Native American Political Systems
and the Evolution of Democracy:
An Annotated Bibliography
Bruce E. Johansen
Professor of Communication and
Native American Studies
University of Nebraska at Omaha
[Entries below were found after publication of Exemplar of Liberty (1991), which contains an historiography of the idea.]
Books, Scholarly and Specialty Journals
Armstrong, Virginia Irving, comp. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1971.
In this compilation of excerpts from Native American speeches (on page 12) Armstrong writes: "Thomas Jefferson is said to have studied the Constitution of the Iroquois when it came time to frame the United States Constitution. Earlier, in 1754, when Benjamin Franklin was pleading the cause of political union of the American colonies at Albany, New York, Franklin referred to the Iroquois Confederation." A quotation from Franklin's letter to his printing partner James Parker (in 1751, not 1754) follows: "It would be a strange thing if..."Baity, Elizabeth Chesley. Americans Before Columbus. New York: Viking, 1951.
On pages 141 and 142, Baity briefly discusses Iroquois governance, and adds: "The Quakers, it has been said, borrowed [the] idea of complete agreement instead of majority rule (in political decision-making)...from the Iroquois.(*) Beals, Katie and John J. Carusone. Native Americans: The Constitution of the Iroquois League. Oakland, California: United School District, 1972.
This 53-page classroom guide developed by the Oakland Unified School District presents the political philosophy of the Iroquois League and ways in which Iroquois concepts were incorporated into the Constitution of the United States by the Founders. The authors indicate that they developed this booklet to bring attention to the idea that the Iroquois helped shape United States political thought.Boyd, Julian P. "Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indian" in Ray Lokken, Jr., ed., Meet Dr. Franklin. Philadelphia: Franklin Institute, 1981.
Written in the early 1940s, Boyd's essay says that Franklin's 1754 Albany Plan "found his materials in the great confederacy of the Iroquois." (p. 239)Brandon, William. The American Heritage Book of Indians. New York: Dell, 1961.
This paperback includes an introduction by President John F. Kennedy: "....[T]he League of the Iroquois inspired Benjamin Franklin to copy it in planning the federation of States."Brandon, William. The American Heritage Book of Indians. New York: American Heritage/Simon & Schuster, 1961.
This is the coffee-table version of the previously cited paperback, with copious artwork, in a large format. It includes the John F. Kennedy assertion that Franklin used the Iroquois League as a model of American confederation (p. 7), and observations by Brandon on the appeal of liberty in the European and colonial image of American Indians. He describes the Iroquois League and its formation (pp. 175-176), and notes its use by Frederich Engels in The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Brandon also notes native American notions of liberty in the Tammany Society and the philosophy of Rousseau.(*) Chamberlin, J. E. The Harrowing of Eden: White Attitudes Toward Native Americans. A Continuum Book. New York: Seabury Press, 1975.
On page 136, Chamberlin observes that "...[I]t is generally held that the model of the great Iroquois (Six Nations) Confederacy was a significant influence on both the Albany Plan [of 1754] and the later Articles of Confederation." In a footnote (pp. 227-28), Chamberlin also notes the Iroquois influence on Marx and Engels through Lewis Henry Morgan.(*) Cohen, Felix. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1942.
On page 128, Cohen writes, regarding American Indians' ability to govern themselves: "Indeed, it may be said that the constitutional history of the Indian tribes covers a longer period and a wider range of variation than the constitutional history of the colonies, the states, and the United States. It was some time before the immigrant Columbus reached these shores, according to eminent historians, that the first federal Constitution on the American Continent was drafted, the Gayaneshagowa, or the Great Binding Law of the Five (later six) Nations (Iroquois). It was in this constitution that Americans first established the democratic principles of initiative, recall, referendum, and equal suffrage. In this constitution, also, were set forth the ideal[s] of the responsibility of governmental officials to the electorate, and the obligation of the present generation to future generations..."Cohen, Felix. "Americanizing the White Man." The American Scholar 21:2(1952), pp. 177-191.
