“A lie gets halfway around the world before truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
On May 25, 1787, a 10 year old boy held his mother’s hand as they walked down a cobblestone street across from the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. Noticing the freshly spread dirt in front of the building, he asked:
“Why is there dirt on the street ?”
She leaned down and in a low voice said, “There are important men in there deciding the future of our country. It’s so they won’t hear the sound of passing carriages and carts.”
“What do you mean Mamma?”
“I mean the reason why your daddy fought and died in the war with England was so you would be free to speak your mind and pursue your dreams and not have them determined by the class you were born into.”
A carriage pulled up in front of the state house and two guards standing at the entrance of the building escorted the man descending from the carriage into the building.
“Who is that?”
With hushed reverence, she said, ”That’s General George Washington.”
“He looks old.”
“He is old.”
“Why do these important men want him there?”
She crouched down to look her son in the eyes. “Because he is the reason the British were defeated and returned to England.”
The boy’s eyes widened. After swallowing hard, he asked:
“Is he the man Pappa followed into the battle when he was killed?”
With moist eyes she said, “Yes, son. Your father would have followed the General into the gates of hell.”
Out of the corner of his eye the boy saw something that startled him. His mother followed his line of vision. Across the street three Native American Indians dismounted their horses and tied the horses to a hitching post in front of the building. They walked up the steps of the building, were both guards nodded and moved away the door allowing them to pass.
“What are they doing here Mamma?”
“They’re Iroquois chiefs.”
“What are they doing here?”
”They’re here to explain to the men gathered in there how they govern their tribe with other tribes.”
The lesson about the Constitution this boy learned is taught in 4th through 7th grades during Constitution Week. It took two hundred years for this country to recognize the origin of our Constitution. As Shakespeare said, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
Evidence that the delegates studied Native governments and met with the chiefs of the Iroquois nation is found in the three-volume handbook, A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, written by John Adams for the delegates attending the convention. It surveyed different types of and ideas about government. Although Adams cites European philosophers such as John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu, whom U.S. history textbooks have long identified as influencing the constitution, Adams handbook includes the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations and other indigenous Native American governments as viable models for this country’s government. It is important to note many of the delegates actually knew, through personal experience and friendship with the chiefs of Native American Tribes, that the Native American system of government that brought together tribes previously at war with each other, was a working model for what Franklin, Adams and Madison envisioned would work for the 13 squabbling states.
When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, James Madison – a small, boyish looking 36 year old delegate from Virginia – was convinced that America’s government under the Articles of Confederation had to be replaced. In force since 1781, it established a “league of friendship” with the 13 independent States established after the Revolutionary War. But it wasn’t working as Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power.
Congress could not enforce its laws, raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the unanimous consent of the 13 States, many of which were on the brink of economic disaster. With Congress attempting to function with a depleted treasury, paper money was flooding the Country and creating extraordinary inflation. This took a hard toll on farmers – many of whom were thrown in jail for debt – and numerous farms were confiscated and sold to recoup taxes.
In 1786, a group of farmers had had enough and fought back. Led by Daniel Shays, a former captain in the Continental Army, a group of armed men – wearing evergreen twigs in their hats – prevented the Circuit Court from sitting in Northampton, Massachusetts and threatened to seize muskets from an arsenal in Springfield. Although the insurrection was put down by state troops, the Shays’ Rebellion was embellished day after day in the press (not much has changed when it comes to the media). The incident confirmed the fears of many wealthy men: that anarchy was just around the corner (wow, the past really is prologue). In response to the incident, George Washington wrote to James Madison, his fellow Virginian:
“Wisdom and good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.”
Madison became obsessed with the idea that to survive, America needed a strong central government to provide order and stability and he thought he had the answer. He proposed that the Continental Congress be given the power to regulate commerce throughout the Confederation. In a proposal by Madison and a fellow assemblyman, John Tyler, several states were invited to attend a convention in Annapolis, MD during the September of 1786 to discuss commercial problems. Madison and a young lawyer from New York named Alexander Hamilton issued a report on the Annapolis meeting calling upon Congress to summon delegates from all states to meet for the purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation. In response Congress issued a formal call to states to convene in Philadelphia for a Constitutional Convention.
The Iroquois Confederacy is far from an exact model for the U.S. Constitution, but it provided, according to Adams, something that Madison was looking for that Locke’s and Montesquieu’s models didn’t offer: a real life example of a multi-state government. Dating back several centuries, to when the Great Peacemaker founded it the Confederacy unified five nations: Mohawks, Onondaga, Cayuga, Oneida, and Seneca. Around 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Together, these six nations formed a multi-state government while maintaining their own individual governance.
Further evidence is found in the March 20, 1751, letter from Benjamin Franklin to James Parker where 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 for Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be so 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.” (reference)
As evidenced from Franklin’s letter, although it is a fact that many of the framers of the Constitution looked to Native governments as models for an American government, they also viewed Native Indians as inferior to themselves and those who were like them.
Native Americans have long been the subject of cultural stereotypes and bias – as demonstrated in Franklin’s letter, through art, entertainment, and all manner of commercial enterprise. This trope of the wild, fierce or intrepid Indian has been ubiquitous in American sports from the Atlanta “Braves” to the Kansas City “Chiefs.” For 87 years, the moniker for the NFL team in Washington, D.C. was the “Redskins” (now the “Commanders” – what genius came up with that name is beyond me or the scope of this blog) and offended many indigenous people who viewed the name and branding as both a slur and a disparaging stereotype grounded in America’s history of violence against Native Americans.
This country’s history of systemic bias and violence against Native Americans is the most likely reason why the importance of the Iroquois Confederacy as a model of the Constitution of the United States was obscured for centuries. Regardless of how long it took, or how disparate the Senators’ views were on the issues of the day, they were men who revered the Constitution and the oath they took to “support and defend the Constitution of the Unites States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” It is also important to recognize that the United States Senate represents states – not people – and all 50 states at some time were occupied by Native Americans; which may be why they weren’t afraid of a backlash from supporters and voted in favor of the truth about the origin of the Constitution.
As George Washington said many times during the Revolutionary War and during the Constitutional Convention as a way of assuring his friends in times of doubt that this great American experiment of democracy would endure:
“Truth will ultimately prevail where there are pains to bring it to light”.
What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment below.