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Friday, October 2, 2009

Native American Influence on the Constitution

Today is Constitution Day. On this date we commemorate the Constitutional Convention signing this new governing document and beginning the process of making it the law of the land.

Over at my other blog American Creation, we have long debated the influences that motivated the Founding Fathers to draft the American Constitution. Everyone from John Locke to Rousseau, Montesquieu to the Holy Bible have been discussed at some length. And while these influences were undoubtedly important, to the formation of the Constitution, there is at least the possibility of a more local influence at play.

Recent scholarship on the history of the American Constitution has uncovered some interesting insights into the role that various Native American tribes may have had on the formation of the Constitution. James Mann, one of the leading writers on this topic, has stated the following with regards to this provocative Constitution/Native American connection:
So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government [from colonial Indian history] that some historians and activists have argued that the [Indians'] Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty.
And from the book, The Iroquois Constitution:
During the bi-centennial year of The Constitution of the United States, a number of books were written concerning the origin of that long-revered document. One of these, "The Genius of the People," alleged that after the many weeks of debate a committee led in part by South Carolina's John Rutledge, sat to discuss the wide range of disputations amongst the delegates...This Committee of Detail was having trouble deciding just how to formalize the many items of discussion into one document that would satisfy one and all. Rutledge proposed they model the new government they were forming into something along the lines of the Iroquois League of which he had observed in Albany. While there were many desirable, as well as undesirable, models from ancient and modern histories in Europe and what we know now as the Middle East, only the Iroquois had a system that seemed to meet most of the demands espoused by the many parties to the debates. The Genius of the People alleged that the Iroquois had a Constitution which began: "We the people, to form a union..."
Skeptics of course point out that the overwhelming majority of written material from the Founders present at the Constitutional Convention contains nothing of their debates regarding the Iroquois Indians. In addition, there are no records or written documents from the Iroquois Confederacy that could substantiate any claim as to their similarities with the government established in the Constitution. With that said, keep in mind two things: first the surviving written record of the Constitutional Convention is relatively small -- most of which is found in the writings of James Madison. The delegates agreed to keep it as such in order to protect the "legacies" of the various participants. Second, the Iroquois Confederacy was predominantly illiterate, meaning that a search for a written historical document would prove futile. However, if oral history is taken into account, some scholars of the Iroquois argue that the confederation they established has a very close resemblance to the Constitution.

Now, I am not saying that I agree with this Native American/Constitution theory. While it is quite an interesting proposal I personally believe that the evidence to support it is circumstantial at best. However, circumstantial evidence and oral history should not simply be discarded entirely. Native American involvement with the affairs of British colonials was vast to say the least. As a result, the exchange of goods, supplies and KNOWLEDGE would have been a natural occurrence.

Either way, this makes for a nice diversion from the traditional Bible-thumping, Locke-quoting, Montesquieu-loving, Eurocentric history that is almost the exclusive sources of any discussion on the origins of the U.S. Constitution.

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