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The American Constitution and the Iroquois Influence Thesis Essay Sample

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The American Constitution and the Iroquois Influence Thesis Essay Sample

Abstract

The Iroquois influence thesis on the American constitution which paved the way for the controversial theory of the Iroquois Confederacy and Great Law of Peace was pioneered by Donald Grinde Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen during the 1970s.  The influence thesis has been very controversial due to certain criticisms of the proponents’ logic of the study and treatment of its sources. For the purpose of this research, the paper aims to prove that:  The Iroquois League influenced the framing of the American Constitution.

In order to prove this thesis statement, the research provided arguments from various academic journal articles stating the reasons why and how the Iroquois influenced the current Constitution.  To assure objectivity in the research, counterarguments were also presented and various criticisms were taken into consideration; consequently these were critically compared to the arguments leaning towards in favor of the Iroquois League influence. From the critical comparison of the arguments in favor of the thesis statement and the arguments not in favor of it, a synthesis and a resolution was provided together with the discussion of how both pro and anti arguments could be treated in relation with the aforementioned.

The research had adopted the qualitative tradition of research, specifically focusing on secondary data analysis.  As stated earlier, all of the arguments, together with the concepts and other ideas were lifted from seven academic journals focusing on the   Iroquois and the role that they played in terms of shaping the Constitution.

 Grinde and Johansen asserted that Iroquois had a significant impact in terms of unity, territorial expansion and origins of sovereignty among people and universal suffrage.  It is with this respect that the authors concluded that American democracy happened due to the synthesis of Native American political concepts.   Grinder and Johansen said that this is evident on the interpretive and documentary evidences of the transference of American Indian perspectives to the American people is vivid in the colonial, revolutionary and national records of the country.

In order to prove the thesis statement, the research provided two major arguments in favor of the Iroquois influence thesis.  The first group of arguments center on the popular notion that Indians did possess a democratic form of government as evident on the fraternal organization of the Improved Order of Red Men during the Revolution of the Sons of Liberty.  Consequently, the second group of arguments focused on the political influences of the Iroquois League that largely came about due to the supposed Franklin-Canastego connection as evident on the certain passages that show similarities between their words.  In relation with this, it has also been theorized that the Albany Plan of Union was a result of Franklin’s meeting with the Iroquois.  It is with this respect that Grinde and Johansen maintained that the League of the Iroquois together with its representative form of democracy had shaped the federal constitution and also became a catalyst for American unity.

Despite of the strength of these two major groups of arguments, criticisms still emerged in terms of the validity of its claims.  Elisabeth Tooker asserted that Grinde and Johansen’s logic and study of the Iroquois political culture was a result of a scholarly misapprehension.   According to Tooker upon review of the League of the Iroquois, one can deduce based from the review of the documents used that there are no support pertaining to the claim that can support the influence thesis.  In addition with this Payne also asserted that the Articles of Confederation was created 20 years after the supposed influence of Benjamin Franklin, hence the weakening of the claim that the Iroquois League indeed directly influenced the creation of the American Constitution. 

Background of the Problem

On 1987, the 1987 Bicentennial of the United States Senate passed Senator Daniel Inouye’s claim “to acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nation to the development of the United States Constitution” (Levy 1996, 589).  Albeit even this is the case, the academic community still questioned the influence thesis more particularly its proponents.  According to Tooker her review of the historical and ethnographic evidences that serves as the foundation of the influence thesis contains no bearing in order to provide a robust argument in the advancement of the claim of Iroquois influence in the creation of the American constitution (Tooker 1988, 305).  In addition with this,  Payne (1996) also said that the standard works in the American Constitution does not sufficiently credit the influences of Indians, hence they are often called as the “forgotten founders” as most of the details present the ideas of British-American thinkers (Johansen as cited from Payne 1996, 605).

Research Problem and Research Objectives

            For the purpose of this research, the author focuses on proving that: The Iroquois League influenced the framing of the American Constitution.

            The research aims to: (1) provide a scholarly secondary data review of the arguments pertaining to the role of the Iroquois League in shaping the American Constitution; (2) present the counter-arguments pertaining to the criticisms of the role of the Iroquois League in shaping the American Constitution; and finally (3) provide a synthesis of the two contrasting views and present the author’s analysis and stand in relation with the problem.

The Iroquois Influence Thesis

            The Iroquois “influence thesis” on the American constitution which paved the way for the controversial theory of the Iroquois Confederacy and Great Law of Peace was pioneered by Donald Grinde Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen during the 1970s.  On their book, the Exemplars of Liberty, Grinde and Johansen said that they have strong claims on the extent of the native Indian’s influence on the Constitution and there are a number of causal arguments that came from circumstantial evidences that could support such (Levy 1996, 589).

            Tooker said that there are two major arguments supporting the influence thesis.  The first one centers on the popular notion that Indians did possess a democratic form of government.  Consequently, the other argument focuses on the political influences of the Iroquois League that largely came about due to the supposed Franklin-Canastego connection (Tooker 1988, 305-308).

