in which Benjamin Franklin and some of his contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson, absorbed American Indian political and social ideas, and how some of these ideas were combined with the cultural heritage they had brought from Europe into a rationale for revolution in a new land. There is a case to be made in that American Indian thought helped make that possible.[2]

  1. A. Irving Hallowell, "The Backwash of the Frontier: The Impact of the Indian on American Culture," in Walker D. Wyman and Clifton B. Kroeber, eds., The Frontier in Perspective (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957), p. 230.

  2. Henry Steele Commager discusses this theme in The Empire of Reason: How Europe Imagined and America Realized the Enlightenment (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977).

From CHAPTER TWO The Pre-Columbian Republic:

          . . . At whatever date the confederacy was formed, it came at the end of several generations of bloody and divisive warfare between the five nations that joined the league. According to the Iroquois' traditional account, the idea of a federal union was introduced through Deganwidah, a Huron who lived in what is now eastern Ontario. Deganwidah was unsuited himself to propose the idea not only because of his non-Iroquoian ancestry, but also because he stuttered so badly that he could scarcely talk. He would have had the utmost difficulty in presenting his idea to societies where oratory was prized. And writing, aside from the pictographs of the wampum belts, was not used.

          Deganwidah, wandering from tribe to tribe trying to figure ways to realize his dream of ending war among them all, met Hiawatha, who agreed to speak for him. Hiawatha (a man far removed from Longfellow's poetic creation) undertook long negotiations with leaders of the warring Indian nations and, in the end, produced a peace along the lines of Deganwidah's vision.

          This peace was procured, and maintained, through the constitution of the league, the Great Law of Peace (untranslated: Kaianerekowa). The story of the Great Law's creation is no less rich in history and allegory than the stories of cultural origin handed down by European peoples, and is only briefly summarized here. . . .

          The text of the Great Law begins with the planting of the Tree of the Great Peace; the great white pine -- from its roots to its spreading branches -- serves throughout the document as a metaphor for the unity of the league. The tree, and the principal council fire of the confederacy, were located on land of the Onondaga Nation, at the center of the confederacy, the present site of Syracuse, New York.

          From the Tree of the Great Peace

Roots have spread out . . . one to the north, one to the west, one to the east and one to the south. These are the Great White Roots and their nature is peace and strength. If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and shall make this known to the statesmen of the League, they may trace back the roots to the tree. If their minds are clean and they are obedient and promise to obey the wishes of the Council of the League, they shall be welcomed to take shelter beneath the Tree of the Long Leaves.

          This opening provision complements the adoption laws of the confederacy, which contained no bars on the basis of race or national origin. Nor did the Great Law prohibit dual citizenship; several influential Anglo-Americans, emissaries from the Colonial governments, including William Johnson and Conrad Weiser, were given full citizenship in the confederacy. Both men took part in the deliberations of the Grand Council at Onondaga. . . .

          During the 1730s and 1740s, the British Crown decided that if it was to stem the French advance down the western side of the Appalachians, alliance with the Iroquois was imperative. The French advance south from the Saint Lawrence Valley and north from Louisiana threatened to hem the English between the mountains and the Atlantic. And so the peace belt went out in a diplomatic offensive that would end in France's defeat two decades later.

          To win the Iroquois, the British envoys had to deal with the Iroquois on their own terms, as distasteful as this may have been to some of the more effete diplomats. They would find themselves sitting cross-legged around council fires many miles from the coastal cities, which Indian sachems refused to visit except on the most compelling business, fearing disease and the temptations of alcohol, as well as possible attacks by settlers along the way.

          In order to cement the alliance, the British sent Colonial envoys who usually reported directly to the various provincial governors, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin, to the frontier and beyond. This decision helped win North America for the British -- but only for a time. In the end, it still cost them the continent, or at least the better part of it. The Colonial delegates passed more than wampum over the council fires of the treaty summits. They also came home with an appetite for something that many proper colonials, and most proper British subjects, found little short of heresy. They returned with a taste for natural rights -- life, liberty, and happiness -- that they saw operating on the other side of the frontier. These observations would help mold the political life of the colonies, and much of the world, in the years to come.

From CHAPTER THREE "Our Indians Have Outdone the Romans":

          . . . The diplomatic approach to the Iroquois came at a time when the transplanted Europeans were first beginning to sense that they were something other than Europeans, or British subjects. Several generations had been born in the new land. The English were becoming, by stages, "Americans" -- a word that had been reserved for Indians. From the days when the Puritans came to build their city on a hill there had been some feeling of distinction, but for a century most of the colonists had been escapees from Europe, or temporary residents hoping to extract a fortune from the new land and return, rich gentlemen all, to the homeland. After a century of settlement, however, that was changing.

          From the days of Squanto's welcome and the first turkey dinner, the Indians had been contributing to what was becoming a new amalgam of cultures. In ways so subtle that they were often ignored, the Indians left their imprint on the colonists' eating habits, the paths they followed, the way they clothed themselves, and the way they thought. The Indians knew how to live in America, and the colonists, from the first settlers onward, had to learn.

          When the British decided to send some of the colonies' most influential citizens to seek alliance with the Iroquois, the treaty councils that resulted provided more than an opportunity for diplomacy. They enabled the leading citizens of both cultures to meet and mingle on common and congenial ground, and thus to learn from each other. The pervasiveness and influence of these contacts has largely been lost in a history that, much like journalism, telescopes time into a series of conflicts -- conquistadorial signposts on the way west. . . .

          The first systematic English-language account of the Iroquois' social and political system was published in 1727, and augmented in 1747, by Cadwallader Colden, who, in the words of Robert Waite, was regarded as "the best-informed man in the New World on the affairs of the British-American colonies." A son of Reverend Alexander Colden, a Scottish minister, Colden was born February 17, 1688, in Ireland. He arrived in America at age twenty-two, five years after he was graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Shortly after his arrival in America, Colden began more than a half century of service in various offices of New York Colonial government. His official career culminated in 1761 with an appointment as lieutenant governor of the colony. In addition to political duties, Colden carried on extensive research in natural science. He also became close to the Iroquois, and was adopted by the Mohawks.

          In a preface to his History of the Five Indian Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America, Colden wrote that his account was the first of its kind in English:

Though every one that is in the least acquainted with the affairs of North-America, knows of what consequence the Indians, commonly known to the people of New-York by the name of the Five Nations, are both in Peace and War, I know of no accounts of them published in English, but what are meer [sic] Translations of French authors.

