The Iriqouis and the Origins of American Democracy
AUTHOR: Grinde, Dr. Donald A.
PUBLISHED ON: March 18, 2003
PUBLISHED IN: Educational


Speech by Dr. Donald A. Grinde, Jr., Distinguished Professor
of Interdiscipli- nary Studies, Gettysburg College, and
Crawford Research Fellow, 1987-1988. Delivered at Cornell
University September 11, 1987.


First of all, I would like to thank the Iroquois people that I
worked with some fifteen or more years ago. They gave me
encouragement in this project since I did not receive much
encouragement outside of the Iroquois people. I want to also
thank the Indian Historian Press whose stated purpose, then as
well as now, is to publish works by American Indian scholars
and others that contribute to new viewpoints on American
Indian history. Finally, I would like to thank Americans for
Indian Opportunity and the Meredith Fund for research funds
that made my present research possible.

Today, I would like to share with you some of the new data
that I have found in the last year or so that supplements my
earlier findings. I will focus on four items:

  1)  The Treaty Congress at Albany in August of 1775
  2)  Benjamin Franklin and his ideas about the Covenant Chain
  of the Iroquois.
  3)  Thomas Paine and some of the things that he wrote that
  have not been attributed to him.
  4)  John Rutledge of South Carolina and how he learned of the
  Great Law of the Iroquois, and how he helped to write the first
  draft of the U. S. Constitution.

As Eugene Crawford Memorial Fellow for 1987-1988, my purpose
will be to analyze, from a historian’s viewpoint, the extent
and impact of the Iroquois ideas on American democracy. This
analysis will include, of course, the U. S. Constitu- tion. I
want to make this study an integral part of the analysis of
the Constitution. In the future, I want to make sure that when
people talk about the roots of the Constitution, they include
the ideas of the Iroquois. Ancient Greece and Rome, John Locke
and Jean Jacques Rousseau, no doubt, influenced the thinking
of the Founding Fathers, but Iroquois concepts had a profound
influence upon the formation of our government as well. The
ideas of the Iroquois influenced the thinking of the English
and the French theorists of the eigh- teenth century also. I
will also attempt to approach the Founding Fathers as human
beings, and this is extremely important since I have found
that it is the best way to look at them. When one looks for
Iroquois ideas in the Founding Fathers, I have to always
remember that these men were politicians.. Many of them, of
course, had a good education for the times and were wealthy.
However, most of them had a fairly long history of political
activity in one way or another.

The noted Cherokee humorist, Will Rogers, said that
politicians are like fog- horns; they call attention to the
problems but they don’t do a damned thing about them. When I
read the Records of the Constitutional Convention and other
materials leading up to the first draft of the Constitution, I
see a lot of foghorn stuff. What about the problem of money
and debts? What about the executive and legislative powers?
How can we secure a stronger union? For brevity’s sake, I will
not go back to the Albany Plan of Union because I think that
it will be discussed later, but Albany is an important place
to begin the discussion of the Iroquois’ influence on American

In August of 1775, before the Declaration of Independence, the
Continental Congress sent a group of treaty commissioners to
speak with the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy at
Albany, New York. The Congress and the American people were
contemplating independence and a long war. Already, there was
much tension and the Congress did not want to fight a two
front war against the British in the East and the Indians in
the West. In the spring of 1775, Congress began to formulate a
speech that was to be sent to the Iroquois in the summer of
1775. Signed by John Hancock, this speech recalls the history
of the relations between the Iroquois and the American
colonists since the 1740s. The speech quotes the Iroquois
chief, Cannassatego, at the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744. In
that speech, Cannassatego admonishes the Americans to unite
and become strong as the forefathers of the Iroquois had done
under the Great Law. The speech from the Continental Congress
said that the American people are united and have taken the
advice of the Iroquois. The U. S. treaty commissioners added:

    “…the advice was good, it was kind.  They said to one
    another, the Six Nations are a wise people, let us hearken
    to their Council and teach our children to follow it.  Our
    old men have done so.  They have frequently taken a single
    arrow and said, children, see how easy it is broken, then
    they have tied twelve together with strong cords–And our
    strongest men could not break them–See said they–this is
    what the Six Nations mean.  Divided a single man may destroy
    you–United, you are a match for the whole world.”

