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Colonial characterizations of
native liberty

Every king hath his council, and that consists of all the
old and wise men of his nation. . . . [N]othing is under-
taken, be it war, peace, the selling of land or traffick,
without advising with them; and which is more, with the
young men also. . . . The kings . . . move by the breath
of their people. It is the Indian custom to deliberate. . . .
I have never seen more natural sagacity.

               --William Penn to the
     Society of Free Traders,
     16 August 1683[1]

The founders of the United States knew more about how American Indians governed themselves than we do. The perceptions of the founders were selective, and subject to embellishment, but they had the advantage of observing native societies in their full flower. We have only their written recollections, along with surviving shreds of the native peoples' own oral histories, analysis by contemporary scholars, novelists, and movie makers who, like all of us, look at the past through filters of time and predisposition.

We do know that America's indigenous cultures had been forming, evolving, and dissolving for many thousands of years before permanent European settlements began in North America. But we do not know for how long. Modern archaeology keeps pushing back the date it finds acceptable for the beginnings of native occupancy in the Americas. A few years ago, a five-figure date was considered risky. Speculation now flirts with a quarter million years, reminding us once again that pre-history holds much yet to be discovered, and realized. Perhaps in time, the consensus of scholarship may come to agree with many Indian nations' origin stories (as well as the speculations of Thomas Jefferson) that have them originating on American soil, rather than immigrating from Asia.

Even the Puritans, most of whom envisaged the Indians as half-human children of the devil, had no qualms with borrowing native foods, building styles, and other lifeways. The fact that the Puritans had laws against "Indianizing" -- usually forsaking colonial settlements to live with native people -- meant that there must have been a sizable amount of it among them. Spanish priests argued over whether Indians had souls as the Conquistadores lived off the bounty of their civilizations. Cortez admired the splendor of the Aztecs before destroying it.

It took some time for the English and Spanish shepards of the soul to realize that America's native peoples were, indeed, fit for the "yoke of Christianity." Similarly, it took decades for secular authorities to realize that the native peoples were not simply wild men and women of the woods, that they lived in organized societies, and ordered their social, political and economic affairs. The Enlightenment matured as the English immigrants to America came to know the New World's native peoples. Without their example, concepts of "natural law" might never have evolved as they did. Certainly, the Enlightenment would have worn a very different face had America's native peoples not been discovered by Europeans.

Coming from societies based on hierarchy, early European explorers and settlers came to America seeking kings and queens and princes. What they sought they believed they had found, for a time. Quickly, they began to sense a difference: the people they were calling "kings" had few trappings that distinguished them from the people they "ruled," in most native societies. They only rarely sat at the top of a class hierarchy with the pomp of European rulers. More importantly, Indian "kings" usually did not rule. Rather, they led, by mechanisms of consensus and public opinion that Europeans often found admirable.

During the 170 years between the first enduring English settlement in North America and the American Revolution, the colonists' perceptions of their native neighbors evolved from the Puritans' devil-man, through the autonomous Noble Savage, to a belief that the native peoples lived in confederations governed by natural law so subtle, so nearly invisible, that it was widely believed to be an attractive alternative to monarchy's overbearing hand. The Europeans' perceptions of Indian societies evolved as they became more dissatisfied with the European status quo. Increasingly, the native societies came to serve the transplanted Europeans, including some of the United States' most influential founders, as a counterpoint to the European order. They found in existing native polities the values that the seminal European documents of the time celebrated in theoretical abstraction -- life, liberty, happiness, a model of government by consensus, under natural rights, with relative equality of property. The fact that native peoples in America were able to govern themselves in this was provided advocates of alternatives to monarchy with practical ammunition for a philosophy of government based on the rights of the individual, which they believed had worked, did work, and would work for them, in America.

This is not so say they sought to replicate native polities among societies in America descended from Europeans. The new Americans were too practical to believe that a society steeped in European cultural traditions could be turned on its head so swiftly and easily. They chose instead to borrow, to shape what they had with what they saw before them, to create a new order that included aspects of both worlds.

This process of cultural amalgamation began nearly as soon as the first colonists landed. The Pilgrims, for example, intended to begin a colony on a Platonic model, sowing common land, but abandoned the experiment after their first winter, which only a third of them survived. Instead, the Pilgrims, who had established their first settlement in an abandoned native town, adopted the native form of land ownership, alloting property to families. According to Professor Bruce A. Burton, this model of land ownership had no predecent in feudal Europe, and was adopted by the Pilgrims with one major change: under native auspicies, land was allocated in the female line. The Pilgrims followed their own male-centered family system. Irregardless of its sexual politics, the system of land tenure that the Pilgrims adopted also helped shape their governmental system, according to Burton. He asserts that the first "town meetings" in New England also were a combination of native American and European traditions.[2]

The colonists' lives were pervaded by contact with native peoples to a degree that we, in the late twentieth century, may find difficult to comprehend (see figure 1). Especially in its early years, colonization was limited to a few isolated pockets of land, widely dispersed, on a thin ribbon along the Eastern Seaboard. In the mid-eighteenth century, the frontier ran from a few miles west of Boston, through Albany, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, or roughly to the western edge of today's Eastern urban areas. The new Americans looked inland across a continent they already knew to be many times the size of England, France and Holland, combined. They did not know with any certainty just how far their new homeland extended. Maps of the time did not comprehend accurately the distances between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A few Spanish and French trappers and explorers had left their footprints in this vast expanse of land, but at that time at least 90 per cent of North America was still the homeland of many hundreds of native peoples.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Early colonists often observed native societies.By John Kahionhes Fadden.

