It is now time for a destructive order to be reversed, and it is well to inform other races that the aboriginal cultures of North America were not devoid of beauty. Futhermore, in denying the Indian his ancestral rights and heritages the white race is but robbing itself. America can be revived, rejuvenated, by recognizing a Native School of thought.
-- Chief Luther Standing Bear
Land of the Spotted Eagle
The seeds for this book were sown in my mind during a late-summer day in 1975, by a young American Indian whose name I've long since forgotten. As a reporter for the Seattle Times, I had been researching a series of articles on Washington State Indian tribes. The research took me to Evergreen State College in Olympia, where a young woman, an undergraduate in the American Indian studies program, told me in passing that the Iroquois had played a key role in the evolution of American democracy.
The idea at first struck me as disingenuous. I considered myself decently educated in American history, and to the best of my knowledge, government for and by the people had been invented by white men in powdered wigs. I asked the young woman where she had come by her information.
"My grandmother told me," she said. That was hardly the kind of source one could use for a newspaper story. I asked whether she knew of any other sources. "You're the investigative reporter," she said. "You find them."
Back at the city desk, treed cats and petty crime were much more newsworthy than two-centuries-past revels in the woods the width of a continent away. For a time I forgot the meeting at Evergreen, but never completely. The woman's challenge stayed with me through another year at the Times, the writing of a book on American Indians, and most of a Ph.D. program at the University of Washington. I collected tantalizing shreds -- a piece of a quotation from Benjamin Franklin here, an allegation there. Individually, these meant little. Together, however, they began to assume the outline of a plausible argument that the Iroquois had indeed played a key role in the ideological birth of the United States, especially through Franklin's advocacy of federal union.
Late in 1978, the time came to venture the topic for my Ph.D. dissertation in history and communications. I proposed an investigation of the role that Iroquois political and social thought had played in the thinking of Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Members of my supervisory committee were not enthusiastic. Doubtless out of concern for my academic safety, I was advised to test my water wings a little closer to the dock of established knowledge. The professors, however, did not deny my request. Rather, I was invited to flail as far out as I might before returning to the dock, colder, wetter, and presumably wiser.
I plunged in, reading the published and unpublished papers of Franklin and Jefferson, along with all manner of revolutionary history, Iroquois ethnology, and whatever else came my way. Wandering through a maze of footnotes, I early on found an article by Felix Cohen, published in 1952. Cohen, probably the most outstanding scholar of American Indian law of his or any other age, argued the thesis I was investigating in the American Scholar. Like the Indian student I had encountered more than three years earlier, he seemed to be laying down the gauntlet -- providing a few enticing leads (summarized here in chapter one), with no footnotes or any other documentation.
After several months of research, I found two dozen scholars who had raised the question since 1851, usually in the context of studies with other objectives. Many of them urged further study of the American Indians' (especially the Iroquois') contribution to the nation's formative ideology, particularly the ideas of federal union, public opinion in governance, political liberty, and the government's role in guaranteeing citizens' well-being -- "happiness," in the eighteenth-century sense.
The most recent of these suggestions came through Donald Grinde, whose The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation (1979) reached me in the midst of my research. Grinde summarized much of what had been written to date, reserving special attention for Franklin, and then wrote that "more needs to be done, especially if America continues to view itself as a distinct entity set apart from many of the values of Western civilization." He also suggested that such a study could help dissolve negative stereotypes that many Euro-Americans still harbor toward American Indians' mental abilities and heritage.
By this time, I was past worrying whether I had a story to tell. The question was how to tell it: how to engage readers (the first of whom would be my skeptical professors) with history from a new angle; how to overcome the sense of implausibility that I had felt when the idea of American Indian contributions to the national revolutionary heritage was first presented to me.
Immersion in the records of the time had surprised me. I had not realized how tightly Franklin's experience with the Iroquois had been woven into his development of revolutionary theory and his advocacy of federal union. To understand how all this had come to be, I had to remove myself as much as possible from the assumptions of the twentieth century, to try to visualize America as Franklin knew it.