Unity is a major concept in this speech by the Congress, and
it is one of the foremost concepts of the Iroquois Great Law.
Unity is not a novel concept, but the way in which the
Iroquois did it, fascinated Europeans and particularly,
American colonists. Hence, the treaty commissioners at Albany,
in 1775, were not just engaging in the rhetoric of Iroquois
diplomacy, they were demonstrating that they had a knowledge
of and were using parts of the Great Law in their
deliberations even before independence was declared. The
speech goes on to point out that the American people have
delegated leaders to go to Philadelphia and kindle a great
fire and plant a Great Tree to become strong like the
Iroquois. At the conclusion of the analogy, the treaty
commissioners invited the Iroquois to come to Philadelphia to
their “Grand Council”.

A few days after this speech, the treaty commissioners tell
the Iroquois that:

“We live upon the same ground with you–the same island is our
common birthplace. We desire to sit down under the same Tree
of Peace with you; let us water its roots and cherish its
growth, till the large leaves and flourishing branches shall
extend to the setting sun and reach the skies.”

In some more references to Iroquois cosmology, the Americans
say when this

“island began to shake and tremble along the Eastern Shore,
and the Sun darkened by a Black cloud which arose from beyond
the great water, we kindled up a Great Council Fire at
Philadelphia…so…that we are now twelve colonies united as
one man…And…As God has put it into our hearts to love the
Six Nations…we now make the chain of friendship so that
nothing but an evil spirit can or will attempt to break it.”

Through these words, we can see the extent of the Continental
Congress’ knowl- edge of the Great Law of the Iroquois and its
cosmology a year before the Declaration of Independence. In an
analysis of this cultural and intellectual exchange, it is
significant (since it often goes unnoticed) that the Iroquois
people delegated leaders or had self-appointed people to
educate the colonists to the wisdom of unity.

A generation before the conference at Albany in 1775, the
Mohawk Chief, Hend- rick, had admonished the colonists to
unify. In August of 1775, when the Iroquois chiefs had asked
the Americans who should speak for the Iroquois at the
conference, the Americans immediately asked that Abraham be
appointed the main speaker. Abraham was the adopted brother of
Hendrick, and the Americans remembered his words urging unity
at the Albany conference in 1754. It should be noted that the
treaty commissioners recognized that Abraham and Hendrick were
part of an Iroquois tradition to teach the American people
strength through unity. After he is made speaker, Abraham rose
and stated that he was glad that “…your grandfathers had
inculcated the doctrine into their children…”. He noted that
an invitation had been extended to go to Philadelphia where
the Great Tree was planted and “…sit under it and water its
roots, till the branches should flourish and reach to
heaven…”. Abraham said, “This the Six Nations say shall be
done.” In May of 1776, the Iroquois chiefs would go to
Philadel- phia as the Continental Congress was readying itself
for independence (the Iroquois camped outside of Independence
Hall in the square). After John Hancock welcomed the Iroquois
chiefs to the Congress as “brothers”, an Onondaga chief named
the President of the Continental Congress, (John Hancock),
“Karanduawn, or the Great Tree”, on June 11, 1776.

In effect, the Iroquois were present during the debates on
independence and when a draft of the Articles of Confederation
was introduced (this draft was a revision of Franklin’s Albany
Plan and it has been demonstrated that it was borrowed from
the Iroquois Great Law). With the Iroquois in the halls of
government on the eve of independence, it is no longer a
question of whether the Iroquois had an impact on the nature
of American government but rather it now becomes a question of
degree. We can now see that both the Americans and the
Iroquois were aware of the interchange of ideas for over a
generation. Essen- tially, the Iroquois had a tradition of
instructing, cajoling and admonishing the colonies to unity,
and the Americans were cognizant of this process in some very
profound ways.

Now, I would like to discuss Benjamin Franklin and his
knowledge of Iroquois imagery and ideas. Franklin, of course,
was the author of the Albany Plan of Union. However, an
examination of the oral traditions about Franklin has yielded
some interesting insights into Franklin’s use of Iroquois
ideas. By looking at the record of the people that knew
Franklin in England before the Revolution and in France during
the Revolution, it is apparent that Franklin talked a great
deal about the Iroquois. In England, Franklin’s circle of
friends gave him a silver tea service that was engraved “keep
bright the chain” because it was one of his favorite phrases.
His friends remarked that he used it often and that they
sought Franklin’s ideas about American Indians.

