The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution

Larry Holzwarth - May 5, 2022

In 1987, the United States celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. The bicentennial brought out considerable debate regarding the convention in Philadelphia which led to the document being submitted to the states for ratification. During the celebrations and debates, a decades-old theory resurfaced to considerable debate among scholars and historians. In 1988, followed by lobbying interested groups, the US Congress passed a resolution, “…to acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution”. According to the Congress, “…many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the constitution itself…” originated with the Iroquois. The resolution was immediately controversial among historians and scholars. Historians argued the evidence to support the resolution was scanty, and evidence opposing the notion far outweighed that which supported it.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 created an entirely new form of government. Wikimedia

After the interest surrounding the Constitutional bicentennial faded, the idea faded along with it, only to arise again through websites and social media. There is nothing in the form of written evidence of the Iroquois government being a subject of discussion during the convention. The convention did not keep formal minutes of their discussions and debates, though several of the delegates kept meticulous notes. James Wilson’s (Pennsylvania) personal notes mention the Iroquois form of government, but do not debate over its perceived merits. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington were certainly familiar with the Confederation, having negotiated with them. John Adams was also aware of the Iroquois system of government, which he viewed disapprovingly. Here is the debate over whether the US Constitution and the American republic owe its form of government to the Confederation of the Iroquois.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederation controlled most of upstate New York by 1650. Wikimedia

1. The Confederation of the Iroquois in the 18th century

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the New World, the Native American tribes across what became New York State and southern Canada warred with each other over hunting territories, slaves, and property. According to their oral tradition, Hiawatha, a leader of the Onondaga people, joined Dekanawidah (Peacemaker), in a mission to unite five tribes into a confederation under a single government. Five tribes formed the initial confederacy, called the Haudenosaunee (People of the Long House), named for the council house in which the sachems, representing the individual tribes, would gather to meet and debate tribal issues. Initially, the five tribes were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Mohawk lived in the easternmost region of the tribal lands, and were charged with protecting that flank. The Seneca, the largest of all the tribes of the confederacy, filled a similar role on the western flank.

In 1722, the Tuscarora, the final tribe to enter into the confederation, they were admitted after they migrated from the regions of the Carolinas to present day New York. Only the original five tribes of the confederacy sent their sachems to the Great Council, the Tuscarora were represented by the Cayuga. The number of sachems per tribe was established by the positions of the tribes and the lands controlled by each. Fifty sachems comprised the Great Council, with the greatest number allotted to the Onondaga. Despite the subsequent claims of Iroquois unity, established by the Great Council, the Iroquois did not remain unified during the period of the American Revolution. For example, the Mohawk allied with the British during the war, as did the Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca. The Oneida fought alongside the American patriots, as did many of the Tuscarora.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A lithograph of the Great Seal of the United States (observe) in which the eagle clutches 13 arrows in its talons. Wikimedia

2. The people of the Confederation considered themselves to be a chosen people

United chiefly by language, the member tribes of the Iroquois called themselves the Ongwehoneh, which translates to “real human beings”. What that implies for members of other tribes, and for the Europeans who settled in the region is in the eye of the beholder. According to oral tradition, the only record of the precolonial period, the Peacemaker explained the relationship between the five tribes (later six), symbolized by taking one arrow from each, which were bound together. The arrows represented Peace, Reason, Justice, Health, and Righteousness. This led to later claims the United States included arrows in the Great Seal based on the Iroquois imagery. In the first iteration of the Great Seal, 13 arrows appear in the talon of an eagle, representing the 13 original states. The Congressional committee which designed the seal made no mention of the Iroquois in their debates or notes.