Colden found the Iroquois to be "barbarians" because of their reputed tortures of captives, but he also saw a "bright and noble genius" in these Indians' "love of their country," which he compared to that of "the greatest Roman Hero's." "When Life and Liberty came in competition, indeed, I think our Indians have outdone the Romans in this particular. . . . The Five Nations consisted of men whose Courage and Resolution could not be shaken." Colden was skeptical that contact with Euro-Americans could improve the Iroquois: "Alas! we have reason to be ashamed that these Infidels, by our Conversation and Neighborhood, have become worse than they were before they knew us. Instead of Vertues, we have only taught them Vices, that they were entirely free of before that time. The narrow Views of private interest have occasioned this." . . .

          The original form of government, Colden believed, was similar to the Iroquois' system, which he described in some detail. This federal union, which Colden said "has continued so long that the Christians know nothing of the original of it," used public opinion extensively:

Each nation is an absolute Republick by itself, govern'd in all Publick affairs of War and Peace by the Sachems of Old Men, whose Authority and Power is gained by and consists wholly in the opinions of the rest of the Nation in their Wisdom and Integrity. They never execute their Resolutions by Compulsion or Force Upon any of their People. Honour and Esteem are their principal Rewards, as Shame and being Despised are their Punishments.

          The Iroquois' military leaders, like the civilian sachems, "obtain their authority . . . by the General Opinion of their Courage and Conduct, and lose it by a Failure in those Vertues," Colden wrote. He also observed that Iroquois leaders were generally regarded as servants of their people, unlike European kings, queens, and other members of a distinct hierarchy. It was customary, Colden observed, for Iroquois sachems to abstain from material things while serving their people, in so far as was possible:

Their Great Men, both Sachems [civil chiefs] and captains [war chiefs] are generally poorer than the common people, for they affect to give away and distribute all the Presents or Plunder they get in their Treaties or War, so as to leave nothing for themselves. If they should be once suspected of selfishness, they would grow mean in the opinion of their Country-men, and would consequently lose their authority. . . .

          The Iroquois' extension of liberty and political participation to women surprised some eighteenth-century Euro-American observers. An unsigned contemporary manuscript in the New York State Library reported that when Iroquois men returned from hunting, they turned everything they had caught over to the women. "Indeed, every possession of the man except his horse & his rifle belong to the woman after marriage; she takes care of their Money and Gives it to her husband as she thinks his necessities require it," the unnamed observer wrote. The writer sought to refute assumptions that Iroquois women were "slaves of their husbands." "The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power; this is to be attributed in a very great measure to their system of Education." The women, in addition to their political power and control of allocation from the communal stores, acted as communicators of culture between generations. It was they who educated the young.

          Another matter that surprised many contemporary observers was the Iroquois' sophisticated use of oratory. Their excellence with the spoken word, among other attributes, often caused Colden and others to compare the Iroquois to the Romans and Greeks. The French use of the term Iroquois to describe the confederacy was itself related to this oral tradition; it came from the practice of ending their orations with the two words hiro and kone. The first meant "I say" or "I have said" and the second was an exclamation of joy or sorrow according to the circumstances of the speech. The two words, joined and made subject to French pronunciation, became Iroquois. The English were often exposed to the Iroquois' oratorical skills at eighteenth-century treaty councils.

          Wynn R. Reynolds in 1957 examined 258 speeches by Iroquois at treaty councils between 1678 and 1776 and found that the speakers resembled the ancient Greeks in their primary emphasis on ethical proof. Reynolds suggested that the rich oratorical tradition may have been further strengthened by the exposure of children at an early age to a life in which oratory was prized and often heard.

          More than curiosity about an exotic culture that was believed to be a window on a lost European past, drew Euro-Americans to the Iroquois. There were more immediate and practical concerns, such as the Iroquois' commanding military strength, their role in the fur trade, their diplomatic influence among other Indians and the Six Nations' geographical position astride the only relatively level pass between the mountains that otherwise separated British and French settlement in North America. . . .

          One way that the English acted to maintain their alliance with the Iroquois, noted previously, was trade. The giving of gifts, an Indian custom, was soon turned by the English to their own ends. Gift giving was used by the English to introduce to Indians, and to invite their dependence on, the produce of England's embryonic industrial revolution. The English found it rather easy to outdo the French, whose industries were more rudimentary at the time, in gift giving. The Iroquois -- premier military, political, and diplomatic figures on the frontier -- were showered with gifts.

          By 1744, the English effort was bearing fruit. At a treaty council during that year, Canassatego, the Iroquois chief, told Colonial commissioners from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia:

The Six Nations have a great Authority and Influence over the sundry tribes of Indians in alliance with the French, and Particularly the Praying Indians, formerly a part with ourselves, who stand in the very gates of the French, and to shew our further Care, we have engaged these very Indians, and other Indian allies of the French for you. They will not join the French against you. They have agreed with us before we set out. We have put the spirit of Antipathy against the French in those People. Our Interest is very Considerable with them, and many other [Indian] Nations, and as far as it ever extends, we shall use it for your service. . . .

          The English were not giving because they were altruistic; by showering the Iroquois with gifts, the English not only helped secure their alliance, but also made the Indians dependent on some of England's manufactures, thus creating new markets for the Crown. If, for example, the Iroquois took up European arms and laid down their traditional weapons, they also became dependent on a continuing supply of powder and lead. According to Jacobs, the British skillfully interwove the political and military objectives of imperialism with the economic objectives of mercantilism.

          Much of the gift giving took place at treaty councils. Historically these meetings were some of the most important encounters of the century. By cementing an alliance with the Iroquois, the British were determining the course of the last in a series of Colonial wars with France in North America. The councils were conducted with solemnity befitting the occasion, a style that shows through their proceedings, which were published and widely read in the colonies and in Europe. . . .

          The tone of the treaty councils was that of a peer relationship; the leaders of sovereign nations met to address mutual problems. The dominant assumptions of the Enlightenment, near its height during the mid-eighteenth century, cast Indians as equals in intellectual abilities and moral sense to the progressive Euro-American minds of the time. It was not until the nineteenth century that expansionism brought into its service the full flower of systematic racism that defined Indians as children, or wards, in the eyes of Euro-American law, as well as popular discourse.

