That George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and James Madison learned the principles of democratic governance from members of the Six Nations of the Iroquois confederacy, formed hundreds of years before they ever stepped foot on North American soil.
Think about it – Europeans came from feudal systems mostly governed by kings and queens and high church officials. How did they suddenly know how to set up a representative democracy when they reached the New World? Was their thinking transformed on the voyage?
No—there was a model already working in the New World, the Iroquois Constitution, called The Peacemaker, which made possible consensual decision-making by otherwise warring tribes and proscribed a powerful role for the Clan Mothers.
“Centuries before the creation of the United States and its Constitution, democracy had already taken root in North America—among a handful of Indigenous nations,” writes author and journalist Tony Tekaroniake Evanson the History Channel. “Known as the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, this league of nations emerged among five northeast woodlands tribes that had been plagued by wars of retribution and violence for many generations…. Guided by the Great Law of Peace—their own constitution—this league came to jointly govern, while recognizing the sovereignty of each nation.
“The Great Law of Peace, credited largely to two visionary culture heroes, Hiawatha and Deganawida (a.k.a. “The Peacemaker”), established a model for federalism, separation of powers and participatory democracy that would inspire leaders like Benjamin Franklin and James Madison during the formation of the United States. It also conferred significant power and status to women in Iroquois culture.”
On the 200th anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution, the Senate passed Resolution 76 in 1987, saying:
“Whereas the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was explicitly modeled upon the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself,….
“Congress acknowledges the historical debt which this Republic of the United States of America owes to the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indian nations for their demonstration of enlightened, democratic principles of Government and their example of a free association of independent Indian nations….”
To help the curious learn more about the history and lives of First Peoples in the US, we’ve assembled a list of titles—both fiction and non-fiction—for several age groups that might be helpful. Click here to see what they are.
And happy Thanksgiving—however you give thanks!