While the confederation maintained a more or less peaceful relationship within the member tribes, they were often at war with rivals, the Huron and Wyandot of the lakes, the Shawnee and Miami of Ohio, and the Cherokee of the Carolinas and Tennessee. Canadian tribes, the Erie, Abenaki, and others, were pressured by Iroquois expansion. The Mohawk, recognized by the confederation as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door”, gained the reputation of fearsome warriors, noted for their brutality toward prisoners. During the Beaver Wars of the 17th century, Mohawk and other warriors of the Iroquois fought the Huron and other western tribes, determined to establish a monopoly on the fur trade with the Europeans. It was during the Beaver Wars that European traders first openly supplied the Iroquois with firearms, and French suppliers attempted to break the confederation by negotiating separate treaties with individual tribes.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Beaver Wars pitted the Iroquois against other Native tribes during the 17th and 18th centuries. Wikimedia

3. The Beaver Wars resulted from increasing trade between the Iroquois and the Europeans

The arrival of the Europeans in the realm of the Iroquois, then comprised of five tribes, meant war at first, followed by trading relationships. The French to the north, and the Dutch, Swedes, and British to the east of the Iroquois lands established trading posts, creating a great demand for pelts, particularly beaver pelts. In exchange for the commodity, they provided metal tools, pots and pans, cloth for blankets, knives, and in some cases, firearms for the Native leaders. Such items enhanced their prestige within their clans. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Iroquois were basically Stone Age people. Their weapons were of stone and flint; clubs, spears, arrows, and primitive knives of sharpened flint, or even oyster shells. They happily traded the seemingly endless supply of beaver to the new arrivals in exchange for the goods offered.

By the early 17th century, the beaver in their lands along the St. Lawrence and the Finger Lakes and their tributaries was depleted, and the Iroquois looked west to the Great Lakes and the Ohio country to expand their lands. The alliances between the Iroquois and the British colonies strengthened, as did those of the French and the Huron, Susquehannock, and the Abenaki. The decision to go to war with their neighbors was made by the Great Council of the Iroquois, in a consensus of the gathered sachems. The Beaver Wars led to the near extermination of some tribes, such as the Mohican. It also disrupted the fur trade, and led to the Iroquois extending their lands into the Ohio country, displacing the Shawnee, Huron, Wyandot, and Cherokee. By the early 1700s, hostilities between the Iroquois and other tribes had become traditional.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A wampum belt, used by Natives to record messages, lore, and traditions. Wikimedia

4. Iroquois government was based on the Great Law of Peace

The Great Law of Peace, which established the relationships and roles of the five (later six) tribes of the Iroquois Confederation, was not originally written. Initially, it was based on oral tradition. Later, it was recorded using symbols in wampum belts. Each of the original five tribes spoke somewhat similar languages, and used their own traditions and symbols in the recordings of their histories. As an inevitable result, several different versions of the Iroquois “constitution” exist. Within the distinct tribes, different versions of its history exist. The Onondaga, for example, has several different versions. The Oneida include one, based on oral tradition within one family, which relates to the Oneida Shenandoah consulting with Benjamin Franklin during the writing of the United States Constitution. No corroborating evidence is known to exist, but the publication of the story in 1997 generated renewed debate over Iroquois contributions to American democracy.

In 1885, Seth Newhouse, a half Mohawk and half Onondaga with the Iroquois name Dayodekane, presented a manuscript version of the Great Law of Peace to the Grand River Council. The Council was the governing body for the Six Nations of the Grand River reservation in Ontario. The council did not endorse Newhouse’s version of the law. The different versions of the Great Law of Peace, in English translations, include articles not present in others, or in differing wordings. The existence of varying records of the Great Law among the participatory tribes suggests it was regarded differently by each of those tribes, and interpreted differently as well. And it is evident that the Great Law changed over time, both in its repetitive recitations in oral traditions, and in its interpretation of the wampum belts into different native languages, and then to English.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
George Washington first encountered the Iroquois as a young surveyor in the western lands claimed by Virginia. Wikimedia

5. Colonial relations with the Iroquois revealed the structure of their confederation

The colonial governments dealt with the Iroquois during both war and peace, and included the governments of the British North American colonies, the governors of New France, and their military and civilian representatives. A great deal of transactions in colonial America failed to adequately identify who owned what. The Iroquois frequently sold or ceded land by treaty occupied by other Native tribes not members of their confederation. This included, at different times, the land between the Shenandoah River and the Ohio, sold to the colonial government of Virginia. They ceded the lands of Pennsylvania in a series of treaties, as well as those of upstate New York, most of the Ohio Country, land around the Great Lakes, and other vast tracts which they claimed to own during negotiations with colonial representatives.