          Interest in treaty accounts was high enough by 1736 for a Philadelphia printer, Benjamin Franklin, to begin publication and distribution of them. During that year, Franklin published his first treaty account, recording the proceedings of a meeting in his home city during September and October of that year. During the next twenty-six years, Franklin's press produced thirteen treaty accounts. During those years, Franklin became involved to a greater degree in the Indian affairs of Pennsylvania. By the early 1750s, Franklin was not only printing treaties, but representing Pennsylvania as an Indian commissioner as well. It was his first diplomatic assignment. Franklin's attention to Indian affairs grew in tandem with his advocacy of a federal union of the colonies, an idea that was advanced by Canassatego and other Iroquois chiefs in treaty accounts published by Franklin's press as early as 1744. Franklin's writings indicate that as he became more deeply involved with the Iroquois and other Indian peoples, he picked up ideas from them concerning not only federalism, but concepts of natural rights, the nature of society and man's place in it, the role of property in society, and other intellectual constructs that would be called into service by Franklin as he and other American revolutionaries shaped an official ideology for the new United States. Franklin's intellectual interaction with Indian peoples began, however, while he was a Philadelphia printer who was helping to produce what has since been recognized as one of the few indigenous forms of American literature to be published during the Colonial period. In the century before the American Revolution, some fifty treaty accounts were published, covering forty-five treaty councils. Franklin's press produced more than a quarter of the total. These documents were one indication that a group of colonies occupied by transplanted Europeans were beginning to develop a new sense of themselves; a sense that they were not solely European, but American as well.

          Benjamin Franklin was one of a remarkable group who helped transform the mind of a group of colonies that were becoming a nation. It would be a nation that combined the heritages of two continents -- that of Europe, their ancestral home, and America, the new home in which their experiment would be given form and expression.

From CHAPTER FOUR Such an Union:

          . . . As early as 1750, Franklin recognized that the economic and political interests of the British colonies were diverging from those of the mother country. About the same time, he began to think of forms of political confederation that might suit a dozen distinct, often mutually suspicious, political entities. A federal structure such as the Iroquois Confederacy, which left each state in the union to manage its own internal affairs and charged the confederate government with prosecuting common, external matters, must have served as an expedient, as well as appealing, example. As Franklin began to express his thoughts on political and military union of the colonies, he was already attempting to tie them together culturally, through the establishment of a postal system and the American Philosophical Society, which drew to Philadelphia the premier Euro-American scholars of his day. . . .

Franklin then asked why the colonists found it so difficult to unite in common defense, around common interests, when the Iroquois had done so long ago. In context, his use of the term "ignorant savages" seems almost like a backhanded slap at the colonists, who may have thought themselves superior to the Indians but who, in Franklin's opinion, could learn something from the Six Nations about political unity:

It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble, and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies. . . .

          Two stated desires of the Iroquois leadership -- that the Indian trade be regulated along with the illegal movement of settlers into the interior, and that the colonies form a federal union -- figured importantly in Franklin's plans for the Albany congress of 1754. Plans for this, the most important intercolonial conference in the years before the last North American war with France, were being made at the time of the Carlisle treaty conference. The London Board of Trade wrote to the New York provincial government September 18, 1753, directing all the colonies that had dealings with the Iroquois to join in "one general Treaty to be made in his Majesty's name." It was a move that began, in effect, to bring about the unified management of Indian affairs that Colden, Kennedy, Franklin, and the Iroquois had requested. Similar letters were sent to all colonies that shared frontiers with the Iroquois and their Indian allies, from Virginia northward. Franklin was appointed to represent Pennsylvania at the Albany congress. . . .

          During debates over the plan of union, Franklin cited Kennedy's brochure and pointed to "the strength of the League which has bound our Friends the Iroquois together in a common tie which no crisis, however grave, since its foundation has managed to disrupt." Recalling the words of Hendrick, Franklin stressed the fact that the individual nations of the confederacy managed their own internal affairs without interference from the Grand Council. "Gentlemen," Franklin said, peering over the spectacles he had invented, "I propose that all the British American colonies be federated under a single legislature and a president-general to be appointed by the Crown." He then posed the same rhetorical question he had in the letter to Parker: if the Iroquois can do it, why can't we?

          The plan of union that emerged from Franklin's pen was a skillful diplomatic melding of concepts that took into consideration the Crown's demands for control, the colonists' desires for autonomy in a loose union, and the Iroquois' stated advocacy of a Colonial union similar to theirs in structure and function. For the Crown, the plan provided administration by a president-general, to be appointed and supported by the Crown. The individual colonies were promised that they could retain their own constitutions "except in the particulars wherein a change may be directed by the said Act [the plan of union] as hereafter follows."

          The retention of internal sovereignty within the individual colonies, politically necessary because of their diversity, geographical separation, and mutual suspicion, closely resembled the Iroquoian system. The colonies' distrust of one another and the fear of the smaller that they might be dominated by the larger in a confederation may have made necessary the adoption of another Iroquoian device: one colony could veto the action of the rest of the body. As in the Iroquois Confederacy, all "states" had to agree on a course of action before it could be taken. Like the Iroquois Great Council, the "Grand Council" (the name was Franklin's) of the colonies under the Albany Plan of Union would have been allowed to choose its own speaker. The Grand Council, like the Iroquois Council, was to be unicameral, unlike the two-house British system. Franklin favored one-house legislatures during and later at the Constitutional Convention, and opposed the imposition of a bicameral system on the United States. . . .

          Almost two decades would pass before the colonists -- inflamed into union by the Stamp Act and other measures the British pressed upon the colonies to help pay the Crown's war debts -- would take Franklin's and Canassatego's advice, later epitomized in Franklin's phrase: "We must all hang together or assuredly we shall all hang separately." Returning to America from one of many trips to England, Franklin would then repackage the Albany plan as the Articles of Confederation. A Continental Congress would convene, and word would go out to Onondaga that the colonists had finally lit their own Grand Council fire at Philadelphia.

From CHAPTER FIVE Philosopher as Savage:

          . . . For the rest of his life, shuttling between America, England, and France on various diplomatic assignments, Franklin continued to develop his philosophy with abundant references to the Indian societies he had observed so closely during his days as envoy to the Six Nations. Franklin's combination of indigenous American thought and European heritage earned him the title among his contemporaries as America's first philosopher. In Europe, he was sometimes called "the philosopher as savage."[1]

          "Franklin could not help but admire the proud, simple life of America's native inhabitants," wrote Conner in Poor Richard's Politicks (1965). "There was a noble quality in the stories . . . which he told of their hospitality and tolerance, of their oratory and pride." Franklin, said Conner, saw in Indians' conduct "a living symbol of simplicity and 'happy mediocrity . . .' exemplifying essential aspects of the Virtuous Order." Depiction of this "healthful, primitive morality could be instructive for transplanted Englishmen, still doting on 'foreign Geegaws'; 'happiness,' Franklin wrote, 'is more generally and equally diffused among savages than in our civilized societies.'"