The people of that time were conditioned by their perceptions of time and space, just as we are. In a time when the fastest method of communication and transportation was by wind-powered sail, it took six weeks for King George III to learn that the thirteen newly united colonies had posted a Declaration of Independence. Overland, on a fresh horse traveling the trails laid by the Indians, a person could cover as much ground in a day as a late-twentieth century automobile covers in twenty minutes, or a jet aircraft in three minutes. In our day news travels around the world in seconds. Two centuries ago, the most vital of news traveled at the speed of wind-driven sail, or a rider atop a horse.

While hostile encounters between European immigrants and native peoples cost uncounted lives during those 170 years of initial settlement, day-to-day life was usually peaceful. History, like the daily news, tends to accentuate or telescope conflict, so we are left with a record that overstates the role war played in history. In fact, on a daily basis, the immigrants and native peoples traded, socialized, and concluded treaties more often than they went to war. Enlightenment eyes looked westward with a degree of curiosity, respect, and even awe, drinking in the ways of peoples who knew America better than they. In the written perceptions of the immigrants, there is a pervasive sense that the native peoples held the keys to ways of ordering society that European man was only beginning to understand.

From the start of the 17th century, the historical record begins to provide hints of the existence and power of a Native American confederacies in northeastern North America. Early English, French and Dutch accounts viewed as a whole give us a clear indication that the Iroquois and surrounding American Indian Nations had a governmental structure and an alliance system.

In 1612, John Smith of Virginia visited the Susquehannocks in the northern regions of the Chesapeake Bay. There, he encountered the use of wampum and he found hints of the existence of the Iroquois confederacy. During the course of their meeting, the Susquehannocks implored Smith to defend them against the "Atquanahucke, Massawomecke and other people [that] inhabit the river of Cannida." The Susquehannocks draped "a chaine of white beads (waighing at least 6 or 7 pound) about" Smith's neck while reciting an "oration of love." The Susquehannocks noted that these Indians who inhabited the river of Canada (St. Lawrence River) "have their hatchets . . . by trade" from the French. It was also noted that the Susquehannocks knew little of "the territories of Powhatan then his name, and he has little of them."[3]

By the end of the seventeenth century, English accounts of the Iroquois described their imagery in this manner.

[W]e all live under that pleasant Tree of Love, which extends unto all the brethren, and overshadows us all, and preserves us from that scorching heat of strife and Enmity. [4]

Along the length of the Atlantic Seaboard, a sense developed among some colonists very early that the American Indians lived in a series of confederacies. Alexander Whitaker, called the "Cambridge Apostle to Virginia," described the people of the Powhatan Confederacy near Jamestown the decade after initial settlement:

There is civil government among them which they strictly observe, and show thereby that the Law of Nature dwelleth in them. For they have a rude kind of commonwealth, and rough government; wherein they both honor and obey their kings, parents, and governors, both greater and less; they observe the limits on their own possessions, and encroach not on their neighbors' dwellings. Murder is a capital crime scarce heard of amongst them. Adultry is most severely punished. [5]

French accounts of the Iroquois confederacy in the 1640s begin to reveal a more elaborate description of the League of the Iroquois. A Jesuit relation in 1647 termed the Iroquois as "five nations." The account also notes that they "held a council [at Onondaga] . . . to commence negotiations for peace." Indeed, the account notes that once negotiations for peace began "there was nothing but holding of councils." Finally, it was reported that an ambassador to the Iroquois was "loaded with seven great Percelain collars each of which consisted of three or four thousand beads (these are pearls and, as it were, the diamonds of the country). These collars were new presents from the [Onondagas] to strengthen the peace."[6]

The French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, appears to have implied the existence of the Iroquois League at the start of the seventeenth century,[7] In 1654, Peter Espirit Radisson implied the unity of the Iroquois when he stated: "great distance . . . causes a difference in their speech, [but] they understand one another,"[8] Also By 1654, the Jesuits reported a Mohawk chief's description of the structure and antiquity of the Iroquois League. The chief emphatically stated that "the five Iroquois Nations, compose but one cabin; we maintain but one fire; and we have from time immemorial [de tout temps], dwelt under one and the same roof." The Jesuit chronicler added in comment "In fact, from the earliest times [de tout temps] these five Iroquois Nations have been called . . . `the completed cabin' as if to express that they constituted but one family."[9]