When Franklin goes to France in late 1776 as the Congress’
Minister to France, he was welcomed as a hero. There was a
rumor that he was coming with 100 American Indian warriors.
Once in France, Franklin “…loved to cite and to practice
faithfully the proverb of his friends, the American Indians,
“Keep the chain of friendship bright and shining”, when
discussing the concept of liberty among distinguished French
philosophers like Turgot, Helvetius, La Rochefoucault and
Condorcet. French observers in the salons stated that Franklin
would dis- cuss the politics of the Indians with great
exactness and interest. Further- more, Franklin thought the
ways of American Indians more conducive to the good life than
the ways of “…Civilized Nations”. Frequently, Franklin used
the French curiosity about Native Americans and particularly
the Iroquois to his personal and diplomatic advantage.

When Franklin came back to America after the Revolution, he
became a member in the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany in
Philadelphia. This was a society of non-Indians that dressed
up as Indians, entertained Indian delegations to Phila-
delphia, stood for a unicameral legislature like Franklin, and
freely used Iroquois ideas and imagery in its rhetoric. In
1785, George Washington attended a St. Tammany society meeting
in Richmond, Virginia. Washington was called our “Great Grand
Sachem” and our “brother” by the society. Franklin was often
toasted as “brother” also. During the Constitutional
Convention, Franklin wrote several letters to American Indians
like “the old chief”, “the…Beloved Indian Woman”, and the
“Cornstalk”. These terms and names were used by the
Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany. Since they were written
on June 30, 1787 after the bitter controversy over the
Virginia and New Jersey Plans were resolved, they may well be
“coded” letters to the Constitutional Sons of Saint Tammany.
The Saint Tammany Society was intensely interested in the
outcome of the Constitutional Convention and the structure of
the new government. At any rate, Franklin stated in one of
these letters that:

“I am sorry that the Great Council fire of our nation is not
now burning, so that you cannot do business there. In a few
months, the coals will be rak’d out of the ashes and will
again be rekindled.”

Franklin also had designed currency using the Iroquois
Covenant Chain at the beginning of the Revolution that was
reissued in 1787. The currency depicted a Covenant Chain of
thirteen links with an admonition to unite. Hence, there is
plenty of evidence that Franklin continued and cultivated his
interest in the Iroquois after he used their ideas of unity to
forge the Albany Plan of Union in 1754.

Thomas Paine was also influenced by the Iroquois. Although it
is generally not acknowledged, Thomas Paine was a secretary to
an Iroquois Treaty at Easton, Pennsylvania in early 1777. It
appears that Paine heard an Iroquois prophecy about struggling
beasts that would shake the very foundation of the League of
the Iroquois. In the end, lesser beast (the Americans) would
win and take up the ideas of the Iroquois. A pamphlet
published by the Continental Congress recounts a similar
prophecy. It is printed in France in 1777 before the French
publicly began to support the American cause. Thomas Paine was
appointed to the Committee for Foreign Affairs of the
Continental Congress in April of 1777. He may have sent over
to Franklin an account of the prophecy since Franklin and the
other American ministers to France were constantly asking for
good news (the good news would come late in 1777 with the
victory at Saratoga). Again, it is important to note that the
Continental Congress is writing propaganda using the imagery
and prophecies of the Iroquois since they knew that the French
were fascinated by Iroquois ideas. After Paine leaves America
for France, he was reputed to have talked a great deal about
the Iroquois.

Finally, there is John Rutledge of South Carolina, chairman of
the Committee of Detail that writes the first draft of the U.
S. Constitution. According to his biographer, Rutledge learned
of the Great Law while attending the Stamp Act Congress in New
York City as a young man. During the Stamp Act Congress, Rut-
ledge rented a cab and rode out to see Sir William Johnson and
some Mohawks camped on the edge of Greenwich Village. Sir
William Johnson was upset about the Stamp Act because it was
cutting into his Indian trade. Sir William Johnson had come
down in the fall from Albany to get supplies for the Indian
trade. Johnson greeted Rutledge by saying: “I see you’ve come
to comb the King’s hair”, and Rutledge was puzzled by this
phrase (an obvious allusion to the evil Onondaga wizard,
Tadodaho, that Hiawatha tamed to pave the way for the creation
of the Great Law of the Iroquois). In this way, Johnson
characterized the Stamp Act Congress as attempting to pacify
the King’s mind about taxation and other things. With this
opening remark, John Rutledge sits down and has a few glasses
of rum with Johnson and the Mohawks and gets his first lesson
about the Great Law of the Iroquois.