          "Happy mediocrity" meant striking a compromise between the overcivilization of Europe, with its distinctions between rich and poor and consequent corruption, and the egalitarian, democratic societies of the Indians that formed a counterpoint to European monarchy. The Virtuous Order would combine both, borrowing from Europe arts, sciences, and mechanical skills, taking from the Indians aspects of the natural society that Franklin and others believed to be a window on the pasts of other cultures, including those from which the colonists had come. There is in the writings of Franklin, as well as those of Jefferson, a sense of using the Indian example to recapture natural rights that Europeans had lost under monarchy. The European experience was not to be reconstructed on American soil. Instead, Franklin (as well as Jefferson) sought to erect an amalgam, a combination of indigenous American Indian practices and the cultural heritage that the new Americans had carried from Europe. In discussing the new culture, Franklin and others drew from experience with native Americans, which was more extensive than that of the European natural rights philosophers. The American Indians' theory and practice affected Franklin's observations on the need for appreciation of diverse cultures and religions, public opinion as the basis for a polity, the nature of liberty and happiness, and the social role of property. American Indians also appear frequently in some of Franklin's scientific writings. At a time much less specialized than the twentieth century, Franklin and his associates (such as Colden and Jefferson) did not think it odd to cross from philosophy to natural science to practical politics.

          Franklin's writings on American Indians were remarkably free of ethnocentricism, although he often used words such as "savages," which carry more prejudicial connotations in the twentieth century than in his time. Franklin's cultural relativism was perhaps one of the purest expressions of Enlightenment assumptions that stressed racial equality and the universality of moral sense among peoples. Systematic racism was not called into service until a rapidly expanding frontier demanded that enemies be dehumanized during the rapid, historically inevitable westward movement of the nineteenth century. Franklin's respect for cultural diversity did not reappear widely as an assumption in Euro-American thought until Franz Boas and others revived it around the end of the nineteenth century. Franklin's writings on Indians express the fascination of the Enlightenment with nature, the natural origins of man and society, and natural (or human) rights. They are likewise imbued with a search (which amounted at times almost to a ransacking of the past) for alternatives to monarchy as a form of government, and to orthodox state-recognized churches as a form of worship.

          Franklin's sense of cultural relativism often led him to see events from an Indian perspective, as when he advocated Colonial union and regulation of the Indian trade at the behest of the Iroquois. His relativism was expressed clearly in the opening lines of an essay, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," which may have been written as early as the 1750s (following Franklin's first extensive personal contact with Indians) but was not published until 1784.

Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs. . . . Perhaps, if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude, as to be without any Rules of Politeness; nor any so polite, as not to have some Remains of Rudeness.

          In this essay, Franklin also observed that "education" must be measured against cultural practices and needs:

Having few artificial Wants, they [Indians] have abundance of Leisure for Improvement by Conversation. Our laborious Manner of Life, compared with theirs, they esteem slavish and base; and the Learning, on which we value ourselves, they regard as frivolous and useless. . .

          Franklin's "Remarks Concerning the Savages" shows an appreciation of the Indian councils, which he had written were superior in some ways to the British Parliament. "Having frequent Occasion to hold public Councils, they have acquired great Order and Decency in conducting them. . . . The women . . . are the Records of the Council . . . who take exact notice of what passes and imprint it in their Memories, to communicate it to their Children." Franklin also showed appreciation of the sharpness of memory fostered by reliance on oral communication: "They preserve traditions of Stipulations in Treaties 100 Years back; which, when we compare with our writings, we always find exact." When a speaker at an Indian council (the reference was probably to the Iroquois) had completed his remarks, he was given a few minutes to recollect his thoughts, and to add anything that might have been forgotten. "To interrupt another, even in common Conversation, is reckon'd highly indecent. How different this is to the conduct of a polite British House of Commons, where scarce a day passes without some Confusion, that makes the Speaker hoarse in calling to Order." Indian customs in conversation were reflected in Poor Richard for 1753, the year of Franklin's first diplomatic assignment, to negotiate the Carlisle Treaty: "A pair of good Ears will drain dry a Thousand Tongues." Franklin also compared this Indian custom favorably with "the Mode of Conversation of many polite Companies of Europe, where, if you do not deliver your Sentence with great Rapidity, you are cut off in the middle of it by the impatient Loquacity of those you converse with, and never suffer'd to finish it!" Some white missionaries had been confused by Indians who listened to their sermons patiently, and then refused to believe them, Franklin wrote.

          To Franklin, the order and decorum of Indian councils were important to them because their government relied on public opinion: "All their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment." Indian leaders study oratory, and the best speaker had the most influence, Franklin observed. In words that would be echoed by Jefferson, Franklin used the Indian model as an exemplar of government with a minimum of governance. This sort of democracy was governed not by fiat, but by public opinion and consensus-creating custom:

All of the Indians of North America not under the dominion of the Spaniards are in that natural state, being restrained by no laws, having no Courts, or Ministers of Justice, no Suits, no Prisons, no Governors vested with any Legal Authority. The Persuasion of Men distinguished by Reputation of Wisdom is the only means by which others are govern'd or rather led -- and the State of the Indians was probably the first State of all Nations.

          Franklin also compared the Indians' offers of free lodging and food for visitors to the customs of Euro-Americans. The Iroquois kept guest houses for travelers. This custom was contrasted by Franklin with Indians' treatment in white towns. He recounted a conversation between Conrad Weiser and Canassatego, who were close friends. In that conversation, Canassatego said to Weiser:

If a white Man, in travelling thro' our country, enters one of our cabins, we treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him Meat and Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return. But, if I go to a white man's house in Albany, and ask for Victuals and Drink, they say "Where is your Money?" And if I have none, they say, "Get out, you Indian Dog!" . . .

While Indians did not seem to have much inclination to exchange their culture for the Euro-American, many Euro-Americans appeared more than willing to become Indians at this time:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. And that this is not natural [only to Indians], but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho' ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet within a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

Franklin followed with an example. He had heard of a person who had been "reclaimed" from the Indians and returned to a sizable estate. Tired of the care needed to maintain such a style of life, he had turned it over to his younger brother and, taking only a rifle and a matchcoat, "took his way again to the Wilderness." Franklin used this story to illustrate his point that "No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies." Such societies, wrote Franklin, provided their members with greater opportunities for happiness than European cultures. Continuing, he said:

The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and fashionable Wants, the sight of so many Rich wallowing in superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distress'd for Want, the Insolence of Office . . . the restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them with what we call civil Society.