Several decades later, as the Jesuits got to know the Iroquois better, Father Millett was given the "ancient name" of one of the "first founders of the Iroquois republic," one who had been a "member of the Council, and was regarded from all antiquity [de tout anciennete] as having been one of the mainstays of the nation."[10]

By 1667, the Jesuits gave us an even more accurate account of the Iroquois confederacy's nature. They described Grand Council meetings at Onnontae [Onondaga], this way: "[at] the center of all the Iroquois Nations," a "States-general . . . is held, [every year] to settle the differences that may have arisen among them in the course of the year." The account noted that "Their policy is very wise . . . since their preservation depends upon their union, and since it is hardly possible that among young people --there should not happen some event capable of causing a rupture, and disuniting their minds, --for these reasons, they hold every year a general assembly." and there all the "Deputies from the different Nations are present" in order to "make their complaints and receive the necessary satisfaction in mutual gifts." The Jesuit account assures us that by this means "they maintain a good understanding of one another."[11]

Through the seventeenth century, observers sometimes called native leaders "kings," then tended to contradict themselves by observing that leaders in native confederacies did not rule by fiat and cherished peace. Even before coming to America, William Penn wrote a letter to the Iroquois reinforcing Quaker and Iroquois ideas of "peace and justice that we may live friendly together as becomes the workmanship of the great God."[12]

In 1683, William Penn commented in his letter to the "Society of Free Traders" on the Indians he knew:

Every king hath his council, and that consists of all the old and wise men of his nation . . . nothing is undertaken, be it war, peace, the selling of land or traffick, without advising with them; and which is more, with the young men also. . . . The kings . . . move by the breath of their people. . . . It is the Indian custom to deliberate. . . . I have never seen more natural sagacity.

Penn described the native confederacies of Eastern America as political societies with sachemships inherited through the female side. In addition to the above description of tribal councils, Penn briefly described some aspects of the Iroquois Condolence Council. He noted that when someone kills a "woman they pay double "[the wampum] since "she breeds children which men cannot."[13] While in Pennsylvania, Penn "made himself endeared to the Indians" and he "walked with, them, sat with them on the ground, and ate . . . their roasted acorns and homony."[14] After almost twenty of experience with native confederacies in America, Penn formulated in February of 1697 a "Plan for the Union of the Colonies of America." Penn stated that the plan "may be usefull to . . . one anothers peace and safety with universall concurrence."[15]

Penn's was a remarkable proposal for union which proposed that each colony send two delegates to a central place to discuss commerce and defense, the document could have been a product of Penn's interactions with the Iroquois and other Indians. Certainly, we see a reflection of Penn's work a half century later in the Albany Plan of Union of 1754, proposed by another noted Pennsylvanian, Benjamin Franklin. There is little doubt that Franklin was influenced by American Indian confederacies, a theme developed in a chapter following, "The White Roots Reach Albany."

Dutch accounts in the 1620s give some vague insights into the nature of the Iroquois League. In the "Historisch Verhael" by Nicolaes Van Wassenaer (1624-1630), the Iroquois war chiefs are described in this manner:

They live almost all equally free. In each village, indeed, is found a person who is somewhat above the others and commands absolutely when there is war and when they are gathered from all the villages to go to war. But the fight once ended, his authority ceases. [16]

Van Wassanaer perhaps unwittingly uses some of the imagery of the Iroquois in describing how they defend themselves.

On further inquiry it is found that they have a chief in time of war, named a Sacjama [sachem], but above him is a greater Sacjama (pointing to Heaven) who rules the sun and the moon, when they wage war against each other, they fortify their tribe or nation with pallisades, serving them for a fort, and rally out the one against the other. They have a tree in the centre, on which they place sentinels to observe the enemy and discharge arrows. [17]

Van Wassanaer may have had the antiquity of the Iroquois League in mind when he stated:

there is something that is in repute among them. What they have is transmitted to them by tradition, from ancestor to ancestor. They say that mention was made to their forefathers many thousands of moons ago, of good and evil spirits, to whose honor, it is supposed they burn fires or sacrifices. [18]

The first specific reference to the Iroquois League, per se, occured in 1635 in a Dutch account entitled The Journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert. Van den Bogaert wrote of the "Kanosoni" or the "extended House" while visiting the Oneidas (see figure 2). The Dutchman also gives us good descriptions of the fabric of Iroquois life including the use of wampum, social life, town construction and customs.[19] Another Dutch account in 1650 mentioned the use of "wampum" as a form of money.[20]

Figure 2
Figure 2. John Bartram's diagram of an Iroquois longhouse and the town of Oswego. From John Bartram, Travels in Pensilvania and Canada (London: Whiston and White, 1751).

Throughout the seventeenth century, knowledge of the imagery and ideas of the Iroquois Confederacy became more detailed and prevalent in English, French, Dutch and Swedish accounts.[21] With the development of this information about the Iroquois and other Eastern Indians, a critique of European systems of government evolved. Europeans now had a working alternative to their autocratic governmental structures. Democratic republics did not exist in just fragmentary accounts of the ancient Greeks but also in extensive accounts of the manners of American Indians.

