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The Oldest Constitution?

May 2024
1min read

In your special issue on the Constitution, something is missing: the intellectual debt of our Founders to societies maintained by the Native Americans the colonists “discovered.”

While European influence on our revolutionary character and institutions was great, there were other threads in our intellectual tapestry. The colonists lived on small “islands” of settlement in a sea of native peoples, many of whom governed themselves through confederacies. The best known to our Founders was the Iroquois League, largely because its constitution, or Great Law of Peace, was preserved on wampum (a form of written communication) and is today available in English. The other major Indian nations that bordered the colonies also used a confederate model with internal mechanisms that struck the colonials as distinctly democratic.

The writings of Benjamin Franklin are the best illustration of native influence. Thomas Jefferson remarked on it often, as well. Other figures in our history as far back in time as Roger Williams made of the Indian an exemplar of the liberty they so cherished. The literature contains too much of this sentiment for us to be able to dismiss it as latter-day oversentimentalizing of the image of the Indian.

Franklin gained his first diplomatic experience in the early 1750s as a colonial representative to the Iroquois, and used the example of the Iroquois League to recommend the first attempt at colonial union in Albany (1754). Franklin’s draft of the Articles of Confederation also borrowed liberally from the Iroquois as well as from ancient European models. He used what he studied and what he saw in his own work along the frontier.

Like Franklin, Thomas Paine knew that European civilization could not be made over in the native image, but the image of what Indian societies represented to them was a constant reminder of what they rebelled against. The “Mohawks” who dumped tea in Boston Harbor picked their disguise with great care, as part of their symbolic act.

Even in the midst of near anarchy produced by the Articles of Confederation, Jefferson was warning of the perils of too much government, using the Indian image as an example. In a letter to Edward Carrington (1787), he wrote: “I am convinced that those societies as the Indians … enjoy in their general mass an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under European governments.”

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