Some of the lands thus transferred to British America were claimed by other tribes, driven off of them by Iroquois warriors during the Beaver Wars and other conflicts. The conflicting claims and acquisition of new lands meant extensive contact between Iroquois sachems and colonial leaders in the years leading up to the American Revolution. American leaders including Benjamin Franklin and George Washington became familiar with the Iroquois and their form of government. Franklin dealt with them as a diplomat during treaty negotiations and land purchases. Washington dealt with them as a surveyor, and later as a soldier and enemy. Both came to understand the power of the Iroquois Confederation and its influence on non-member tribes. Other Americans knew of them as well, including Daniel Boone, the Clark brothers George Rogers and William, and even John Adams, who studied their form of government.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Seneca chief known in American history as Cornplanter, who allied with the British during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

6. The Great Council was neither elected nor ruled by majority

None of the eventually 50 sachems who met as the Great Council to decide Iroquois affairs was elected by a vote of his peers. All of the sachems were filled by hereditary titles. Nor were any members of the tribes allowed to address the sachems at council. Messages to and from the council to individual chieftains were carried by designated war chiefs, also hereditary positions, or awarded as such through special merit, including extraordinary ability as a warrior. Only men could sit on the council. Only those men could speak before the council and take part in its deliberations. They arrived at decisions, not by a vote, adopting the policy arrived at by a majority, but through consensus. Failure to arrive at a consensus meant no action was taken by the council on the issue under consideration. Consensus meant agreement by all present.

The hereditary nature of the participants was decided along matrilineal lines. Disputes over the rightful inheritance of one of the hereditary sachems were decided by the senior women of the clans. Thus, the governing body of the Iroquois Confederation was not elected democratically. It consisted of an inherited nobility, as it were. It did not vote on issues to decide them, and had little to no checks on its power over the issues put before it. Only the sachems could raise issues for debate, the members of the individual tribes could not. Nor could any one of the sachems arbitrarily dominate the council, unless he did so through extraordinary oratory capable of swaying the members to support his views, whatever they may have been. There could be, in other words, no supreme monarch or chief with unlimited power in the Iroquois Confederation.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Alexander Spotswood used his considerable influence as governor of Virginia to arrange conferences with the Iroquois Confederation. Wikimedia

7. The land cession treaties increased colonial contact with Iroquois leaders

In the 1720s colonial governors of the British colonies along the eastern seaboard faced hostilities on all fronts. Pirates and during times of war privateers and fleets of enemy warships threatened the tiny communities huddled along the coastline. Those settlements and plantations further inland faced attacks and raids by natives on the frontier. Various native tribes, including those of the Iroquois, fought with each other, further endangering the frontier settlements. In 1721, member tribes of the Iroquois were at war with several Virginia tribes. That year Virginia governor Alexander Spotswood invited representatives from the Five Tribes to Williamsburg, Virginia. The meeting, held in October, was attended by representatives of each of the five, three of whom died during the discussions. Also attending were members of the Virginia tribes, who fell under suspicion of having murdered the Iroquois representatives.

Spotswood negotiated an agreement with the Iroquois in which the Five Tribes recognized the Potomac River as the boundary between their lands and those rightfully occupied by the Virginia tribes. Thus, an English governor negotiated a treaty of peace between the Indians. He also extracted a promise that the corresponding tribes would not cross the boundary without the consent of the governor of Virginia, or his designated representative. Spotswood came away from the meetings with an understanding of the power of the Iroquois Confederation, and its ability to affect future relations between British North America and the Natives. Spotswood called for a meeting with the Iroquois sachems and the governors of the colonies of Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland, to be held near Albany in the late summer of 1722. The Albany Conference became the largest between Natives and the British to that time.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A 1759 portrait of Benjamin Franklin, who advocated a similar confederation of colonial governments in British North America. Wikimedia

8. The British recognition of Iroquois power led to the Treaty of Albany in 1722

Alexander Spotswood recognized the growing threat to Britain from France in the early 18th century. He also recognized the power of the Iroquois Confederation, both militarily speaking and in its unified form of governance. To Spotswood, the lands occupied by the Iroquois presented a natural defensive border between French Canada and their Native allies and the British colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, which then stretched to the Ohio River. The Virginia governor recognized the Iroquois possessed something the British colonies did not, unity of purpose among five seemingly separate entities. The Albany Conference brought together, for the first time, four British colonies unilaterally seeking one shared goal, a peace treaty with the Five Tribes, mutually beneficial to all. In doing so it recognized the power of the Five Tribes to negotiate and reach a decision as one.