Cohen, a leading scholar of Indian law, (and author of the Handbook of Indian Law), develops an evocative case for Native American influence on American notions of liberty and federalism. (*) This essay is reprinted in Lucy Kramer Cohen, ed., The Legal Conscience: Selected Papers of Felix Cohen. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, pp. 315-327 and in Ernest P. Earnest, The Uses of Prose. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956, pp. 370-381.(*) Eckert, Allan W. Wilderness Empire: A Narrative. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1969.
On page 624, Eckert writes: "The whites who were versed in politics at this time [the 1750s], had every reason to marvel at this [Iroquois] form of government. Knowledge of the League's success, it is believed, influenced the colonies in their own initial efforts to form a union, and later to write a Constitution."(*) Farb, Peter. Man's Rise to Civilization as Shown by the Indians of North America From Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1968.
On page 98, Farb observes that "The [Iroquois] League deeply impressed the White settlers, and some historians believe that it was one of the models on which the Constitution of the new United States was based. The League did somewhat resemble the union of the thirteen colonies in organization, but it could be more accurately compared to the United Nations." On pages 99 and 100, Farb also outlines the uses that Marx and Engels made of the Iroquois model through Lewis Henry Morgan.Grant, Bruce. American Indians Yesterday and Today. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958. [Republished in 1989 by Wings Press (Random House) as Concise Encyclopedia of the American Indian.]
Page 169, under "Iroquois," after a brief discussion of the Iroquois League's founding:" "The 'constitution' of the Iroquois was not written, but it was greatly admired by the colonists. Many claim that this confederacy served as a pattern for the Constitution in providing the sovereign rights of states."(*) Griffis, William E. Sir William Johnson and the Six Nations. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1891.
Griffis advises further study of Iroquoian influence on the formation of the United States, especially Benjamin Franklin's role.(*) Hallowell, A. Irving. "The Backwash of the Frontier: The Impact of the Indian on American Culture," in Walker Wyman and Clifton Kroeber, eds., The Frontier in Perspective. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1957.
"It has been said that information about the organization and operation of the League of the Iroquois which Franklin picked up at various Indian councils suggested to him the pattern for the United States of America." (p. 232)Hamilton, Charles. Cry of the Thunderbird: The American Indian's Own Story. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
This is a reprint of a 1950 title published by Macmillan which presents excerpts from several Native Americans on Indian life. On page 118, the author introduces a section on the Iroquois Great Law of Peace by Tuscarora chief Elias Johnson by writing: "...So effective was this wilderness democracy that Benjamin Franklin recommended that the United States model its government after the League of the Iroquois."(*) Henry, Thomas R. Wilderness Messiah: the Story of Hiawatha and the Iroquois. New York: Bonanza Books, 1955.
In this biography of Hiawatha, Henry quotes from the papers of J.N.B. Hewitt (which are housed at the Smithsonian Institution) and says that Hewitt "was firmly convinced that the League of the Iroquois was the intellectual progenitor of the United States." (p. 226)Hislop, Codman. Rivers of America: The Mohawk. New York: Rinehart & Co., 1948.
Page 47: "Their [the Iroquois'] Great Binding Law was said to have inspired Benjamin Franklin's plan for a union of the colonies. Through him and those other political philosophers who knew the Iroquois well it may even have helped shape the Constitution of the United States, in the morning of a new American confederacy."Josephy, Alvin. The Patriot Chiefs. New York: Viking, 1958.
In his chapter "The Real Hiawatha," Josephy discusses the Iroquois Great Law of Peace: "So unique a native organization, resting on high-minded principles of republicanism and democracy, eventually quickened the interest of many colonial leaders, including Benjamin Franklin, but the gap between the two races was too wide and dangerous in the eighteenth century to permit the study of the Iroquois system or its origins." (p. 9)Josephy, Alvin. The Indian Heritage of America. New York: Bantam, 1969.
