The motto of our nation is E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One”), and one can’t exaggerate the extent to which this motto defines America in all phases of its history. Many intellectuals, most prominent among them Locke, influenced the political ideas that gave birth to the federation of 50 states (soon to be 51, maybe 52 or even 53), a district and a few territories that make up the United States of America. When I visited the nation’s capital a few years ago and saw the dignified neo-classical architecture of the federal buildings, it seemed to me like America consciously sought to imagine itself as a continuation of ancient Rome and Greece. Being an Epicurean–and aware of fellow Epicurean Thomas Jefferson’s role in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence–I naturally felt that this way of imagining ourselves made sense. But the extent to which Native Americans influenced the idea of, and provided a model for, America since before its earliest conception is not known by many.
According to this teachinghistory.org piece, Canasatego, leader of the Onondaga nation and spokesman for the Iroquois Confederation, advised the British colonists in 1744:
“. . . We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren. Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and Authority with our Neighboring Nations. We are a Powerfull confederacy, and by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power.”
Benjamin Franklin later insinuated that if the Indians could have a federation, certainly the British colonies could do likewise. The Iroquois Confederation–the origins of which trace back to somewhere between the 12th and 15th Century–was made up of (initially five, later) six nations that shared linguistic and cultural similarities and occupied land east of Lake Ontario in what is today New York and Pennsylvania. They formed a federation of independent nations in order to secure protection from outside threats.
The Iroquois Constitution–known as the “Great Law of Peace”–provided for checks and balances in government in order to avoid too much concentration of power in one individual or group, and in order to secure individual freedoms. It also delineated processes of democratic decision-making and a “recall power” that allowed the clan mothers to remove unsatisfactory chiefs, which appears to have inspired the constitutional process of impeachment. This provided an early model for the sometimes complicated system of checks and balances that exists in the US Constitution between the federal government, the state governments and Indian Nations, as well as between the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.
The Indian laws were superior to our post-contact laws in at least one respect: women had full participation in government. The suffrage would not happen until the 1920’s.
The paper American Indian Influence on the United States Constitution and its Framers argues that Thomas Jefferson admired and sought to imitate the minimal government of the Native Americans, their love of freedom, peace, and justice, and their lack of a monarchy.
It’s not easy for a country as large as the United States, with such a complicated history, with so many constituent populations and so many competing interests, to keep it together and remain stable and peaceful. And yet, in spite of many imperfections, we have managed quite well thanks, in part, to the framers of the Constitution and their openness to non-European, aboriginal American political ideas that remain useful and practical to this day.