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The Untold Story of America's Democracy

America's settlers from Europe knew little of democracy. The English came from a nation ruled by monarchs who claimed that God conferred the right to rule and even allowed them to wage wars of extinction against the Irish. Colonists also fled to America from France, which was ruled by a succession of kings named Louis, most of whom pursued debauched and extravagant reigns that oppressed, exploited, and at times even starved their subjects.

The founders faced a major problem when it came time to invent the United States. They represented 13 separate and sovereign states. How could one country be made from 13 without each one yielding its own power?Reportedly, the first person to propose a union of all the colonies and to propose a federal model for it was the Onondaga Chief Canassatego, speaking at an Indian-British assembly in Pennsylvania in July 1744. The Indians found it difficult to deal with so many different colonial administrations, each with its own policy, he said. It would make life easier for everyone if the colonists would unify as his people had done and form a union like the Haudenosaunee, the People of the Longhouse, who later became known as the League of the Iroquois.

Hiawatha and The Great Peacemakerfounded the Haudenosaunee sometime between AD 1000 and 1450 under a constitution they called the Kaianerekowa or Great Law of Peace. When Europeans arrived in America, the Haudenosaunee constituted the most extensive and important political unit north of the Aztec civilization.

From earliest contact the Haudenosaunee intrigued the Europeans. As colonial Pennsylvania's Indian commissioner in the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin became intimately familiar with the Haudenosaunee and was among the first to advocate emulating their confederate structure.

The Haudenosaunee united five principal Indian nations—the Mohawk, Onondaga, Seneca, Oneida, and Caygua. Each of these nations had a council composed of delegates who were selected by the clans. In addition to the individual councils of each separate nation, all 50 leaders of the five and later six nations sat together in a grand council to discuss issues of common concern. The delegates represented their individual nations, but at the same time they represented the Haudenosaunee as a whole. Through this government, the nations of the Haudenosaunee built a League that has endured for centuries and controlled territory from New England to the Mississippi River.

This model of several sovereign units united into one government presented precisely the solution to the problem confronting the writers of the United States Constitution. Today we call this our “federal” system of government.

The Americans followed the model of the Haudenosaunee in many specific provisions. As lawmakers, the leaders could never go to war in their official capacity. The colonists likewise separated civilian authorities from military ones. This contrasted with British traditions in which military leaders frequently served as members of Parliament.

Leaders acquired their positions not by heredity but by selection. If any leader lost the confidence of the clan mother, she could impeach him and choose a new leader. This concept of impeachment ran counter to European tradition, in which the monarch ruled until death, even if he became insane or incapacitated. The Americans followed the Haudenosaunee precedent of always providing for ways to remove leaders when necessary, but the Founding Fathers declined to follow the example of the Haudenosaunee in granting women a significant role in government.

The Tuscarora Indians of North Carolina, fleeing attacks by Carolina colonists, sought refuge among the Haudenosaunee. In 1722 the Haudenosaunee admitted them as the Sixth Nation of the League. The League later incorporated other decimated groups, but the Haudenosaunee did not allow for an entity such as a colony. Likewise, the United States treated each of its territories as future partners rather than as colonies, eventually admitting them as states.

Another imitation of the Haudenosaunee came in the simple practice of allowing only one person to speak at a time in political meetings. Europeans were accustomed to shouting down any speaker who displeased them; in some cases they might even stone him or inflict worse damage. The Haudenosaunee permitted no interruptions or shouting. They even imposed a short period of silence at the end of each oration in case the speaker had forgotten some point or wished to elaborate or change something he had said.

“American democracy,” wrote legal historian Bruce Burton, “owes its distinctive character of debate and compromise to the principles and structures of American Indian Civil government.”


Adapted from Indian Givers, by Jack Weatherford, copyright © 1988 by Jack McIver Weatherford. Used by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc. < Email Signup
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