In An Historical and Geographical Account of Pennsilvania and West New Jersey [1698], Gabriel Thomas called Indians' political leaders "monarchs," but made clear that they did not govern at all absolutely: "Their Princes are Powerful, yet do nothing without the Concurrence of their Senate, or Councils."[22] In 1701, John Lawson produced a similar analysis in his History of Carolina. Indian "kings" take advice from "war captains and counsellors," according to Lawson, "who gather to debate issues very deliberately . . . with all the integrity imaginable, never looking toward their own interest before the Publick Good. After every man has given his Opinion, that which has the most voices, or, in summing up, is found the most reasonable, they . . . put into execution."[23]

One may argue that Thomas and Lawson were using native societies to justify England's Glorious Revolution, making the natives more English than they actually were. Such a line of reasoning points up one of the central intellectual dynamics of the period: the native societies were being used to justify notions on both sides of the Atlantic that alternatives to European monarchy were possible, feasible, and justifiable. By imbibing of these ideas, Europeans and their descendants in America made them their own. Again, the image of the native was shaped to suit the political and economic needs of those who sought alternatives to Europe's status quo. In 1698, the Onondaga Sachem, Sadeganaktie, explained the Iroquois Tree of Peace in this way:

now all of us sit under the shadow of that great Tree, which is full of Leaves, and whose roots and branches extend not only to the Places and Houses where we reside, but also to the utmost limits of our great King's dominion of this Continent of America, which Tree is now become a Tree of Welfare and Peace, and our living under it for the time to come will makes us enjoy more ease, and live with greater advantage than we have done for several years past. [24]

Thus, the English colonists drew more detailed accounts of the Iroquois League as interaction becomes more frequent and systematic.

Many such accounts were doubtless simplified and idealized, but the literature offers too many examples for a conspiracy of imaginative fabrication. These accounts illustrated the theories of Locke and other European philosophers in the flesh: among people living under natural law, sovereignty rests with the people whose leaders must use public opinion and consensus, not force, to maintain social order.

The title "king" did not fittingly describe people who led by consensus, by molding public opinion instead of coercing belief and action. The English had no other generally accepted way to describe such a leader at the time, so they often used the Indians' own words for their leaders, such as "sachem," or "sagamore."

Observations of Indian governments showed a remarkable similarity all along the Seaboard. Everywhere they looked, immigrant observers found confederacies of native nations, loosely governed by the kind of respect for individual liberty that European savants had established only in theory, or as relics of a distant European Golden Age. Indian languages, customs, and material artifacts varied widely, but their form of government, perhaps best characterized as counsellor democracy, seemed to be nearly everywhere.

Some of the most glowing reports of Indians societal harmony came from missionaries who had been dispatched into the wilderness assuming that civilized society was impossible without knowledge of the Gospel. Many a missionary returned from his errand in the wilderness carrying accounts of government without coercion, religion without churches, and charity without knowledge of Christ. An Extract from the Journals of . . . Reverend Mr. Bolzius, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in London during 1734, contained this description of Indians' governance:

Their Kings do not reign with absolute power, but give Counsel. The King proposes to the Old Men, and the Old Men to the Young men; after which it is put in Execution. . . . When a King is not fit for his office, they choose another. The wisest is their King; who doth not distinguish himself from others by Clothes. . . . If a present is made to the King, he doth not keep it, but he distributes it among all, and keeps nothing for himself. [25]

Bolzius also penned another description of the native peoples he knew: "They love equality. . . . They account laboring and working for hire to be slavery; therefore, they will not work for Gain."[26]

Without authority to command, native leaders had to become very good at persuasion. In his History of the Five Nations [1747], Cadwallader Colden attributed the Iroquois' skill at oratory to "a perfect republican government." Colden described the intense study that the Iroquois applied to the arts of oral persuasion, to acquisition of "grace and manner" before councils of their peers. According to Colden, Iroquois speakers became:

very nice in the turn of their expressions. . . . They have, it seems, a certain urbanitas, or Atticism, in their language to which the common ears are ever sensible, though only their great speakers ever attain it. [27]

Robert Rogers, a frontier soldier who studied the Indians' war tactics and later turned to writing for the press and stage, said that native children were introduced very early into "public councils," a practice which produced young adults "with a composed and manly air, inspires them to emulation, and makes them bold and enterprising."[28]

European-American observers often compared Indians' councils to public meetings in Europe, and not uncommonly found the Indians' in better order. As early as 1635, a disgusted Indian was recorded in the Relation of Maryland complaining that the members of the Virgina Assembly all talked at once. Comparing European-style assemblies to those he knew, the native informant stated: "Wee doe not so in our Match-comaco [councils]."[29]