That ability of the Iroquois was not lost on several Americans in the ensuing decades, including one man who later had the opportunity to deal with the Iroquois, Benjamin Franklin. It was the ability of the five separate nations to operate as one which impressed Franklin, not the notions of individual liberty or democratic government. The 1722 Treaty of Albany, ratified and signed by the Great Council’s representatives as well as the four colonies involved, remained a facet in Franklin’s thinking for the remainder of his long life. The image of separate nations, self-governed, uniting as a more powerful whole in some matters, led to his famed drawings of a snake representing the colonies, chopped into individual pieces and thus destroyed. Franklin’s later dealings with the Iroquois also gave him an appreciation of their considerable military and diplomatic power.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Both Washington and Franklin were familiar with the Iroquois leader Canasatego before the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

9. Canasatego and the Treaty of Lancaster

The governance of the Iroquois Confederation first gained the attention of Benjamin Franklin following another conference between the then Six Tribes and representatives of the colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The conference, held in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744, was in danger of falling apart due to bickering between the colonies. According to the published accounts of the time, an Onondaga chieftain named Canasatego addressed the colonial representatives, chiding them for their lack of unity. “We have one thing further to say, and that is we heartily recommend union and a good agreement between you our brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict friendship for one another, and thereby you as well as we will become the stronger”. The conference was held during King George’s War, another of the several wars between France, Britain, the colonies, and the Native tribes.

As they had at the Albany conference over two decades earlier, the Mohawk declined to attend the Lancaster conference, an indication that Iroquois unity was not quite as strong as Canasatego claimed. There were already cracks in the confederation, which would lead to the six tribes ultimately taking opposite sides during the American Revolution. Yet his speech struck Franklin as an answer to the colonies’ difficulties with Britain following the final French and Indian War, part of the Seven Year’s War. Franklin used the imagery of unity, and commented upon it in writing and in public discourse, as the colonies moved toward self-government and independence in the latter half of the 18th century. Supporters of the Iroquois influence on the Constitution point to Canasatego’s speech as proof of their affecting the thinking of the Founders in Philadelphia.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Benjamin Franklin’s famed Join or Die drawing advocating union between the colonies for mutual protection and strength. Library of Congress

10. Franklin’s Albany Plan of 1754

In March 1751, concerned with the need for colonial unity to provide for defense against the French and their Native allies, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to one of his printing partners, James Parker. In it, he wrote, “…It would be a very strange thing, if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies…” Franklin’s backhanded comment on the Iroquois as “ignorant savages” did not diminish his enthusiasm for their form of government, and he proposed a “Grand Council” of representatives from the colonies, overseen by a governor under the authority of the British Crown. He advocated for a united colonial government, modeled on the Iroquois Confederation.

Three years later he presented it as a form of colonial government at the Albany Conference, called to address mutual colonial defense. George Washington had just surrendered a small force of Virginia militia, and full-blown war with France was imminent. The Albany Conference rejected Franklin’s plan, as did the British Board of Trade, which had initially called for the conference. Franklin’s plan remained in the back of his mind, and following the French and Indian War, he again brought it to the fore during the Second Continental Congress, as that body deliberated the new form of government to be installed after the 13 colonies became 13 independent states by the declaration in 1776. Those deliberations led to the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1777, the document by which the United States was governed for the next decade.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
John Dickinson, who had initially opposed independence, led the committee which wrote the subsequent Articles of Confederation. Library of Congress

11. The Articles of Confederation and the Iroquois Confederation

In November 1777, with the Revolutionary War well underway, the Continental Congress enacted the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union and sent it to the states for ratification. It then proceeded to use the document to guide its conduct while awaiting the states’ responses. From that time on Congress called itself the Confederation Congress, though most of the people continued to refer to it as the Continental Congress, often with expletives deemed suitable. In some ways, the new government resembled the Iroquois Confederation. There was but one governing body, the Congress itself. There was no executive, no federal departments, and no judiciary. Most of the issues internal to each state remained the business of that state. Congress needed near consensus to pass most legislation, could not enact taxes, and had no dominant leader. Its members were appointed by the states, not elected by the people.

Benjamin Franklin departed for France in December, 1776, otherwise, the similarities between the Articles and the Iroquois Confederation would possibly have been greater. By 1777 most of the Iroquois supported the British in their war against the Americans. In 1778 and 1779 devastating punitive raids led by John Sullivan and ordered by George Washington broke the power of the Iroquois across New York and Pennsylvania. Many of the six tribes fled their lands to the British-held territories around the Great Lakes, in Ontario, and west of the Ohio River. Following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, many were displaced still further. The Articles of Confederation remained in effect for a few years after the war, though its limitations as a national instrument were quickly revealed. Those areas most resembling the Iroquois law made it least effective as the basis for a national government. In 1787, delegates gathered to address the deficiencies.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A mural in the Wisconsin Supreme Court building depicts the signing of the US Constitution in 1787. Wikimedia

12. The delegates at the Constitutional Convention were not as enamored of the Iroquois Confederation

With very few exceptions, which includes George Washington, the men who gathered in Philadelphia to amend the Articles of Confederation in 1787 were educated in classics. Several spoke and read ancient Greek and Latin. They were well-versed in the history of classical antiquity, the democracies of the Greek city-states, the Roman Republic, and others. Over half of the delegates were trained lawyers, most owned considerable property, and a full three quarters had served in the Continental or Confederation Congress. Notably absent was Thomas Jefferson, then serving in France. The 55 men who took part in the convention did not all sign the resulting Constitution, just 39 did. Those who abstained did so for diverse reasons, among them the absence of a Bill of Rights. They referred to the classics, the law, the British Parliament, and even mythology during their debates.

One of their first actions was to elect George Washington to preside over the convention. He accepted, and then for the most part removed himself from formal debates. They also decided their proceedings would be conducted in secrecy. Formal minutes of discussions were not recorded, posterity was left to consider the notes taken by the framers when studying the actions of the convention. James Madison’s notes remain the most in-depth record of the convention, and they were not published until 1836, following his death that year. To enforce the secret nature of the discussions, the windows of the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, were kept shut. The delegates considered, argued, proposed, debated, and contended in sweltering heat throughout the long summer. What they produced was far removed from the Great Law of the Iroquois which governed their confederation.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
At 81, Benjamin Franklin was too frail to engage in most of the debates during the Constitutional Convention. Library of Congress

13. Benjamin Franklin had little participation in the Constitutional Convention

Benjamin Franklin is often cited as a source of the Iroquois influence in the American Constitution. He did attend the Convention, and no doubt offered sage advice when asked. But he seldom participated in the debates and discussions which shaped the document. His advocacy of a Grand Council form of government, as in the Albany Plan, was quickly dismissed when the delegates accepted the form of government in three branches, Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary. The adoption of a bicameral legislative, with an upper and lower house, further separated the Constitution from the Iroquois, which had a single deliberative body. Proportional representation in the lower house, the House of Representatives, has been linked to the Great Council. But the Constitution links representation to population, the Iroquois to hierarchy within the Confederation, based on geography. Geographic location determined the importance of a tribe to the defense of the Confederation.

Nor did the framers give consideration to hereditary positions within the government, at least no more than in passing. There is little doubt that George Washington could have assumed the role of a constitutional monarch, as in Great Britain. Titles of nobility and hereditary government positions were quickly dismissed by the delegates in Philadelphia. The closest they came to that was the establishment of two senators per state in the upper house, appointed by the states rather than elected by the people. None of the offices of the government were appointed along matrilineal lines. Nothing existed to preclude any citizen from directly addressing their representatives, senators, or even the Chief Executive on matters deemed pertinent to the citizen. Even the appointed Senators were limited to terms of six years, though they could be reappointed at the will of the individual states.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
John Rutledge of South Carolina has been said to have read from the Iroquois Constitution at the convention, but the word he allegedly read do not appear in the Great Law. Wikimedia

14. Evidence of Iroquois influence on the framers of the Constitution is scant

The records left by the framers recording the events in Philadelphia in 1787 contain very few mentions of the Iroquois Confederation, and none of substance. That does not mean they weren’t discussed by men who certainly knew of the Iroquois. It just means none of the participants considered such discussions, if any occurred, to have been of significant importance to record for posterity. Some writers who support the Iroquois influence thesis did so by citing, as a source, family oral traditions handed down by the descendants of some of the Founders. One such case concerned John Rutledge of South Carolina. According to the story, which has been repeated over and over online and in magazine and newspaper columns, Rutledge read passages from the Iroquois Great Law to his fellow delegates, including the words, “We the People”. No contemporaneous record of such an act has been found.

Rutledge was purported to have read the words, part of a passage with eerie similarities to the eventual Preamble to the Constitution, from a parchment document over two centuries old. At that time, the Five Tribes of the Iroquois had no written language, and their laws were encoded in wampum via symbols. While a translation into English could have been possible, it seems unlikely. The words read as if contemporaneous to the late 18th century, the time of the Convention, rather than the early 16th century, supposedly the era of the parchment being written. Other writers argue that Thomas Jefferson was also influenced in shaping his views by the Natives in Virginia, evidenced by his own writings in his Notes on the State of Virginia. However, Jefferson was not present at the Constitutional Convention, and his Notes indicate he urged Native Americans to assimilate into an agrarian society.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A scene of Washington presiding over the signing of the Constitution in 1787. United States Capitol

15. The Constitution’s elements and American democracy were discussed for years prior to the Revolution

The precept adopted by the Founders when they debated the form of American government in 1787 were all well known among them. Bicameral legislative bodies existed in several European governments, including in Holland, and of course in the United Kingdom, where Parliament consisted of an elected lower house, Commons, and a hereditary House of Lords. At the time of the American Revolution, elected colonial legislatures had debated laws and ordinances, including internal taxation, for decades. The idea of a body of representatives voting democratically on issues affecting those who elected them had been present in American society since the Virginia Assembly first convened in 1619. Within a few years, the New England town meeting had taken hold as a form of a democratic government there. Yet the practice persists of linking American democratic notions to those of the Iroquois Confederation.

Americans at the time of the Constitutional Convention were certainly aware of the existence of the Iroquois, though the extent of their knowledge of the Native’s practices and government varied widely. Most of the framers of the Constitution had some knowledge of their government, having met many of the Iroquois leaders prior to and after the Revolutionary War. At the time, those framers were already sitting together in a Congress, with some similarities to the Great Council of the Iroquois, at least as regards what their assemblage was intended to accomplish. Were they emulating the Iroquois and their notions of democratic government? Some continue to contend they were, and that they adopted attitudes which influenced the shaping of the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights, though concrete evidence of that as the fact remains elusive.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Mohawk war chief and political leader known to the English and Americans as Joseph Brant. Wikimedia

16. Some claim the Iroquois did possess a bicameral legislature, and an executive

In recent years, to give support to the Iroquois influence thesis, some writers have argued the Great Council of the Iroquois was a de facto bicameral legislative body. The appearance of having two houses came from the manner in which the council deliberated. According to this argument, issues before the council were first debated by the Mohawk and the Seneca. After they reached consensus, the issue appeared before the Oneida and Cayuga. If they reached consensus the issue appeared before the Onondaga, who implemented the decision across the Confederation. Unless they disagreed, in which case the issue was returned to the tribes for further deliberation. If it again cleared the process with consensus, the Onondaga implemented the decision. This process gave the Onondaga, which had the most seats on the council, the authority to veto, and the other tribes the ability to override such vetoes.

The process as described leaves questions, the most obvious being: What of the Tuscarora? They joined the Confederation in 1722. If one of the five preceding tribes, say for instance the Oneida, failed to concede with all of the others the issue remained undecided, hardly a democratic result. Nor was this feature present in the plan for a colonial Great Council proposed by Franklin in 1754 at Albany. And as noted elsewhere, the Iroquois law apportioned sachems to the council based on the perceived importance of each tribe to the confederation, rather than on population. At one time the Seneca were the largest tribe of the Confederation by population. But the Onondaga held the highest number of sachems on the council, based on hereditary right of accession. The true political power of the Iroquois Confederation lay with the matriarchs who decided who represented their tribes on the council.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
The Great Peace of the Iroquois contains religious, social, and cultural laws as well as those governing tribal and foreign relations. Wikimedia

17. The Constitution of the Iroquois Confederation is a long and complex document

The Iroquois Constitution, variably called the Great Peace, Grand Peace, Great Law, and other names covers a vast array of cultures, laws, and religions. In one translation, described as “…at best it can be reconstructed from legend and spoken history” it runs through 117 separate articles. It covers law, the relationship of the member tribes, religious observances, emigration, relationships with outsiders, the power to declare war, the process of changes to the law and other governmental issues, and even the conduct of funerals and periods of mourning. As such it is a legal document, a treaty between the Five Tribes, and a collection of religious rites. It begins with the words, “I am Dekanawidah and with the Five Nations’ Confederate Lords I plant the Tree of Great Peace.” It does not contain the words “We the People”, alleged by some to have been so quoted from it by John Rutledge.

It established the Onondaga as the keepers of the council fire, and the Mohawk “…Lords as the heads and the leaders of the Five Nations Confederacy”. In contrast, the US Constitution did not name a specific state as the supreme state, and instead went to great lengths to prevent one state from dominating the others. The Great Law of Peace also specifies no laws can be passed in the Great Council without the Mohawk Lords’ being present. It contains many other significant differences which make the Confederation less a democracy than autocracy. The autocracy comes from the power of the sachems, the hereditary nature of their positions, and the authority of the matriarchs when appointing them. It also distributes representation unequally between the tribes, and it offers no process for amendments. Lastly, it is a given law, akin to those presented to the Israelites described in the Hebrew Bible.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
A tribute to Skenandoa, also known as Shenandoah, Oneida Nation

18. The elected Pine Tree Chiefs could sit on the Great Council

The Iroquois allowed for the election of so-called Pine Tree Chiefs to be elected to sit at the Great Council. These were men who had distinguished themselves through their leadership, warrior skills, oratory, or abilities at diplomacy. Their positions were not hereditary, nor could they designate their own successor. If they opposed consensus during deliberations they were allowed to remain, but their arguments were no longer allowed to be presented to the council. One Pine Tree Chief, known as Skenandoa, or Shenandoah, violated Iroquois policy during the Revolutionary War. Working with a matriarch Skenandoah delivered over 250 (although several sources claim different amounts) bushels of maize to the American encampment at Valley Forge during the spring of 1778. There, he met with George Washington before returning to the Oneida lands in New York. The other five nations of the Iroquois were then allied with the British.

Some Tuscarora warriors joined with Skenandoah and his Oneida band in action against the British during the Revolutionary War. The Tuscarora had joined the original five tribes of the confederation in 1722, having migrated to the New York region from Virginia and North Carolina. Although accepted into the confederation, they were granted no seats at the Great Council. They had no sachem to speak for them, and could not send Pine Tree Chiefs to the council. Instead, the Tuscarora had to petition the Cayuga to present their grievances or issues of concern to the sachems, and accept the decisions of the council without protest. Thus the Tuscarora had no means to participate in the government of the Confederation of which they were a member, as either individuals or through tribal representation.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
American troops destroy the Iroquois settlement of Newtown during the Sullivan Expedition in 1779. Wikimedia

19. Life in the Iroquois Confederation varied among the tribes

The Iroquois people of central and upstate New York lived in towns, consisting of long houses built of poles and bark. By the time of the Sullivan Expedition of the Revolutionary War, many had glass panes in their windows. When a man married, he left his family and moved into the home of his wife’s family. Many of the long houses held several extended families or clans. The head of the family, and seat of power within the clans, was the matriarch. The daily lives of men and women were defined to some extent by the Great Law. Men hunted, fished, trapped, conducted raids on enemies, acted as couriers between towns, and debated issues. Women cared for the home, raised the children, planted and harvested the crops, cooked the food. Women also made the final decisions over legal matters such as land use and divisions of property. Only women owned land.