Josephy returns to the theme at the end of the chapter (pp. 28-29), writing that "Throughout the eighteenth century, the republican and democratic principles that lay at the heart of the Five Nations' system of self-government had been included among the studies of the philosophers of Europe and America who were seeking a more just and humane way for men to be governed." (p. 28) The Iroquois advised the colonists to adopt a confederacy based on their model, he says, mentioning Franklin's 1754 Albany Plan, as well as Franklin's 1751 letter to his printing partner James Parker. While Josephy maintains that "it would be impossible to trace more than an indirect influence of the Iroquois League....on the United States government as it was constituted in 1789," certain practices, such as congressional conference committees, echo the debating procedures of the Iroquois Grand Council.
This is the paperback version of a 1968 title from Alfred A. Knopf, a general survey of Native cultures and histories. On page 33, Josephy cites Franklin's 1751 advice on emulating the Iroquois confederation. He concludes that Iroquois political structure influenced that of the United States from the Albany Congress of 1754 through the Constitutional Convention. Josephy points to the operations of congressional conference committees as an example.Kownslar, Allan O. Discovering American History. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1974.
This high-school history textbook pairs Benjamin Franklin's "unite or die" cartoon with an illustration of an Iroquois wampum belt, and comments: "Franklin's Albany Plan might have been inspired by the Iroquois League."(*) Kramer, Lucy. Indians Yesterday and Today. Washington, D.C.: Interior Department, 1941.
Published six months before the United States entered World War II, this was one of a series of public-information booklets distributed by the Interior Department. This booklet, which was printed at the Chilocco [Oklahoma] Agricultural School, contains a final chapter by John Collier, commissioner of Indian affairs. In page 27, at the end of a chapter on Indian contributions to American civilization, this booklet contains a comment on the idea that the Iroquois helped shape American democracy: "Some students of ethnology hold that the very form of our Federal Government was built on the pattern of [the] Iroquois confederacy. Certain it is that the constitution of the Iroquois, which had been in existence for many years before the American Revolution, presented at once a model and a challenge to the English colonies of the New World. But that is a story in itself."(*) Kleiner, Jack. "United States Law on American Indians." Case and Comment 77:4(July/August, 1972): 3-4.
Kleiner briefly describes the Iroquois political system and its similarity to the United States' structure. He also notes Iroquois symbols on the United States Great Seal, including the eagle and bundle of arrows.Moquin, Wayne, ed. Great Documents in American Indian History. New York: Praeger, 1973.
"An Appeal for Justice" (1948), by Indians of the St. Regis Reservation, Hogansburg, New York (pp. 328-329), observes that, among many contributions of Native Americans to Euro-american culture, "[We] showed them the workings, the operation of a great democracy, the Iroquois Confederacy, a system unknown in Europe or Asia." The statement argues that many Indians fought for democracy in World War II, and argues against termination of treaties. This statement was first published in The American Indian 4:3(1948).Morgan, Lewis Henry. League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois . New York: Burt Franklin, 1901.
In this edition of Morgan's classic work, editor Herbert M. Lloyd adds his annotations to two volumes. In Appendix B, page 148, Vol. 2, he writes: "In their ancient League the Iroquois presented to us the type of a Federal Republic under whose roof and around whose council-fires all peoples might dwell in peace and freedom....Our nation gathers its people from many peoples of the old world, its language and its free institutions it inherits from England, its civilization and art from Greece and Rome, its religion from Judea -- and even these red men of the forest have wrought some of the chief stones in our national temple."(*) Parker, Arthur C. "The Constitution of the Five Nations," in William N. Fenton, ed., Parker on the Iroquois. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1968.
On page 11, Parker annotates his version of the Great Law of Peace with this statement: "Here, then, we find the right of popular nomination, the right of recall and of woman suffrage flourishing in the old America of the Red Man...centuries before it became the clamor of the new America of the white invader. Who now shall call the Indians and the Iroquois savages?"Porter, C. Fayne. Our Indian Heritage: Profiles of Twelve Great Leaders. New York: Chilton Books, 1964.