Tench Tilghman, who served several years as George Washington's secretary during the Revolutionary War, served on diplomatic assignments among the Iroquois before and during the war. He was adopted by the Onondagas on the eve of the war, and given the Iroquois name Teahokalonde. Observing the Iroquois Grand Council at Onondaga, Tilghman remarked that the debates of the Iroquois "ought to put us civilized people to the Blush."[30] Benjamin Franklin had a similar impression:

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 scarcely a day passes without some Confusion, that makes the Speaker hoarse in calling to Order[31]

Franklin compared the way Indians listened quietly to speakers 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!"[32] Franklin wrote that many missionaries had been confused by Indians who listened to their sermons quietly, then refused to believe anything they had said.[33]

Between the time of Roger Williams and the American Revolution, native societies provided the new Americans with a living example of people doing their best to govern themselves by natural law. The essence of these ideas did not much change. What did change was the scope of their appeal, spreading from a small number of travelers, philosophers and free thinkers to large enough portions of the population to spur revolution, first in America, then in France.

A spirit of liberty suffused EuroAmericans' characterizations of native societies during the revolutionary era, as the same concept became a patriotic passion, a driving force of revolutionary rhetoric. Samuel Peters, a preacher based in Hebron, Conn., wrote characteristically in his General History of Connecticut [1781]:

[Indians] enjoy liberty complete without jealousy . . . the conscious independence of each individual warms his thoughts and guides his actions. He enters the sachemic dome with the same simple freedom that he enters the wigwam of his brother: neither dazzled at the splendor nor awed by the power of the possessor. Here is liberty in perfection! [34]

Peters related European immigrants' desire for liberty and equality directly to their observations of native societies in America:

[The colonists] discovered that they themselves were men, and entitled to the rights of that race of beings; and they proceeded upon the same maxims which they found among the Indians, viz., that mankind is by nature upon an equality in point of rank and possession; that it is incompatible for any particular descriptions of men to monopolise honours and property, to the exclusion of the rest; that it is a part despicable [sic] and unworthy of one freeman to stoop to the will and caprice of another on account of his wealth and titles, accruing not from his own, but from the heroism and virtue of his ancestors, &c., &c. [35, emphasis added]

These beliefs were so firmly planted in New England during the Revolution that, according to Peters' account, Americans would deride any English traveler who bragged about his position, wealth, or ancestors. Europeans who flaunted the "imperative mood" in local taverns should stand warned, Peters wrote. One haughty move too many, and they might be locked in the local stocks and pelted with rotten produce. "The vox populi had established these maxims in New England," Peters wrote.[36]

English observers on the eve of the American Revolution declared repeatedly that the Iroquois and other American Indians were free and scoffed at coercive authority. A decade before the revolution, the famous frontier soldier, Robert Rogers, stated to a London audience that among American Indians "every man is free . . . [and that no one] . . . has any right to deprive him of his freedom."[37] Another observer in 1772 and 1773, David Jones, wrote that American Indians believed that "God made them free -- that no man has the natural right to rule over another."[38]

To many Europeans becoming Americans, vox populi also was vox Americana. As Peters observed, many colonists looked across the frontier for working examples of the types of societies they wished to erect. This is not to say that they wanted to copy Indian societies; many writers (Franklin, Jefferson and Paine among them) were quick to point out that the Indian example could help shape the new nation, but that Europeans, with their cultural baggage, could not replicate "the primitive state." Thomas Paine attended a treaty council at Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1777, in order to negotiate the Iroquois' alliance, or at least neutrality in the revolution. According to Paine's biographer Samuel Edwards, he was "fascinated by them."[39] Paine quickly learned some of the Iroquois language. Soon, Paine was comparing native societies to Europe's in his writing. He especially admired their lack of poverty. Poverty, Paine wrote in 1795, "is a thing created by what is called civilization."[40] Despite the appeal of a society without poverty, Paine believed it impossible "to go from the civilized to the natural state."[41]

The image of the Indian as an image of liberty was everpresent, however, a beacon to generations which made much of freedom from European-style oppression. Rogers utilized the image much as Peters had, at about the same time:

The great and fundamental principles of their [Indians'] policy are, that every man is naturally free and independent; that no one . . . on earth has any right to deprive him of his freedom and independency, and that nothing can be a compensation for the loss of it. [42]

James Adair, a trader who spent several years living among the Cherokees and other native peoples along the southern frontier, also used the image of the Indians he knew as an example of liberty and equality:

The equality among the Indians, and the just rewards they always confer on merit, are the great and leading -- the only motives that warm their hearts with a strong and permanent love for their country. Governed by the plain and honest law of nature, their whole constitution breathes nothing but liberty; and where there is that equality of condition, manners, and privileges . . . as prevails in every Indian nation and through all our British colonies, there shows such a cheerfulness and warmth of courage, as cannot be described. . . . If the governed are convinced that their superiors have a real affection for them, they will esteem it in their duty and interest to serve them, and take pleasure in it. [43, emphasis added]