With so many white people willingly becoming associated with Indian societies, it was not difficult for thoughts and customs practiced behind the frontier to leak back into the colonies. . . .

          During the decade after the Stamp Act, Franklin's writings developed into an argument for American distinctiveness, a sense of nationhood in a new land, a sense that an entirely new age was dawning for the Americans who traced their roots to Europe. The new nation would not be European, but American -- combining both heritages to make a specifically different culture. Franklin and his contemporaries, among whom one of the most articulate was Jefferson, were setting out to invent a nation. Before they could have a nation, however, they had to break with Britain, an act that called for an intellectual backdrop for rebellion, and a rationale for revolution.

  1. See: Peter Gay, "Enlightenment Thought and the American Revolution," in John R. Howe, Jr., ed., The Role of Ideology in the American Revolution (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 48.

From CHAPTER SIX Self-Evident Truths:

          . . . "There appeared to me to be more respect and veneration attached to the character of Doctor Franklin than to any other person in the same country, foreign or native. . . . When he left Passy, it seemed as if the village had lost its patriarch," Jefferson recalled. Having admired Franklin so, it was not surprising that where Franklin laid down an intellectual thread, Jefferson often picked it up. Jefferson's writings clearly show that he shared Franklin's respect for Indian thought. Both men represented the Enlightenment frame of mind of which the American Indians seemed a practical example. Both knew firsthand the Indian way of life. Both shared with the Indian the wild, rich land out of which the Indian had grown. It was impossible that that experience should not have become woven into the debates and philosophical musings that gave the nation's founding instruments their distinctive character. In so far as the nation still bears these marks of its birth, we are all "Indians" -- if not in our blood, then in the thinking that to this day shapes many of our political and social assumptions. Jefferson's declaration expressed many of these ideas:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That, when any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.

The newly united colonies had assumed "among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature's God entitle them," Jefferson wrote. The declaration was being made, he said, because "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

           There were few ideas in the declaration (outside of the long list of wrongs committed by the Crown) that did not owe more than a little to Franklin's and Jefferson's views of American Indian societies. In drawing sanction for independence from the laws of nature, Jefferson was also drawing from the peoples beyond the frontiers of the new nation who lived in what late eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers believed to be a state of nature. The "pursuit of happiness" and the "consent of the governed" were exemplified in Indian polities to which Jefferson (like Franklin) often referred in his writings. The Indian in Jefferson's mind (as in Franklin's) served as a metaphor for liberty.

          Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington January 16, 1787:

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro' the public papers, and to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, our very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. . . . I am convinced that those societies [as the Indians] which live without government enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.

          Echoing Franklin's earlier comment, Jefferson looked across the frontier and found societies where social cohesion was provided by consensus instead of by the governmental apparatus used to maintain control in Europe. Among the Indians, wrote Jefferson, "Public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as laws ever did anywhere." The contrast to Europe was obvious: "Under presence of governing, they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves and sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe." Returning to America, Jefferson concluded: "Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention." To Jefferson, public opinion among the Indians was an important reason for their lack of oppressive government, as well as the egalitarian distribution of property on which Franklin had earlier remarked. Jefferson believed that without the people looking over the shoulder of their leaders, "You and I, the Congress, judges and governors shall all become wolves." The "general prey of the rich on the poor" could be prevented by a vigilant public.

          Jefferson believed that freedom to exercise restraint on their leaders, and an egalitarian distribution of property secured for Indians in general a greater degree of happiness than that to be found among the superintended sheep at the bottom of European class structures. Jefferson thought a great deal of "happiness," a word which in the eighteenth century carried connotations of a sense of personal and societal security and well-being that it has since lost. Jefferson thought enough of happiness to make its pursuit a natural right, along with life and liberty. In so doing, he dropped "property," the third member of the natural rights trilogy generally used by followers of John Locke.

          Jefferson's writings made it evident that he, like Franklin, saw accumulation of property beyond that needed to satisfy one's natural requirements as an impediment to liberty. To place "property" in the same trilogy with life and liberty, against the backdrop of Jefferson's views regarding the social nature of property, would have been a contradiction, Jefferson composed some of his most trenchant rhetoric in opposition to the erection of a European-like aristocracy on American soil. To Jefferson, the pursuit of happiness appears to have involved neither the accumulation of property beyond basic need, nor the sheer pursuit of mirth. It meant freedom from tyranny, and from want, things not much in abundance in the Europe from which many of Jefferson's countrymen had so recently fled. Jefferson's writings often characterized Europe as a place from which to escape -- a corrupt place, where wolves consumed sheep regularly, and any uncalled for bleating by the sheep was answered with a firm blow to the head.

          Using the example of the man who left his estate to return to the simplicity of nature, carrying only his rifle and matchcoat with him, Franklin indicated that the accumulation of property brought perils as well as benefits. Franklin argued that the state's power should not be used to skew the distribution of wealth, using Indian society, where "hunting is free for all," as an exemplar:

Private property . . . is a Creature of Society, and is subject to the Calls of that Society, whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing, its contributors therefore to the public Exingencies are not to be considered a Benefit on the Public, entitling the Contributors to the Distinctions of Honor and Power, but as the Return of an Obligation previously received, or as payment for a just Debt.

"The important ends of Civil Society, and the personal Securities of Life and Liberty, these remain the same in every Member of the Society," Franklin continued. He concluded: "The poorest continues to have an equal Claim to them with the most opulent, whatever Difference Time, Chance or Industry may occasion in their Circumstances."

          Franklin used examples from Indian societies rather explicitly to illustrate his conception of property and its role in society:

All property, indeed, except the savage's temporary cabin, his bow, his matchcoat and other little Acquisitions absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the creature of public Convention. Hence, the public has the rights of regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the quantity and uses of it. All the property that is necessary to a man is his natural Right, which none may justly deprive him of, but all Property superfluous to such Purposes is the property of the Public who, by their Laws have created it and who may, by other Laws dispose of it.