I would need to describe the Iroquois he knew, not celluloid caricatures concocted from bogus history, but well-organized polities governed by a system that one contemporary of Franklin's, Cadwallader Colden, wrote had "outdone the Romans." Colden was writing of a social and political system so old that the immigrant Europeans knew nothing of its origins -- a federal union of five (and later six) Indian nations that had put into practice concepts of popular participation and natural rights that the European savants had thus far only theorized. The Iroquoian system, expressed through its constitution, "The Great Law of Peace," rested on assumptions foreign to the monarchies of Europe: it regarded leaders as servants of the people, rather than their masters, and made provisions for the leaders' impeachment for errant behavior. The Iroquois' law and custom upheld freedom of expression in political and religious matters, and it forbade the unauthorized entry of homes. It provided for political participation by women and the relatively equitable distribution of wealth. These distinctly democratic tendencies sound familiar in light of subsequent American political history -- yet few people today (other than American Indians and students of their heritage) know that a republic existed on our soil before anyone here had ever heard of John Locke, or Cato, the Magna Charta, Rousseau, Franklin, or Jefferson.
To describe the Iroquoian system would not be enough, however. I would have to show how the unique geopolitical context of the mid-eighteenth century brought together Iroquois and Colonial leaders -- the dean of whom was Franklin -- in an atmosphere favoring the communication of political and social ideas: how, in essence, the American frontier became a laboratory for democracy precisely at a time when Colonial leaders were searching for alternatives to what they regarded as European tyranny and class stratification.
Once assembled, the pieces of this historical puzzle assumed an amazingly fine fit. The Iroquois, the premier Indian military power in eastern North America, occupied a pivotal geographical position between the rival French of the St. Lawrence Valley and the English of the Eastern Seaboard. Barely a million Anglo-Americans lived in communities scattered along the East Coast, islands in a sea of American Indian peoples that stretched far inland, as far as anyone who spoke English then knew, into the boundless mountains and forests of a continent much larger than Europe. The days when Euro-Americans could not have survived in America without Indian help had passed, but the new Americans still were learning to wear Indian clothing, eat Indian corn and potatoes, and follow Indian trails and watercourses, using Indian snowshoes and canoes. Indians and Europeans were more often at peace than at war -- a fact missed by telescoped history that focuses on conflict.
At times, Indian peace was as important to the history of the continent as Indian war, and the mid-eighteenth century was such a time. Out of English efforts at alliance with the Iroquois came a need for treaty councils, which brought together leaders of both cultures. And from the earliest days of his professional life, Franklin was drawn to the diplomatic and ideological interchange of these councils -- first as a printer of their proceedings, then as a Colonial envoy, the beginning of one of the most distinguished diplomatic careers in American history. Out of these councils grew an early campaign by Franklin for Colonial union on a federal model, very similar to the Iroquois system.
Contact with Indians and their ways of ordering life left a definite imprint on Franklin and others who were seeking, during the prerevolutionary period, alternatives to a European order against which revolution would be made. To Jefferson, as well as Franklin, the Indians had what the colonists wanted: societies free of oppression and class stratification. The Iroquois and other Indian nations fired the imaginations of the revolution's architects. As Henry Steele Commager has written, America acted the Enlightenment as European radicals dreamed it. Extensive, intimate contact with Indian nations was a major reason for this difference. This book has two major purposes. First, it seeks to weave a few new threads into the tapestry of American revolutionary history, to begin the telling of a larger story that has lain largely forgotten, scattered around dusty archives, for more than two centuries. By arguing that American Indians (principally the Iroquois) played a major role in shaping the ideas of Franklin (and thus, the American Revolution) I do not mean to demean or denigrate European influences. I mean not to subtract from the existing record, but to add an indigenous aspect, to show how America has been a creation of all its peoples.
In the telling, this story also seeks to demolish what remains of stereotypical assumptions that American Indians were somehow too simpleminded to engage in effective social and political organization. No one may doubt any longer that there has been more to history, much more, than the simple opposition of "savagery" and "civilization." History's popular writers have served us with many kinds of savages, noble and vicious, "good Indians" and "bad Indians," nearly always as beings too preoccupied with the essentials of the hunt to engage in philosophy and statecraft.
This was simply not the case. Franklin and his fellow founders knew differently. They learned from American Indians, by assimilating into their vision of the future, aspects of American Indian wisdom and beauty. Our task is to relearn history as they experienced it, in all its richness and complexity, and thereby to arrive at a more complete understanding of what we were, what we are, and what we may become.
-- Bruce E. Johansen