"Liberty, in its fullest extent, is the darling possession of the Americans," wrote one unidentified observer of the revolutionary scene, who did not make it clear whether he meant natives (the word "American" was generally reserved for them at the time), the colonists, or both. "To this, they sacrifice everything . . . their education is directed in such a manner as to cherish this disposition to the utmost. They are indulged in all manner of liberty . . . they experience nothing like command, dependence or subordination."[44]

Anthony F.C. Wallace quoted a Jesuit missionary on the Iroquois' zest for liberty: "There is nothing for which these people have a greater horror than restraint."[45] Another missionary, the Quaker Halliday Jackson, said much the same thing: "Liberty, in its fullest extent, becomes their ruling passion."[46] In another account published just after the Revolution, John Long (in Voyages and Travels of an Indian Trader, 1791), described the Iroquois' attitude toward liberty in ways that America's revolutionary patriots often described themselves:

The Iroquois laugh when you talk to them of obedience to kings; for they cannot reconcile the idea of submission with the dignity of man. Each individual is a sovereign in his own mind; and as he conceives he derives his freedom from the Great Spirit alone, he cannot be induced to acknowledge any other power. [47]

During the same year, William Bartram described his image of Indians and their societies very similarly:

The constitution or system of their police is simply natural . . . nothing more than the simple dictates of natural reason, plain to every one [which are] necessary for securing mutual happiness. . . . Every man's conscience being a sufficient conviction (the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by) . . . produces a society of peace and love, which, in effect, better maintains human happiness, than the more complicated system of modern politics, or sumatary laws, enforced by coercive means: for here, the people are all on an equality, as to the possession and enjoyments of the common necessities of life, for luxuries and superfluities they have none. [48]

Jefferson, writing to Edward Carrington in 1787, expressed a similar view of native societies:

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, our very first object should be to keep that right; and if it were left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. 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. [49]

Bartram's opinion also nearly matches that of Franklin:

The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and Fashionable Wants, the sight of so many rich wallowing in Superfluous Plenty, while so many are kept poor and distressed for Want, the Insolence of Office . . . and restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them [Indians] with what we call civil Society. [50]

The Jesuits of New France described the same attitude among Indians with which they lived in the Saint Lawrence Valley. After Le Jeune opened his first school for Indian boys in Quebec, he complained that introducing native boys to the yoke of Christianity was easier said than done. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses," he wrote to his superiors. "They are born, live and die in a liberty without restraint. They do not know what a bridle is."[51] Father Charlevoix agreed, in a less churlish tone: "These Americans are perfectly convinced that man was born free, that no power on earth has a right to infringe his liberty, and that nothing can repay him for the loss of it."[52]

How did a group of individuals so dedicated to individual liberty maintain social cohesion in societies? Adair wrote that the usual method of native government was confederation, and he described it in ways that remind one of the confederacy that was being formed by the thirteen former English colonies as his History of the American Indians was going to press:

The Indian method of government . . . in general . . . consists of a federal union for mutual safety. . . . The Indians, therefore, have no such titles, or persons as emperors, or kings, or an appellative for such, in any of their dialects. . . . They have no words to express despotic power, arbitrary kings, oppressed, or obedient subjects. . . . The power of their chiefs is an empty sound. They can only persuade or dissuade the people, either by the force of good nature and clear reasoning, or by colouring things, so as to suit the prevailing passions. It is reputed merit alone, that gives them any titles or distinctions.

Adair continued:

Every town is independent of the other. Their own friendly compact continues the union. . . . They are very deliberate in their councils, and never give an immediate answer to any message sent to them by strangers, but suffer some nights first to elapse. They reason in a very orderly manner, with much coolness and good-natured language, though they may differ widely in their opinions. [53]

While Adair wrote of Indian federations along the southern frontier, the custom of "sleeping on it" also was common among the Iroquois, and has likely passed into our own culture from them.

This seemed to be how the transference of cultural traits and beliefs often took place -- one item or idea at a time, depending on what the new Americans sought. In Robert Berkhofer's words, the mind-pictures the colonists created became "white man's Indians"[54], images shaped to the needs of the immigrants. The borrowings did not imply complete understanding of native governments, nor a desire to emulate them completely. Nevertheless, because they saw in native societies a degree of liberty they sought for themselves, the colonists who would forge a new nation drew inspiration from the native societies they observed. How did native confederacies actually govern themselves? In the next chapter, we will draw on a combination of contemporary observation and native oral history to sketch a picture of the societies which bordered the early settlements.


  1. William Penn to the Society of Free Traders, 16 August 1683, in Richard S. and Mary M. Dunn, eds., The Papers of William Penn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981-87), 2:261.

  2. Bruce A. Burton, "Squanto's Legacy: The Origin of the Town Meeting," Northeast Indian Quarterly, VI, 4 (Winter 1989), pp. 4-9.