          Franklin, a believer in simplicity and "happy mediocrity," thought that an overabundance of possessions inhibited freedom because social regulation was required to keep track of what belonged to whom, and to keep greed from developing into antisocial conflict. He also opposed the use of public office for private profit. If officials were to serve the people rather than exploit them, they should not be compensated for their public service, Franklin stated during debate on the Constitution. "It may be imagined by some that this is a Utopian idea, and that we can never find Men to serve in the Executive Department without paying them well for their Services. I conceive this to be a mistake," Franklin said. On August 10, 1787, also during debate on the Constitution, Franklin opposed property qualifications for election to Congress. So fervent was his opposition to the use of public office for private gain that Franklin wrote in a codacil to his will, "In a democratical state there ought to be no offices of profit." . . .

          In Franklin's mind, there appeared to be no contradiction between orderly expansion of settlement and support of Indian needs for a homeland and sustenance. Looking westward into what he believed to be a boundless forest, Franklin assumed that the Indians would always have land enough to live as they wished. He thought that the continent was so vast that Europeans would not settle the breadth of it for a thousand years. Although both were scientists, technological innovators and politicians, neither Franklin nor Jefferson saw the technological changes or the increase in European immigration that would sweep across the continent in less than a century.

          While he didn't forsee the speed of expansion, Franklin was troubled by the greed that he did see emerging in America, a huge and rich table laden with riches, seemingly for the taking. "A rich rogue is like a fat hog, who never does good 'til he's dead as a log," he wrote in Poor Richard for 1733. In the same edition, he also wrote: "The poor have little, beggars none; the rich too much, enough, not one."

          Like Franklin, Jefferson defined property not as a natural right, but as a civil right, bestowed by society and removable by it. To Jefferson and Franklin natural rights were endowed (as the declaration put it) by the Creator, not by kings or queens or legislators or governors. Civil rights were decreed or legislated. As Jefferson wrote to William Short, property is a creature of society:

While it is a moot question whether the origin of any kind of property is derived from Nature at all . . . it is considered by those who have seriously considered the subject, that no one has, of natural right, a separate property in an acre of land . . . [which] . . . is the property for the moment of him who occupies it, but when he relinquishes that occupation, the property goes with it. Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society.

          Societies that gave undue emphasis to protection of property could infringe on the peoples' rights of life, liberty, and happiness. According to Jefferson: "Whenever there is, in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so extended as to violate natural right." At the opposite end of Jefferson's intellectual spectrum stood the Indian societies of eastern North America that, in spite of minimal government that impressed Jefferson, had different laws or customs encouraging the accumulation of material wealth. Jefferson, although he retained a vague admiration for this form of "primitive communism" until late in his life, acknowledged that such a structure could not be laid atop a European, or a European-descended, society: "Indian society may be best, but it is not possible for large numbers of people."

          While some aspects of Indian society were admirable but impractical, Jefferson found many aspects of European cultures deplorable but likely to be emulated in America if the people and their leaders did not take care to resist them. Jefferson acknowledged late in his life that "a right of property is founded in our natural wants," but he remained, to his death, adamantly opposed to concentration of wealth. . . .

          Both Franklin and Jefferson believed that power provided temptations to corruption (to which European leaders had long ago succumbed) and that to keep the same thing from happening in America required mechanisms by which the people kept watch on their leaders to make sure that they remained servants, and did not yield to a natural inclination to become hammer to the popular anvil. Public opinion became central to the maintenance of liberty -- a notion contrary to European governance of their day, but very similar to the Iroquois confederacy, where the war chiefs sat in the Grand Council with the express purpose of reporting back to the people on the behavior of their leaders.

          Jefferson described the role of public opinion in American Indian society in Notes on Virginia. His description was remarkably similar to Franklin's. The native Americans, Jefferson wrote, had not

Submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power and shadow of government. The only controls are their manners, and the moral sense of right and wrong. . . . An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the cause is serious, as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns.

"Imperfect as this species of coercion may seem, crimes are very rare among them," Jefferson continued. Recapitulating Colden's remarks, as well as Franklin's, Jefferson developed his thought: "The principles of their society forbidding all compulsion, they are led by duty and to enterprise by personal influence and persuasion." Sharing with other founders of America the Enlightenment assumption that Indian societies (at least those as yet uncorrupted by Europeans) approximated a state of nature, Jefferson questioned the theory advanced by supporters of monarchy that government originated in a patriarchial, monarchial form. Having studied Indian societies, such as the Iroquois, which were matrilineal and democratic, Jefferson speculated that:

There is an error into which most of the speculators on government have fallen, and which the well-known state of society of our Indians ought, before now, to have corrected. In their hypothesis of the origin of government, they suppose it to have commenced in the patriarchial or monarchial form. Our Indians are evidently in that state of nature which has passed the association of a single family, and not yet submitted to authority of positive laws, or any acknowledged magistrate.

          Public opinion, freedom of action and expression, and the consent of the governed played an important role in Jefferson's perception of Indian societies. The guideline that Jefferson drew from the Indian example (and which he earnestly promoted in the First Amendment) allowed freedom until it violated another's rights: "Every man, with them, is perfectly free to follow his own inclinations. But if, in doing this, he violates the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the disesteem of society or, as we say, public opinion; if serious, he is tomahawked as a serious enemy." Indian leaders relied on public opinion to maintain their authority: "Their leaders influence them by their character alone; they follow, or not, as they please him whose character for wisdom or war they have the highest opinion." . . .

          Like that of the Iroquois, Jefferson's concept of popular consent allowed for impeachment of officials who offended the principles of law; also similar to the Indian conception, Jefferson spoke and wrote frequently that the least government was the best. Jefferson objected when boundaries for new states were drawn so as to make them several times larger than some of the original colonies:

This is reversing the natural order of things. A tractable people may be governed in large bodies but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their government must be less. We see into what small divisions the Indians are obliged to reduce their societies.

Jefferson's writings indicate that he did not expect, nor encourage, Americans to be tractable people. Least of all did he expect them to submit to involuntary conscription for unjustified wars. Freedom from such was the natural order of things. Franklin showed a similar inclination in Poor Richard for 1734: "If you ride a horse, sit close and tight. If you ride a man, sit easy and light."