According to Tooker the first major group of arguments supporting the influence thesis stemmed out due to the idea that American political thoughts such as freedom and democracy were lifted from the Indian democratic government. Evidences of such can be seen from various literatures more specifically those explaining the history, origin and purposes of the Improved Order of Red Men.  The Improved Order of Red Men is a fraternal organization that came into existence during the Revolution of the Sons of Liberty (Tooker 1988, 301).  Sheehan (1937 as cited from Tooker 1988, 307) said that the old Sons of Liberty during the Colonial times are devoid of knowledge about the authentic American liberty since all of them have lived under the rule of a monarch.

In addition with this, they also did not have an idea about expressing their own thoughts in relevant matters in relation with their government.  According to Sheehan (1937 as cited from Tooker 1988, 307), the old Sons of Liberty came across of their idea of democracy from “wild savages who roamed the forest at will rejoicing in the unrestrained occupation of this great new world” (307).  Consequently, the author said that these “wild savages” selected their “own Sachems and forms of religious worship; and made their own laws and tribal regulations” (307) which perfectly serves their need for the state of affairs that they are in.

Furthermore, the author claimed that the “white men” experienced problems due to their “unreasonable laws and regulations imposed by a distant king and his local appointees” (307).  This is evident on instances wherein the “white mean” were often denied of the right for a fair trial by the jury and were often given by huge and unjust taxes (307).

On the other hand, the second major argument could be lifted from the proponents of the influence thesis: Grinde and Johansen.  According to the aforementioned, they have seen traces of Iroquois thought on the words of famous leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams (590). The proponents of the thesis also argued that the influence thesis could be even traced back as early as the 19th century wherein William E. Greiffis said that the Iroquois played a major role in terms of influencing American statesmen.  Such claim is further verified by William B. Newell a Caughnawaga Mohawk, and J.N.B. Hewitt who is a Smithsonian Institution ethnologist and Tuscarora (591).  According to Hewitt there are two distinct passages which are very vital in terms of the verification of the influence thesis.  The first one came from Onondaga who is the chief of Canastego at his speech on the 1744 Treaty Council at Lancaster Pennsylvania.

“Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; This has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations.  We are a powerful Confederacy; and by your observing the same Methods, our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another”. (Boyd 1938 as cited from Levy 1996, 591).

The second passage was taken from Franklin’s letter to New York printer and postmaster James Parker.  It should be noted that Franklin was an outspoken advocate of a union of British colony and very active in terms of Indian diplomacy.  Franklin told Parker that:

“It would be very strange Thing, if Six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an 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, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests”. (Smyth 1907 as cited from Levy 1996, 591).

These two major passages provided the strong a foundation to the influence thesis as such provided strong evidence of the Franklin-Canastego connection due to the existence of similar sentiments in their words (Levy 1996, 592).  There are a number of individuals who have further verified the validity of such claims.  For instance, Paul A. W. Wallace cited Franklin by reiterating the claim that the Iroquois “have provided a model for and an incentive to, the transformation of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America” (Wallace 1946 as cited from Levy 1996, 591-592). The Indian law expert and author of the Handbook of Federal Indian Law, Felix S. Cohen also arrived at the same conclusion as Grinde and Johansen that the words of Canasatego were welcomed by Benjamin Franklin (Levy 1996, 592).  In addition with this, Wilbur R. Jacobs has also arrived to the same conclusion when he said that “it is known that other framers of the Constitution had knowledge of Indian confederation systems and the ideals of Indian democracy” (Jacobs 1971 as cited from Levy 1996, 592).

The Exemplar of Liberty of Grinde and Johansen on its fourth chapter asserted that the 1754 Albany Plan of Union was a result of Franklin’s meeting with the Iroquois.  Grinde and Johansen said that after the Albany conference, Franklin was persuaded by Canassatego to adopt the teachings of their forefathers.  More importantly, Grinde and Johansen saw a number of similarities between the Albany Plan and the League of the Irouois.  According to the proponents of the influence thesis, Franklin’s title which is the “Grand Council” which served as the name for the plan’s deliberative body is the exact title that was being used by the Iroquois central council (Levy 1996, 592).

In relation with this, Payne said that it was the Iroquois as well who influenced the “female rights of suffrage, the impeachment of government officials, and congress employment of conference committees” (Payne 1996, 607).  The emphasis on the high status of women in the traditional Iroquois society and its influence on the American Constitution is something that has been consistently acknowledged even in academic institutions (Landsman and Ciborski, 1992).  Consequently, Payne also pointed out that the Iroquois had influenced the creation of a combination of a central government with limited powers in addition to autonomous local governments similar to the American federal system (Payne 1996, 608).

Counter- Arguments

According to Payne (1996) there are small evidences that the notion of federalist government was influenced by the Iroquois by asserting that the United Colonies of England in 1643 is the one who wrote the “Articles of Confederation” (611).  According to the author, the English colonists in North America have already been familiar with the confederation even before they have come to know the Iroquois League.  In addition with this, he also maintained that the framers of the constitution have a lot more other influences than the Iroquois.  According to Payne (1996) even though Franklin had a very robust knowledge of the Indian culture, one still cannot see that he have cited in his writings that the Iroquois Confederacy served as a model for the Albany Plan.  Payne further defends this assertion by saying that even if by any chance that a link between the Iroquois thought and the Albany Plan could be established, the idea that Franklin has presented would be very much different 20 years after.  As such Payne said:

“Franklin’s July 21 1775 confederation plan differed significantly both from what he had proposed in 1754 and from what the delegates at Albany adopted.  The 1775 plan in turn was only one of several that the committee appointed to draft a confederation plan by the Continental Congress may have considered in 1776.  In the event, the committee prepared its own plan, the Dickinson plan which owed little to Franklin’s 1775 plan or to the others the committee had examined” (613).

More importantly, Payne also said that the congress even modified the Dickinson plan even before approving the articles of the Articles of the Confederation.  As such it is with this respect that Payne maintained that what is left from the Albany Plan barely influenced the Articles of Confederation (Payne 1996, 613).

Elisabeth Tooker also claimed that Grinde and Johansen’s logic and study of the Iroquois political culture was a result of a “scholarly misapprehension” (Levy 1996, 589).   According to Tooker (1988) upon her review of the League of the Iroquois, one can significantly deduced based from the review of the aforementioned documents that there are no support pertaining to the claim that such influences the content of the US constitution (1988, 305).

Analysis and Synthesis

            The study of Grinde and Johansen that led to the influence thesis presents sufficient arguments in order to support the claim that the Iroquois thought influenced the framing of the American constitution.  There is so much evidence stating the role of the Indian culture in terms of influencing the political ideas of the early American leaders; foremost of which is Benjamin Franklin’s ideas as evident from his letter to Parker.  The claim that Franklin indeed borrowed a whole lot of ideas from the Iroquois in addition to the meaningful symbolisms in Canasetoga’s speech in the Albany Plan Union could not be simply ignored.

Although there are also sufficient number of counterarguments such as those of Payne asserting that the Iroquois thought did not really directly influenced the framing of the constitution, it should still be noted that Iroquois still influenced the notion of liberty in the emerging American paradigm.  The Iroquois who have demonstrated strong thoughts of egalitarianism and liberty could not simply be dismissed as someone who has not provided any bearing in the creation of the democratic paradigm that the American Society currently experiences.

Conclusion

            The influence thesis introduced by Donald Grinde Jr. and Bruce E. Johansen during the 1970s asserted that the Iroquois League have direct and strong influence in terms of creating the American Constitution.  This claim is further strengthened by the two major groups of arguments supporting such: (1) the popular notion that Indians do possess a democratic form of government; and (2) the political influences of the Iroquois League that largely came about due to the Franklin-Canastego connection (Tooker 1988, 305-308). Despite of the strength of these two major groups of arguments, criticisms in terms of the validity of the influence thesis could simply not be dismissed.  According to Payne 1996, there are small evidences that the notion of federalist government was influenced by the Iroquois by asserting that the United Colonies of England in 1643 is the one who wrote the “Articles of Confederation” (Payne 1996, 611).

            However the research still maintains that although there are a whole lot of criticisms asserting that the influence thesis is flawed, the notion of the Iroquois influence on the American Constitution could simply not be ignored.  It could be the case that the Indian culture still had influence in the framing of the Constitution maybe in a subconscious or indirect manner.  Albeit even if this is the case, one can not simply assert that the Iroquois League did not provided any influence in whatsoever degree in experiencing the democracy that the Americans celebrate at present.

Bibliography

Fenton William. 1949. “Seth Newhouse’s Traditional History and Constitution of the

Iroquois Confederacy”. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society,(93) 2: 141-158.

Grinde Donald and Johansen Bruce, 1996. “Sauce for the Goose: Demand and

Definitions for “Proof” Regarding the Iroquois and Democracy”. The William and Mary Quarterly, (53) 3: 621-636.

Landsman Gail and Ciborski Sara. 1992. “Representation and Politics: Contesting

Histories of the Iroquois”. Cultural Anthropology, (7) 4: 425-447

Levy Philip. 1996. “Exemplars of Taking Liberties: The Iroquois Influence Thesis and

the Problem of Evidence”. The William and Mary Quarterly, (53) 3: 588-604.

Lutz Donald.1998. “The Iroquois Confederation Constitution: An Analysis”. Publius,(28)

2: 99-127.

Payne Samuel B. 1996. “The Iroquois League, the Articles of Confederation, and the

Constitution”. The William and Mary Quarterly, (53) 3: 605-620.

Tooker Elizabeth.1988. “The United States Constitution and the Iroquois League”.

Ethnohistory, 35 (4): 305-336.

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