  3. Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Complete Works of John Smith (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1986) [3 vols.], I, p. 232. See also Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Settling With the Indians: The Meeting of English and Indian Cultures in North America, 1580-1640 (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980). Kupperman asserts that "Modern descriptions of the meeting between Indians and the English colonists generally agree that the English were abruptly dismissive of Indian culture, that they were either totally disinterested or saw it as something to be shunned or even destroyed as the work of the devil. My reading . . . yielded a very different result, and one that seemed to me to make better sense of this early cross-cultural confrontation." [Ibid., p. vii.] According to Kupperman, the English immigrants to America believed that their society was "rapidly changing for the worse,:" and they often found in Native American societies examples of better ways. [Ibid., pp. vii-viii.] Paradoxically, some Englishmen could be profoundly racist toward the Indians while others were very appreciative of what they saw in native societies. Kupperman found that racism tended to diminish with the frequency and intensity of direct contact with Native Americans. According to Kupperman, those European observers who knew Native America best tended to portray Native American individuals and cultures with respect and "far from characterizing the Indians as sub-human brutes who lacked government, eyewitness writers did not have the least doubt that the Indians were organized in a civil society." [Ibid., p. 47.] Furthermore, it was recognized that these systems were complex [Ibid., p. 49.] Kupperman found in contemporary accounts that native leaders carried themselves with a degree of dignity often lacking in European rulers. James I, the first of the Stuarts, engaged in undignified behavior that undoubtedly would have seen him impeached if he had been an Iroquois sachem. Primary sources cited by Kupperman found him "crude and uncivil." He bathed hardly at all. James I drank himself into a stupor worthy of the crudest stereotype of the drunken Indian, as did many members of his court. He was an acknowledged homosexual who withdrew from the public at large. And when the public asked just to see his face, James I was reported to have retorted: "God's wounds! I will pull down my pants and they shall see my arse!" [Ibid, p. 51; see also: J. P. Kenyon, The Stuarts: A Study in English Kingship, (New York: John Wiley & Sons 1967), Chapter II, esp. pp. 50-51.] In comparison, John Smith noted that Powhatan washed his hands before and after every meal. [Kupperman, p. 51; see also: John Smith, a Map of Virginia, In Barbour, ed., Works of John Smith, II, pp. 370-71].

    Many contemporary anthropologists and historians, assume that "white" contemporary world views with their complex technological and urban oriented culture are the same values that French and British colonial Americans held. However, some like Cornelius J. Jaenan believe otherwise. He asserts that, in many respects, Early Modern European views of nature (flora and fauna) and Native American ("natural man") attitudes towards the world and the environment may have been closer to the Iroquoian and Algonkian weltanschaung than to the tenets of "modern" industrialized society, see Cornelius J. Jaenen, "Thoughts on Early Canadian Contact," in Calvin Martin, ed., The American Indian and the Problem of History (New York: Oxford, 1987), p. 55

  4. "Answers to the Propositions made by the Five Nations, July 23, 1698 by his Excellency, Earl of Bellmont, Governor of New York," Indian Boxes, Box 1, Manuscript Division, New York Public Library.

  5. H.C. Porter, The Inconsistent Savage: England and the North American Indian, 1500-1600, (London: Duckworth, 1979), p. 398.

  6. Rueben G. Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, 1896-1901), Vol. 33, pp. 117-123. Earlier hints of the existence of the Iroquois confederacy in the 1630s and 1640s can be found in Ibid., Vol. 8, pp. 115-117, Vol. 17, p. 77, Vol. 21, pp. 21 & 201, Vol. 33, pp. 65 &71.

  7. Henry P. Biggar, ed., The Works of Samuel de Champlain (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1922-1936) [6 Vols.], Vol. 6, p. 250.

  8. Pierre Esprit Radisson, Voyages of Peter Espirit Radisson (New York: Burt Franklin, 1967), p. 87.

  9. Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, Vol. 41, p. 87.

  10. Ibid., Vol. 64, p. 101.

  11. Ibid., Vol. 51, p. 237.

  12. Richard S. and Mary M. Dunn, eds., The Papers of Williamn Penn (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981-1987), II, p. 261. For an even more elaborate description of the message of peace see "William Penn to the Kings of the Indians, October 18, 1681," Ibid., II, p. 128.

  13. William Penn to the Society of Free Traders, August 16, 1683," in Richard S. and Mary M. Dunn, eds., The Papers of William Penn , II, pp. 448.

  14. John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time (Philadelphia: E. Thomas, 1857), I, p. 55.

  15. E. B. O'Callaghan, ed., New York Colonial Documents (New York: Weed and Parsons, 1854), IV, pp. 296-297.

  16. Historisch Verhael," by Nicolaes Van Wassenaer in J. Franklin Jameson, ed. Narratives of New Netherlands (New York: Scribner's, 1909), pp. 69-70.]

  17. Ibid., p. 80.

  18. Ibid., p. 68. Van Wassenaer also described the Midwinter Feast of the Iroquois on p. 69.

  19. Charles T. Gehring and William L. Starna, trans. & eds., A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635: The Journal of Harmen Meyndertz van den Bogaert, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988), p. 17 and pp. 6-21. For further descriptions of Mohawk customs, see Johannes Megapolensis, "A Journey into Mohawk and Oneida Country, 1634-1635," Collections of the New York Historical Society 2nd Series, Vol. III, pt. 1 (New York, Printed for the Society, 1857). Elisabeth Tooker in "The League of the Iroquois: Its History, Politics, and Ritual," in Bruce Trigger, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Northeast (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1978), Vol. 15, p. 418-441 completely ignores early Dutch accounts of the Iroquois and the League.