          Franklin, Jefferson, and others in their time who combined politics and natural history intensively studied the history and prehistory of northwestern Europe as it had been before the coming of the Romans. Like the Celts and other tribal people of Germany and the British Isles who had lived, according to Jefferson, in societies that functioned much like the Indian polities he had observed in his own time: "The Anglo-Saxons had lived under customs and unwritten laws based upon the natural rights of man. . . ." The monarchy was imposed on top of this natural order, Jefferson argued. In so doing, according to Chinard, Jefferson "went much farther than any of the English political thinkers in his revindication of Saxon liberties." To Charles Sanford (The Quest for Paradise, 1961), America and its inhabitants represented to many Europeans a recapitulation of the Garden of Eden; to Henry Steele Commager, the Enlightenment mind assumed that "only man in a state of nature was happy. Man before the Fall." To English whigs, as well as to Franklin and Jefferson, government by the people was the wave of the past, as well as the future. Augmented by observation of Indian peoples who lived with a greater degree of happiness than peoples in Europe, this belief gave powerful force to the argument that the American Revolution was reclaiming rights that Americans, Englishmen, and all other peoples enjoyed by fiat of nature, as displayed by their ancestory -- American Indian and European.

          English radicals and American patriots traded these ideas freely across the Atlantic during the revolutionary years. One example of this intellectual trade was Tom Paine, who came to America at Franklin's invitation and within three years of his arrival was sitting around a council fire with the Iroquois, learning to speak their language and enjoying himself very much. Paine attended a treaty council at Easton during 1777, in order to negotiate the Iroquois' alliance, or at least neutrality, in the Revolutionary War. According to Samuel Edwards, a biographer of Paine, he was "fascinated by them." Paine quickly learned enough of the Iroquois' language so that he no longer needed to speak through an interpreter.

          It was not long before Paine, like Jefferson and Franklin, was contrasting the Indians' notions of property with those of the Europe from which he had come. Paine not only demoted property from the roster of natural rights and made of it a mere device of civil society, but also recognized benefits in the Indians' communal traditions:

To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets of Europe.

Poverty, wrote Paine 1795, "is a thing created by what is called civilization." "Civilization, or that which is so called, has operated in two ways: to make one part of society more affluent, and the other more wretched, than would ever have been the lot of either in a natural state," Paine concluded. Despite the appeal of a society without poverty, Paine believed it impossible "to go from the civilized to the natural state."

          The rationale for revolution that was formulated in Philadelphia during those humid summer days of 1776 threw down an impressive intellectual gauntlet at the feet of Europe's monarchies, especially the British Crown. Franklin, Jefferson, and the others who drafted the Declaration of Independence were saying that they were every inch the equal of the monarchs who would superintend them, and that the sheep of the world had a natural right to smite the wolves, a natural right guaranteed by nature, by the precedent of their ancestors, and by the abundant and pervasive example of America's native inhabitants. The United States' founders may have read about Greece, or the Roman Republic, the cantons of the Alps, or the reputed democracy of the tribal Celts, but in the Iroquois and other Indian confederacies they saw, with their own eyes, the self-evidence of what they regarded to be irrefutable truths.

          Wars are not won soley by eloquence and argument, however. Once he had recovered from the gout, Franklin recalled his talents at organizing militias and threw himself into the practical side of organizing an armed struggle for independence. He marshaled brigades that went house to house with appeals for pots, pans, and curtain weights, among other things, which would be melted down to provide the revolutionary army with ammunition. The colonists set to work raising a volunteer army in the Indian manner (much as Franklin had organized his Philadelphia militia almost three decades earlier), using Indian battle tactics so well suited to the forests of eastern North America. George Washington had studied guerrilla warfare during the war with France, and when the British sent soldiers over the ocean ready for set-piece wars on flat pastures manicured like billiard tables, their commanders wailed that Washington's army was just not being fair -- shooting from behind trees, dispersing and returning to civilian occupations when opportunity or need called. A British Army report to the House of Commons exclaimed, in exasperation, "The Americans won't stand and fight!"

          Having failed to adapt to a new style of war in a new land, the British never exactly lost the war, but like another world power that sent its armies across an ocean two centuries later, they decided they could not win a war without fronts, without distinction between soldiers and civilians. America would have its independence.

          Meeting in Paris to settle accounts during 1783, the diplomats who redrew the maps sliced the Iroquois Confederacy in half, throwing a piece to the United States, and another to British Canada. The heirs to some of the Great Law of Peace's most precious principles ignored the Iroquois' protestations that they, too, were sovereign nations, deserving independence and self-determination. A century of learning was coming to a close. A century and more of forgetting -- of calling history into service to rationalize conquest -- was beginning.


From the beginning of European contact with the Americas, a kind of intellectual mercantilism seemed to take shape. Like the economic mercantilism that drew raw materials from the colonies, made manufactured goods from them in Europe, and then sold the finished products back to America, European savants drew the raw material of observation and perception from America, fashioned it into theories, and exported those theories back across the Atlantic. What role, it may be asked, did these observations of America and its native inhabitants play in the evolution of Enlightenment thought in Europe? "The Indians," wrote Charles Sanford with credit to Roy Harvey Pearce, "presented a reverse image of European civilization which helped America establish a national identity which was neither savage nor civilized." How true was this also of Europe itself? During the researching of the foregoing study, the author came across shreds of evidence which, subsequently not followed because they fell outside the range of the study, indicate that European thinkers such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and others may have drawn from America and its native inhabitants observations on natural society, natural law, and natural rights, packaged them into theories, and exported them back to America, where people such as Franklin and Jefferson put them into practice in construction of their American amalgam.

          In The Quest for Paradise, Sanford drew a relation between American Indians' conception of property and that expressed by Thomas More in his Utopia. Paul A. W. Wallace also likened the Iroquois' governmental structure to that of Utopia. Work could be done that would begin with the basis laid by Sanford, Robert F. Berkhofer, and Roy Harvey Pearce, which would examine how Europeans such as Locke and other seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophers integrated observation and perception of American Indians into theories of natural rights. Michael Kraus (The Atlantic Civilization, 1949) wrote that during this period, anthropology was strongly influencing the development of political theory: "[Thomas] Hobbes and Locke, especially, show a familiarity with the social structure of the American Indians which they used to good purpose. Each of the English political scientists wrote in a period of crisis and in search of a more valid ordering of society. . . . The American Indian was believed to have found many of the answers." If such intellectual intercourse did, in fact occur, how did the Europeans get their information? How accurate was it? What other non-Indian precedents did they use in formulating their theories? How were these theories exported back to America, which, as Commager observed, acted the Enlightenment that Europe dreamed? Berkhofer quoted Locke as having written: "In the beginning, all the world was America." According to Berkhofer, Locke believed that men could live in reason and peace without European-style government; Berkhofer implied that Locke saw proof of this, as Jefferson and Franklin did, in the societies of the American Indians. Koch wrote that the English radicals of the eighteenth century were "students and advocates" of the American cause. Franklin, with his rich, firsthand knowledge of Indians and their societies, was well known in England before he began work there in the 1750s. Gillespie wrote that England had been suffused with influences from America, material as well as intellectual, as part of its rapid overseas expansion of empire. Gillespie noted Indian influences in More's Utopia and in Hobbes's Leviathan. Gillespie also found similar relationships in Locke's writings.