In its table of contents (p. ix) this book introduces Hiawatha, who "brought the Iroquois together into an early self-governing league that may have influenced the colonial Continental Congress." The chapter on Hiawatha (pp. 7-21) is titled "Father of Our Constitution?" The chapter begins with a discussion of the Founders, and asks, "What was the genesis of this revolutionary idea?" Porter surveys European antecedents (the Greeks, English, et. al.) and then presents the founding story of the Iroquois Confederacy with the preface: "Relatively few serious researchers have gone into another fascinating possibility -- that these men were equally influenced by an Indian political organization...which flowered a short distance from the revolutionists..." (p. 8). On pages 19 and 20, Porter mentions Cannassatego's advice on union during 1744 (without naming him), Franklin's letter to James Parker (1751) and Franklin's designs for the Albany Plan of Union (1754). The chapter concludes: "Perhaps it is more than coincidence that the free government of the United States was born and was nourished alongside the Federation of the Iroquois." (p. 21)(*) Reaman, G. Elmore. The Trail of the Iroquois Indians: How the Iroquois Indians Saved Canada for the British Empire. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
Reaman writes that "Socially, the Six Nations met the sociologist's test of higher cultures by giving a preferred status to women." (p. 24) He add that the Iroquois League "was a model social order in many ways superior to the white man's culture of the day....Its democratic form of government more nearly approached perfection than any that has been tried to date. It is claimed by many that the framers of the United States of America copied from these Iroquois practices in founding the government of the United States." (p. 27)(*) Speck, Paul G. The Iroquois: A Study in Cultural Evolution. Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: Cranbrook Institute of Science, Bulletin #23, October, 1945.
Speck, on page 26, finds the Iroquois "a decidedly democratic people." He quotes Clark Wissler (below) regarding the likelihood that the Iroquois example helped shape attempts at federalism by Franklin.(*) Stirling, Matthew. "America's First Settlers: the Indians." National Geographic, November, 1937.
Page 535: "The organized confederacy of the Iroquoian tribes, with a representative form of government, was a unique experiment among American Indians. There is good evidence that the League of the Iroquois strongly influenced our own democratic form of government."Tebbel, John and Keith Jennison. The American Indian Wars. New York: Bonanza Books, 1960.
At the end of its Epilogue (pp. 300-301), this book quotes from a statement by "a young Indian private first class in the American Army, printed in the New York Herald-Tribune of March 14, 1960:" "The Iroquois has [sic] contributed much to early America. Were it not for us, the United States might not be a democracy, for democracy was unknown in the European countries from which you came, but democracy was in full flourish here on this continent."Tehanetorens [Ray Fadden]. History of the Oneida Nation. Hogansburg, N.Y.: Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, n.d.
Tehanetorens [Ray Fadden] is a teacher of many younger Mohawks, and founder of the Six Nations Indian Museum at Onchiota, N.Y. In his 80s during the 1990s, he watched ideas of Iroquois democracy spread around the world in ways that he had foreseen a half century earlier. In this short book, Tehanetorens makes a case for Iroquois influence on the development of democracy that consulted sources used to build the case in scholarly circles three decades later, such as Cadwallader Colden and Felix Cohen. He quotes from Cohen's 1952 piece in The American Scholar: "Politically, there was nothing in the kingdoms and empires of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries to equal the democratic constitution of the Iroquois." For details of Cohen's argument, see Johansen, Forgotten Founders [1982, 1987].Underhill, Ruth. Red Man's America: A History of Indians in the United States, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.
This general history of Native Americans in the United States, which was reprinted in 1971, includes a description of the Iroquois Confederacy, which notes that "The Iroquois government was the most orderly north of Mexico, and some have even thought it gave suggestions to the American Constitution. (Lee, Franklin, and Jefferson were quite familiar with the League)."(*) Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938.