Men made the legal decisions regarding treaties, trade agreements, and whether or not to go to war. Within the tribes, internal decisions affecting only their settlements were made by their chiefs, who were selected by the clan matriarch. Thus the Iroquois was more of a union of allied nations than an operating democracy. None of the five, and eventually six, tribes elected their chiefs except under special circumstances, and even they required the approval of the matriarch. Among the tribes, the Mohawk were the most prone to war, with their Algonquian neighbors as well as the European settlers during the colonial period. Individual tribes could go to war without the approval of the Great Council, and frequently did.

The Truth Behind Whether a Native American Government Inspired the US Constitution
Though dismissed by most scholars, the notion of Iroquois influence on the Constitution is unlikely to go away. Wikimedia

20. Did the Iroquois Confederation influence the Founders when they created the Constitution?

There are some scholars and historians who believe without question the Iroquois Confederation served as the basis of deliberation which led to the US Constitution. However, the notes and subsequent writings of the delegates who were there do not support the contention. There is no doubt several of the framers, especially those from New York and Pennsylvania, as well as George Washington and John Adams, were aware of the Iroquois form of government. Subsequent anecdotal evidence, such as the story of John Rutledge reading from the Iroquois Great Law to the delegates is proved false. The words Rutledge is said to have read, which formed the basis of the Preamble to the Constitution, do not appear in the Iroquois Constitution. No other delegate recorded Rutledge’s reading Iroquois law to the delegates. Native governments may have been discussed, but there is little evidence to support serious consideration.

Moreover, the Iroquois system was and is based on hereditary positions, a system which the delegates in Philadelphia deliberately strove to avoid. They had, after all, just fought a long and bloody war to free themselves of such a government. The Founders created a system which operated under majority rule, with safeguards to protect the rights of the minority. They rejected the idea of a consensus democracy as practiced by the Iroquois (and which is the basis of government in Switzerland, Austria, and other western nations today). In 2014 Politifact considered the issue of Iroquois influence on the Constitution of the United States and found it to be “mostly false”. They noted, “…Major elements of the Iroquois system are altogether absent in the US government…” and further observed the precedents of European governments were more influential. Nonetheless, those convinced of Iroquois influence are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Great Seal”. Article, National Museum of American Diplomacy. Online

“Beaver Wars”. Article, Ohio History Central. Online

“Iroquois Wars”. Zach Parrott, Tabitha Marshall, The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 7, 2006

“Franklin Listens When I Speak: Tellings of the Friendship Between Benjamin Franklin and Skenandoah, An Oneida Chief”. Paula Underwood. 1996

“Seth Newhouse’s Traditional History and Constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy”. William N. Fenton, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. May 16, 1949

“Key Treaties Defining the Boundaries Separating English and Native American Territories in Virginia”. Article, Virginia Places. Online

“Alexander Spotswood, (1676-1740)”. Article, Encyclopedia Virginia. Online

“One of the Most Important American Documents You’ve Never Heard Of “. Nicole Eustace, Literary Hub. April 29, 2021. Online

“Canasatego Forgotten Founding Father”. Article, Book of Mormon Evidence. August 18, 2020. Online

“The Great Indian Treaty of 1744”. Article, Uncharted Lancaster. September 3, 2018. Online

“From Benjamin Franklin to James Parker, 20 March 1751”. Benjamin Franklin. Online

“Albany Plan of Union, 1754”. Article, Office of the Historian, US Department of State. Online

“Articles of Confederation (1777)”. Article, Milestone Documents, National Archives. Online

“Meet the Framers of the Constitution”. Biographical index, National Archives. Online

“1787: Madison’s Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention”. James Madison, National Archives. Online

“Constitutional Convention”. Article, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Online

“Notes on the State of Virginia”. Thomas Jefferson. 1785

“What is the Great Law of Peace”. Article, Law Information, Bartley Law Office. Online

“Viral meme says ‘Constitution owes its notion of democracy to the Iroquois'”. Louis Jacobson, Politifact. December 2, 2014. Online