In late July, 1787, twenty years after the Stamp Act Congress,
John Rutledge found himself chairing the Committee of Detail
at the Constitutional Convention. The Committee was charged
with taking all of the resolutions that had been passed in
Convention and drafting a document that could be polished and
refined through debate on the floor of the convention.
Rutledge’s biographer states that he opened the meeting with
some passages from the Great Law of the Iro- quois. The main
passages relate to the sovereignty of the people, peace and
unity. Rutledge had asserted earlier that a great empire was
being created so it must be firmly rooted in American soil.
With this said, Rutledge bent over and began the task of
drafting the Constitution.

Pressure in the printed media was already being brought to
bear upon the Framers of the U. S. Constitution. In the
August, 1787 issue of The American Museum (a Philadelphia
magazine), “A Fable – Addressed to the Federal Convention” was
printed that used the bundle of arrows imagery of the Iroquois
Constitution (Section 57) and styled the Iroquois as “fathers”
urging unity to their “sons”. No doubt, the Constitutional
Sons of Saint Tammany were, in part responsible for this
reference. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 69, felt
compelled to address an editorial written by ‘Tamony’ that
expressed reservations about the executive powers in the
proposed constitution. Appearing in Virginia and Pennsylvania
newspapers, the editorial clearly represented the fears of the
St. Tammany Society of a strong executive in peacetime. These
examples are but a few of the references to the Iroquois roots
of American government.

The major thing to remember is that if you know the code words
like “combing the King’s hair” or “keep the chain bright” the
Iroquois influence can be easily seen. Indeed, there seems to
be a kind of ignoring of these references in the records. This
ignoring of important references glosses over the fact that
Iroquois images were used frequently in eighteenth century

But to modern scholars such references probably appear as
anomalies since many people are unfamiliar with the rhetoric
and imagery of the Iroquois. In short, the attitude might be:
“What’s this, Thomas Paine writing an Indian treaty?” What
does this have to do with political theory or his ideas?

In conclusion, I think that the concept of unity was an
important transference that went on for generations bewteen
the colonists and the Iroquois. Rutledge recalled that
exchange as he began to write the first draft of the
Constitution (the press of Philadelphia and the Saint Tammany
society were also bound to remind him and the other delegates
to the convention of the American roots of our unity and
freedom). Federalism is another important concept here. The
Iroquois had a working federalism that gave maximum internal
freedom while providing for a strong defense.

I think it is time to take away the veil that has deprived
Americans from realizing the Iroquois roots of American
democracy. The new evidence that we have all brought to bear
here is extremely exciting. I hope that it will convince
people that when they look at the origins of American
democracy that one can no longer look only to the ancient
Greeks and John Locke for sources but you must also look to
the Great Law of the Iroquois as a valid source of ideas for
the formation of our nation. With evidence at hand, the
question is not whether the Iroquois had an influence on
formation of the American govern- ment but to what degree.

The next job. after this conference, is to increase
cross-cultural kinds of studies. I think that research funds
in the institutions that study Indians should be allocated in
ways that reflect more the interests and questions that are
important to Indian people. Certainly, American Indian people
and American Indian scholars should have a greater say over
research priorities and the allocation of funds in places like
the Smithsonian Institution. In the final analysis, it was the
Iroquois people that came to me and said “we’re interested in
this, are you interested in the Iroquois roots of American
democracy?” In the future, questions that American Indian
people deem important should have a great deal of validity in
institutions of culture and learning, i.e. the National
Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian. Let us hope
that the call is heeded. Why can’t people recognize that
Native Americans have priorit- ies about their history?
American Indian people should not be ignored in their pursuit
of a new Native American history.

Thank you.

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