Van Doren notes Franklin's admiration of the Iroquois League's political system. He also suggests that Franklin's Albany Plan owes something to the Iroquois. Van Doren, on page 220, writes that Franklin found no model that suited his purposes in the Old World.Vogel, Virgil J. This Country Was Ours: A Documentary History of the American Indian. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
"Montaigne, Rousseau, and Jefferson paid tribute to the Indian capacity to organize human affairs in a libertarian manner. The Iroquois developed a system of confederated government which, according to Benjamin Franklin, served as an example for his Albany Plan of Union, and eventually for the Articles of Confederation. Felix Cohen has lashed the assumption that our democracy was born in Greece." The book (on page 298, "The Indian in Perspective,") then quotes Cohen, who wrote the landmark text on American Indian law, in his 1952 American Scholar article "Americanizing the White Man," [21:2(Spring, 1952), pp. 179-180]: "...it is out of a rich Indian democratic tradition that the distinctive political ideals of American life emerged. Universal suffrage for women as well as for men, the pattern of states within a state that we call federalism, the habit of treating chiefs as servants of the people instead of their masters, the insistence that the community must respect the diversity of men and the diversity of their dreams -- all these things were part of the American way of life before Columbus landed." The disguise of patriots as Mohawks at the Boston tea party is noted, as well as a verse from a poem by Robert P. Tristram Coffin:Wallace, Paul A. W. The White Roots of Peace. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946.
We bent down to the bob-cat's crouch,
Took color from the butternut tree,
At Saratoga, Lexington,
We fought like Indians and went free.
At the beginning of his introduction [page 3] Wallace writes that the "United Nations of the Iroquois...provided a model for, and an incentive to, the transformation of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America." He quotes Franklin's 1751 letter to his printing partner: "It would be a strange thing if Six Nations..." Wallace also draws a parallel between the Great Law and the United Nations Charter. This book was reprinted in 1980 by the Center for Adirondack Studies, and in 1994 by Clear Light Publishers, Santa Fe, NM.(*) Wallace, Paul A. W. "Cooper's Indians," in James Fenimore Cooper: A Re-appraisal. Cooperstown, N.Y.: New York State Historical Society, 1954.
On page 59, Wallace writes: "This great people [Mingos], the United Nations of the Iroquois, who called themselves Kanonsionni, 'the Longhouse,' (i.e. the United Household)...lived under an ancient constitution which they called the Great Law...whose confederacy provided Benjamin Franklin inspiration for his scheme of union." Wallace writes that Cooper misunderstood the Iroquois form of governance.Wilson, Edmund. Apologies to the Iroquois. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1960.
Wilson's interest in the Iroquois was first stirred in the 1950s by a Mohawk land-rights activist named Standing Arrow, who "told me...that Benjamin Franklin had been influenced by the example of the Iroquois Confederacy in his project for uniting the American colonies. It has always, I found, been the boast of the Iroquois that our written Constitution, with its federal authority balanced against states' rights, was derived from their unwritten one (p. 47)."Wissler, Clark. Indians of the United States: Four Centuries of Their History and Culture. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1940.
Following a brief discussion of the Iroquois League's formation and operation on page 112, Wissler, who in 1940 was curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, writes: "There is some historical evidence that knowledge of the league influenced the colonists in their first efforts to form a confederacy and later write a constitution."Zolla, Elemire. The Writer and the Shaman: A Morphology of the American Indian. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.
On page 225, Zolla describes Edmund Wilson's introduction to the Iroquois, as he researched Apologies to the Iroquois: "He discovered that the Constitution of the United States was influenced by the unwritten constitution of the Iroquois Confederation, that Benjamin Franklin had been inspired by it to unify the American colonies."
Pamphlets and Newsletters, dissertations
Akweks, Aren [Ray Fadden]. "The Formation of the Ho-de-no-saune or League of the Five Nations. St. Regis, N.Y.: Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, 1948.
This brief booklet outlines Haudenosaunee political organization and history, with the this summary statement: "Their [the Iroquois'] handiwork was found to be good; so good that those who know of it cannot help but marvel; so good that its greatest features are found in the government of today's United States. Indians of today, we deserve to feel good about the great men of our history."(*) Akweks, Aren [Ray Fadden]. The Creation. Akwesasne Mohawk Counselor Organization, 1948.