          In France, reports of Indian societies traveled to the home country through the writings of Jesuit missionaries, among other channels. How might such writings have influenced the conceptions of natural rights and law developed by Rousseau and others? Frank Kramer has described how some ideas were transmitted home from New France. As the Indians' societies became a point of reference for natural rights theorists in England, so did conceptions of the "Noble Savage" in France. More study needs to be done to document how these ideas, and others, made their way across the Atlantic and into the intellectual constructs of Rousseau and others who helped excite the French imagination in the years preceding the revolution of 1789.

          Carried into the nineteenth century, study could be given to whether American Indian ideas had any bearing on the large number of social and political reform movements that developed during the 1830s and 1840s in the "burned over district" of western New York. That area had been the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy a hundred years earlier, when Colden was writing his history of the Iroquois. Do the origins of the anti-slavery movement, of women's rights, and religions such as Mormonism owe anything to the Iroquois?

          Two contemporaries of Buffalo Bill, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, about the time of the Custer Battle were drawing on the Indian models to support their theories of social evolution. As had Franklin and Jefferson a century before, Marx and Engels paid particular attention to the lack of state-induced coercion and the communal role of property that operated in the Iroquois Confederacy.

          Marx read Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society, which had been published in 1877, between December 1880 and March 1881, taking at least ninety-eight pages of handwritten notes. Ancient Society was Morgan's last major work; his first book-length study had been The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). Morgan was a close friend of the Seneca Ely Parker, a high-ranking Civil War officer. Like Johnson, Weiser, Colden, and others, Morgan was an adopted Iroquois. When Marx read Morgan's Ancient Society, he and Engels were studying the important anthropologists of their time. Morgan was one of them.

          Marx's notes on Ancient Society adhere closely to the text, with little extraneous comment. What particularly intrigued Marx about the Iroquois was their democratic political organization, and how it was meshed with a communal economic system -- how, in short, economic leveling was achieved without coercion.

          During the late 1870s and early 1880s, Marx remained an insatiable reader, but a life of poverty and attendant health problems had eroded his ability to organize and synthesize what he had read. After Marx died, Engels inherited his notes and, in 1884, published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, subtitled In Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan. The book sold well; it had gone through four editions in German by 1891. Engels called the book a "bequest to Marx." He wrote that Morgan's account of the Iroquois Confederacy "substantiated the view that classless communist societies had existed among primitive peoples," and that these societies had been free of some of the evils, such as class stratification, that he associated with industrial capitalism. Jefferson had been driven by similar evils to depict Europe in metaphors of wolves and sheep, hammer and anvil.

          To Engels, Morgan's description of the Iroquois was important because "it gives us the opportunity of studying the organization of a society which, as yet, knows no state." Jefferson had also been interested in the Iroquois' ability to maintain social consensus without a large state apparatus, as had Franklin. Engels described the Iroquoian state in much the same way that American revolutionaries had a century earlier:

Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes, or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned. . . . The household is run communistically by a number of families; the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the households -- still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. . . . There are no poor and needy. The communistic household and the gens know their responsibility toward the aged, the sick and the disabled in war. All are free and equal -- including the women.

          Concern for the depredations of human rights by state power is no less evident in our time than in the eighteenth century. American Indians, some of the earliest exemplars of those rights, today often petition the United Nations for redress of abuses committed by the United States government, whose founding declarations often ring hollow in ears so long calloused by the thundering horsehooves of Manifest Destiny and its modern equivalents. One may ask what the United Nations' declarations of human rights owe to the Iroquois and other Indian nations. Take the following excerpts from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted December 10, 1948), and place them next to the Great Law of Peace, and the statements Franklin and other American national fathers adapted from experience with American Indian nations:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1)

Every person has a right to life, liberty and security of person. (Article 3)

Everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. (Article 18)

Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and religion. (Article 19)

. . . The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments . . . (Article 21)

          Looking across the frontier, as well as across the Atlantic, looking at Indian peace as well as Indian wars, history poses many tantalizing questions. The thesis that American Indian thought played an important role in shaping the mind of European America, and of Europe itself, is bound to incite controversy, a healthy state of intellectual affairs at any time in history, our own included. The argument around which this book is centered is only one part of a broader effort not to rewrite history, but to expand it, to broaden our knowledge beyond the intellectual strait jacket of ethnocentricism that tells us that we teach, but we do not learn from, peoples and cultures markedly different from our own.

          Fortunately, there are fresh winds stirring. Dr. Jeffry Goodman has started what one reviewer called a "civil war" in archaeology. Dr. Henry Dobyns's mathematically derived estimate that 90 million Indians lived in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus has also stirred debate. There is a sense that we are only beginning to grasp the true dimensions of American history to which Europeans have been personal witness only a few short centuries. The Europeans who migrated here are still learning the history of their adopted land, and that of the peoples who flourished here (and who themselves are today rediscovering their own magnificent pasts). In a very large sense we are only now beginning to rediscover the history that has been passed down in tantalizing shreds, mostly through the oral histories of Indian nations that have survived despite the best efforts of some Euro-Americans to snuff out Indian languages, cultures, and the land base that gives all sustenance. History in its very essence is rediscovery, and we are now relearning some of the things that Benjamin Franklin and others of our ancestors had a chance to see, feel, remark at, and integrate into their view of the world.

          The United States was born during an era of Enlightenment that recognized the universality of humankind, a time in which minds and borders were opened to the new, the wondrous, and the unexpected. It was a time when the creators of a nation fused the traditions of Europe and America, appreciating things that many people are only now rediscovering -- the value of imagery and tradition shaped by oral cultures that honed memory and emphasized eloquence, that made practical realities of democratic principles that were still the substance of debate (and, to some, heresy) in Europe. In its zest for discovery, the Enlightenment mind absorbed Indian traditions and myth, and refashioned it, just as Indians adopted the ways of European man. In this sense, we are all heirs to America's rich Indian heritage.

          Like the eighteenth-century explorers who looked westward from the crests of the Appalachians, we too stand at the edge of a frontier of another kind, wondering with all the curiosity that the human mind can summon what we will find over the crest of the hill in the distance, or around the bend in the river we have yet to see for the first time. What will America teach us next?

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