  20. See Adriaen van der Donck, "The Representation of New Netherland, 1650," in Jameson, ed., Narratives of New Netherlands, p. 301.

  21. In 1654, Governor John Claudius Rising of the Swedish colony in present-day Delaware heard a speech by the Delaware Chief, Naaman, that used Iroquois rhetoric when the Delaware chief declared "the Swedes and the Indians [are] as one body and one heart, and . . . they should be as one head." See John Curtis Clay, Annals of the Swedes of Delaware (Chicago: John Ericcson Memorial Committee, 1938), p. 45.

  22. Gabriel Thomas, An Historical Account of Pennsilvania and West New Jersey [1648], Cyrus T. Brady, ed., (Cleveland: Burrows Brothers Company, 1903), p. 54.

  23. Hugh T. Lefler, ed., John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), pp. 114, 204-205, 240, 257.

  24. "Propositions made by the Five Nations of Indians," Albany, July 20, 1698, Indian Boxes, Box 1, Manuscript Division, New York Public Library.

  25. An Extract from the Journals . . . of Reverend Mr. Bolzius, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1734), p. 22.

  26. Ibid., p. 24.

  27. Benjamin Bissell, The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1935), pp. 24-25.

  28. Robert Rogers, A Concise Account of North America [1765], (New Haven: Johnson Reprint Corp., 1966), p. 210.

  29. Francis L. Hawks, ed., Anon., A Relation of Maryland [1635], (New York: J. Sabin, 1865), pp. 38-39.

  30. Tench Tilghman, Memoir of Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman . . ., (Albany: J. Munsell, 1876), p. 86.

  31. Benjamin Franklin, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," in Chester Jorgensen and Frank L. Mott, eds., Benjamin Franklin: Representative Selections, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962), p. 515.

  32. Ibid.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Kenneth W. Cameron, ed., The Works of Samuel Peters of Hebron, Connecticut (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1967), pp. 37-38. For an interesting treatment of New World liberty in an Old World context, see William Brandon, New Worlds for Old: Reports from the New World and Their Effect on the Development of Social Thought in Europe, 1500-1800 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986). Brandon acknowledges that a spirit of liberty suffused Europe (and its American colonists) after contact with Native America. In some ways, our work builds on his, although ours concentrates mainly (but not solely) on contacts between English colonists who formed the United States and Native American confederacies in Eastern North America. Brandon's emphasis is larger, bringing in the French, and much of Latin America. "The idea of popular liberty, liberty for all -- not an element in the ancient tradition of the golden world but very much an element in the New World image -- retreated like the New World people from the Old World's deadly contact and became still more straitly identified with the `unspoiled," indeed "untouched" American Indians," Brandon writes (Ibid., p. 44). In this context, Brandon is referring to the first century of Spanish colonization. In an odd turn of interpretation, Brandon believes, however, that all the evidence of New World liberty in Old World culture during the Age of Exploration is "no proof of `influence'," because Brandon maintains that a birth is scarcely "proof of paternity" (Ibid., p. 143). In general, Brandon does not join his analysis with how the indigenous American societies operated, or the specific ways in which colonists and European philosophers imbibed of these attitudes.

  35. Cameron, Works of Samuel Peters, pp. 37-38.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Rogers, Account of North America , p. 233.

  38. David Jones, A Journal of Two Visits Made to Some Nations of Indians on the West Side of the Ohio in the Years 1772 and 1773 (New York: Arno Press, 1971), p. 73.

  39. Samuel Edwards, REBEL! A Biography of Thomas Paine (New York: Praeger, 1974), p. 49.

  40. Philip S. Foner, ed., The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: Citadel Press, 1945), I, p. 610.

  41. Ibid.

  42. Rogers, Account of North America, p. 232.

  43. James Adair, History of the American Indians [1775], cited in Samuel Cole Williams, ed., (Johnson City, Tenn.: Watauga Press, 1930), pp. 406-7.

  44. Bissell, Indian in English Literature, p. 20.

  45. Anthony F.C. Wallace, Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), p. 38.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Bissell, Indian in English Literature, pp. 20-21.

  48. William Bartram, Travels Through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, (Philadelphia, 1791), cited in Bissell, Indian in English Literature, p. 21.

  49. Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950-) 11, p. 49.

  50. Leonard W. Labaree ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950-), 17, p. 381.

  51. J. H. Kennedy, Jesuit and Savage in New France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 154.

  52. Ibid., p. 155.

  53. Adair, History of the American Indians, p. 459.

  54. For detail regarding Berkhofer's description of how the Euroamerican mind recreated Native American societies to serve its own needs, see Robert Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Knopf, 1978).

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