This pamphlet, which describes the Iroquois creation story of life on Turtle Island, contains a dedication to "to our friend and faithful brother, Teg-wan-dah, or Dr. W. D. McFadden of Middleport, N.Y." McFadden, "a student and authority on the culture of and the history of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee," was adopted by the Tonawanda Senecas. He added a message to the introduction of this booklet, which reads, in part: "Benjamin Franklin's Plan for Union of the Thirteen Colonies was directly inspired by the wisdom, the durability, and the inherent strength which he observed in the Constitution of the Iroquois Indians."Eastman, Charles. American Indian Magazine, 7:3(1919), pp. 145-152.
Speaking to an audience of Native American leaders, Eastman said, in part: "We Indians laid the foundation of freedom and equality long before any Europeans came and took it up, but they do not give us credit....We were [of] that character, that original American character....We must keep our heads and our hearts together, [and] keep our old characteristics that we have contributed to this country -- those contributions which have been put into the Constitution of the United States itself."Fenton, William N. "The Science of Anthropology and the Iroquois Indians." Bulletin of the New York State Archaeology Society No. 6 (March, 1956), pp. 10-14.
In this paper, which was read to the WGY Science Forum, March 2, 1955, Fenton writes that "The Six Nations of the Iroquois were very much in the minds of colonial politicians, several of whom had their first lessons in diplomacy at the fire of Indian councils. The old men of the Longhouse, as they styled their confederacy, on several occasions suggested their league as a model for the thirteen colonies. And Franklin, in advancing his Plan of Union, argued: "It would be a strange thing if Six Nations...." Part of the text of Franklin's 1751 letter to his printing partner James Parker follows.(*) Mathur, Mary E. The Iroquois in Time and Space: A Native American Nationalistic Movement. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1971.
Mathur argues that Franklin's Albany Plan more closely resembled the Iroquois model than anything that British political society had to offer at the time.McLellan, Howard. "Indian Magna Carta Writ in Wampum Belts." New York Times, June 7, 1925, n.p.
This piece, reprinted in Akwesasne Notes [New Series 1:3 & 4 (Fall, 1995), pp. 64-65], describes how Iroquois are using the contents of ancient wampum belts to deny that they should become United States citizens. The author calls the Iroquois League "a crude forerunner of the present League of Nations at Geneva."Newell, William B, ed. The Six Nations. 2:2(April, 1928), p. 7.
In the newsletter of The Society for the Propagation of Indian Welfare, Newell lists items that "History Books do Not Tell," among them "THAT the Iroquois Indians had one of the most remarkable political organizations ever formed and upon which the United States government is based." Files contain an undated article by Newell titled "Contributions of the American Indian to Modern Civilization."(*) Wallace, Paul A.W. "The Return of Hiawatha." New York History XXIX:4 (October, 1948), pp. 385-403.
This is a published version of a paper that Wallace read to the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association at Syracuse, New York, July 29, 1948. In this article, Wallace describes the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy and surveys conjecture regarding its founding date. Summarizing at the end, he asks "What value has a study of the ancient Five Nations have to us in the modern world?" He finds in the founding epic of the Haudenosaunee a story of how a group of people changed their collective behavior dealing with war and peace, and a reply to those who insisted that the new United Nations would fail because, they say, "You cannot abolish war because you cannot change human nature." Wallace says that the Iroquois example shows that "peace could be secured without wiping out nationalities and imposing...a super-state." Wallace also concludes that the Iroquois League can teach modern people how to preserve local autonomy in a larger confederation.Other Item
- An exchange of letters between Paul A.W. Wallace, professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of The White Roots of Peace, and Major H.C. Durston, Onondaga Historical Association, Syracuse, N.Y., June 4, 1945. Wallace refers to a conversation between the two men "the other day," and cites sources such as Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis Henry Morgan, et. al. in support of an assertion that the Iroquois League's model helped shape Benjamin Franklin's Albany Plan of Union. Wallace writes that the sources he has in hand contain "no hint...of any explicit connection between the Iroquois League and the Constitutional Convention."
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