By: Rob Natelson
Some schools are teaching children that the formation of the American Union, and specifically the Constitution, were influenced heavily by the pre-existing federation of the Iroquois Indians. There are many websites making the same claim.
As someone with native ancestry, I’d be glad if it were true. But it’s demonstrably false. Parents who find out that their children are being fed this misinformation should insist that it be stopped. Parents may provide school administrators with this essay for support.
The Iroquois Great Law of Peace
The Iroquois were based in New York State. They consisted initially of five groups. The Europeans and American colonists called these groups “tribes,” “cantons,” or “nations.”
The “Great Law of Peace” was the constitution of the Iroquois Confederation (pdf). It may have been adopted as early as the 12th century or as late as the 17th. In either case, it was older than the United States. In 1722, the Tuscarora people joined the confederation, thereby expanding it from five tribes to six. During the American Founding Era, the Iroquois Confederation was often referred to as the Six Nations.
The Great Law and the Iroquois Confederation were outstanding achievements, worthy of historical recognition and study. As we shall see, however, they didn’t have an appreciable influence on the American Union or on the Constitution.
Was Benjamin Franklin Influenced?
Those who assert that the Iroquois Confederation influenced the Constitution rely heavily on the career of Benjamin Franklin. They note that Franklin’s printing company reproduced a 1744 speech by an Iroquois leader urging union among the American colonies. They also point to a 1751 letter from Franklin stating that if the Iroquois could unite, the colonies could, too. They say that Franklin “referenced” the Iroquois Confederation when proposing his own “Plan of Union” at an inter-colonial convention in 1754.
In fact, however, none of those events suggest that Franklin considered the Iroquois Confederation to be a model for an American constitution. Here’s why:
First, Franklin’s print shop reproduced the 1744 “unity speech” only because it was printing a volume collecting 13 negotiations leading to Indian treaties, and the speech happened to be in the records for one of the 13. The speech occupied only 10 lines in the 450-page volume.
Franklin’s 1751 letter mentioned unity, but contained no discussion of the institutions of the Iroquois or whether the colonies might copy them.
The 1754 document apparently was not even written by Franklin, but by Thomas Hutchinson. Hutchinson played no role in the crafting of the American Constitution; he was a Tory who fled to England during the Revolution. Moreover, the document touched mostly on colonial-Indian relations, not on the Iroquois form of government.
Even if these events were reliable indices of Franklin’s personal opinions, they would tell us little about influences on the other 54 framers decades later. They would tell us still less about the views of the 1648 state convention delegates who ratified the Constitution or of the public who elected those delegates.
Advocates also enlist Thomas Jefferson, asserting that Jefferson’s father had some dealings with the natives, perhaps including the Iroquois. But there’s no evidence that those dealings involved the political structure of the Iroquois Confederation. Anyway, the younger Jefferson was in no position to impress his views upon the Constitution, because he was in France when it was written.
Advocates further cite alleged similarities between the Great Law and the Constitution. To be sure, all constitutions share some common features—but the Great Law and the U.S. Constitution share very few.
If you compare the two documents, you can see that they are products of very different cultures. The Constitution provides for general election of lawmakers, but the Great Law provides for matriarchical appointment. The Constitution imposes fixed terms on lawmakers, but in the Great Law the terms are for life or during good behavior. The Constitution is neutral among religions; the Great Law assumes a state religion. The Constitution generally treats states equally; the Great Law treats the tribes unequally. The Constitution prescribes a single oath—that of the president. The Great Law is filled with specific verbal incantations to be recited at particular times.
Reasons other than direct influence explain the few similarities. For example, both documents forbid multiple office holding. But the framers didn’t derive this idea from the Iroquois. It had been a key plank for decades in the “Radical Whig” political agenda, to which most of the American Founders subscribed.
Another alleged similarity is that both documents create bicameral legislatures. However, the Great Law structure is more nearly tri-cameral than bicameral. The Constitution’s framers copied bicameralism from the British Parliament, from the colonial legislatures, and from most state legislatures.
Still More ‘Evidence’
The History.com website is among those promoting the “Iroquois influence” line. Here’s part of what it says:
“When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 … there were no contemporary democracies in Europe from which they could draw inspiration. The most democratic forms of government that any of the convention members had personally encountered were those of Native American nations. Of particular interest was the Iroquois Confederacy …. What evidence exists that the delegates studied Native governments? Descriptions of them appear in the three-volume handbook John Adams wrote for the convention surveying different types of governments and ideas about government. … [I]t also included the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous governments ….”
This short passage is wrong on several counts:
- There were relatively democratic countries in Europe, notably cantons in the Swiss confederation. The Founders were very much aware of them.
- The convention delegates were not seeking democracies, but republics and confederations—both democratic and aristocratic.
- John Adams did not compose his three-volume work for the Constitutional Convention. Adams, who was in Europe at the time, wrote in response to a French philosopher’s criticisms of American state constitutions. Hence the title: “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America.” Two of the three volumes were published after the convention had adjourned.
- The claim that Adams “included the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous governments” in his volumes also is substantially false. Neither the Iroquois Confederacy nor any other native government were among the models Adams described.
Adams’s only reference to (unspecified) Indian governments was to observe in his preface that some were both partly aristocratic and partly democratic. He suggested more study of those governments.
What the Real Evidence Says
Three documentary compilations tell us what did, and didn’t, influence the Constitution and the American Union. One is the 34-volume “Journals of the Continental Congress.” These are the records of the First Continental Congress (1774), the Second Continental Congress (1775–1781) (which drafted the Articles of Confederation), and the Confederation Congress (1781–1789). Another compilation is Max Farrand’s “The Records of the Federal Convention.” Originally three volumes, it now consists of four volumes and a shorter supplement. It reproduces all the available notes and records of the Constitutional Convention, as well as some collateral documents.
The third compilation is the “Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution,” currently at 36 volumes. The “Documentary History” includes the records of all the states’ ratifying conventions and documents from the public debate over the Constitution during the period 1787–1791. (The famous “Federalist Papers” make up a tiny fraction of these materials.)
If the Iroquois Confederacy were a significant influence on either the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution, then these sources should reflect that influence. But they do not.
The congressional journals contain no references to political structures of the Iroquois. The Iroquois are mentioned only in the context of land titles, fishery disputes, diplomatic relationships, and the Iroquois River.
The Constitutional Convention records include substantial discussion of European governments, but nothing about the Iroquois or the Five or Six Nations—not even from Franklin.
The ratification records feature discussions of many other confederations, but not the Iroquois Confederation.
Bottom line: The Great Law is a worthy subject for study by high school and college students. Comparing how the Great Law and the Constitution balance powers would be an excellent school exercise. However, students should not be taught that the Great Law had any significant effect on the American Union or on the Constitution.