July 4, 2005

The Founding Sachems


Amherst, Mass.

SEEKING to understand this nation's democratic spirit, Alexis de Tocqueville journeyed to the famous centers of American liberty (Boston, Philadelphia, Washington), stoically enduring their "infernal" accommodations, food and roads and chatting up almost everyone he saw.

He even marched in a Fourth of July parade in Albany just ahead of a big float that featured a flag-waving Goddess of Liberty, a bust of Benjamin Franklin, and a printing press that spewed out copies of the Declaration of Independence for the cheering crowd. But for all his wit and intellect, Tocqueville never realized that he came closest to his goal just three days after the parade, when he stopped at the "rather unhealthy but thickly peopled" area around Syracuse.

Tocqueville's fascination with the democratic spirit was prescient. Expressed politically in Americans' insistence on limited government and culturally in their long-standing disdain for elites, that spirit has become one of this country's great gifts to the world.

When rich London and Paris stockbrokers proudly retain their working-class accents, when audiences show up at La Scala in track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais complain that the police don't read suspects their rights the way they do on "Starsky & Hutch," when anti-government protesters in Beirut sing "We Shall Overcome" in Lebanese accents - all these raspberries in the face of social and legal authority have a distinctly American tone. Or, perhaps, a distinctly Native American tone, for among its wellsprings is American Indian culture, especially that of the Iroquois.

The Iroquois confederation, known to its members as the Haudenosaunee, was probably the greatest indigenous polity north of the Rio Grande in the two centuries before Columbus and definitely the greatest in the two centuries after. A political and military alliance formed by the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and, after about 1720, the Tuscarora, it dominated, at its height, an area from Kentucky to Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. Its capital was Onondaga, a bustling small city of several thousand souls a few miles south of where Tocqueville stopped in modern Syracuse.

The Iroquois confederation was governed by a constitution, the Great Law of Peace, which established the league's Great Council: 50 male royaneh (religious-political leaders), each representing one of the female-led clans of the alliance's nations. What was striking to the contemporary eye was that the 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with constraining the Great Council as with granting it authority. "Their whole civil policy was averse to the concentration of power in the hands of any single individual," explained Lewis Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer of the Iroquois.

The council's jurisdiction was limited to relations among the nations and outside groups; internal affairs were the province of the individual nations. Even in the council's narrow domain, the Great Law insisted that every time the royaneh confronted "an especially important matter or a great emergency," they had to "submit the matter to the decision of their people" in a kind of referendum open to both men and women.

In creating such checks on authority, the league was just the most formal expression of a regionwide tradition. Although the Indian sachems on the Eastern Seaboard were absolute monarchs in theory, wrote the colonial leader Roger Williams, in practice they did not make any decisions "unto which the people are averse." These smaller groups did not have formal, Iroquois-style constitutions, but their governments, too, were predicated on the consent of the governed. Compared to the despotisms that were the norm in Europe and Asia, the societies encountered by British colonists were a libertarian dream.

To some extent, this freedom reflected North American Indians' relatively recent adoption of agriculture. Early farming villages worldwide have always had less authoritarian governments than their successors. But the Indians of the Northeast made what the historian José António Brandão calls "autonomous responsibility" a social ideal - the Iroquois especially, but many others, too. Each Indian, the Jesuit missionary Joseph-François Lafitau observed, viewing "others as masters of their own actions and themselves, lets them conduct themselves as they wish and judges only himself."

So vivid were these examples of democratic self-government that some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the American Constitution. Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus and its denial of suffrage to women, the Constitution as originally enacted was not at all like the Great Law. But in a larger sense the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian images of liberty.

For two centuries after Plymouth Rock, the border between natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent. In a way difficult to imagine now, Europeans and Indians mingled, the historian Gary Nash has written, as "trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts."

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, the aging John Adams recalled the Massachusetts of his youth as a multiracial society. "Aaron Pomham, the priest, and Moses Pomham, the King of the Punkapaug and Neponsit Tribes, were frequent visitors at my father's house," he wrote nostalgically. Growing up in Quincy, Mass., the young Adams frequently visited a neighboring Indian family, "where I never failed to be treated with whortleberries, blackberries, strawberries or apples, plums, peaches, etc." Benjamin Franklin was equally familiar with Indian company; representing the Pennsylvania colony, he negotiated with the Iroquois in 1754. A close friend was Conrad Weiser, an adopted Mohawk who at the talks was the Indians' unofficial host.

As many colonists observed, the limited Indian governments reflected levels of personal autonomy unheard of in Europe. "Every man is free," a frontiersman, Robert Rogers, told a disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no person, white or Indian, sachem or slave, has any right to deprive anyone else of his freedom. The Iroquois, Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, held "such absolute notions of liberty that they allow of no kind of superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from their territories." (Colden, surveyor general of New York, was another Mohawk adoptee.)

Not every European admired this democratic spirit. Indians "think every one ought to be left to his own opinion, without being thwarted," the Flemish missionary monk Louis Hennepin wrote in 1683. "There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America," a fellow missionary unhappily observed. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses - they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit."

Indians, for their part, were horrified to encounter European social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper. When the 17th-century French adventurer Louis-Armand de Lom d'Arce, Baron de Lahontan, tried to convince the Huron, the Iroquois's northern neighbors, of Europe's natural superiority, the Indians scoffed.

Because Europeans had to kowtow to their social betters, Lahontan later reported, "they brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having." Individual Indians, he wrote "value themselves above anything that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give for it, that one's as much master as another, and since men are all made of the same clay there should be no distinction or superiority among them."

INFLUENCED by their proximity to Indians - by being around living, breathing role models of human liberty - European colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes. Lahontan was an example, despite his noble title; his account highlighted Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. Both the clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Lahontan was goading, tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French officials to force a French education upon the Indians, complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters. The attempts, the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen reported, were "everywhere unsuccessful."

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members - surrounded by examples of free life - always had the option of voting with their feet.

It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life. But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of American Indian culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, aristocrat and peasant alike. Others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility.

Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge this contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Yet a plain reading of Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine shows that they took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the colonists who held their Boston Tea Party dressed as "Mohawks." When others took up European intellectuals' books and histories, images of Indian freedom had an impact far removed in time and space from the 16th-century Northeast.

The pioneering suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage, both Finger Lakes residents, were inspired by the Great Law's extension of legal protections to women. "This gentile constitution is wonderful!" Friedrich Engels exclaimed (though he apparently didn't notice its emphasis on limited state power).

Just like their long-ago confreres in Boston, protesters in South Korea, China and Ukraine wore "Native American" makeup and clothing in, respectively, the 1980's, 1990's, and the first years of this century. Indeed, it is only a little exaggeration to claim that everywhere liberty is cherished - from Sweden to Soweto, from the streets of Manila to the docks of Manhattan - people are descendants of the Iroquois League and its neighbors.

Charles C. Mann is the author of the forthcoming "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus."