Iroquois Confederacy and the Influence Thesis

Native Americans: Past and Present
Final Project
Brian Cook
Brian Cook teaches Politics and Economics at Tilton School.
They are a co-ed 9-12 and post graduate boarding school in Tilton.
His e-mail is bcook@tiltonschool.org
December 11, 2000

* Introduction
* The Peacemaker
* The Iroquois Constitution
* The Influence Thesis
* Opposition to the Influence Thesis
* Academic Turf Wars
* Conclusions in Favor of the Influence Thesis
* Conclusions in Opposition to the Influence Thesis
* Conclusions in General
* Some Other Conclusions



Introduction

The Iroquois people with their Iroquois Confederation were among the most powerful native groups on the American continent at the time of European contact. They remained powerful through the American Revolution. The Iroquois Confederacy and the Great Binding Law is the oldest example of a constitution on the American continent (Lutz 1998:2) It has been argued since the nineteenth century, when Lewis Henry Morgan wrote "It is worthy of remembrance that the Iroquois commended to our forefathers a union of colonies similar to their own as early as 1775" (Payne 1996:605) that the Iroquois Confederation had a degree of influence over the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. To this day, scholars are locked in a heated debate over the accuracy of that claim.

The Peacemaker

Iroquois legend tells of the journey of the Peacemaker, also called "Dekanawidah." (Lutz 1998:103.) The Peacemaker journeyed to all five nations of the Haudenosaunee - Mohawk, Onieda, Onandaga, Cayuga, and Seneca - asking each to stop warring and live in peace with each other. At each stop, he brought good fortune, and the people believed him. When he reached the Onandaga, in the middle of all five peoples, he met Tadadaho, an evil man who would not consent to the union with the others. The Peacemaker persuaded him to relent by promising him that he could watch over the Council Fire; Tadadaho believed he would be able to remain in control this way [to this day, the Onandaga are the people responsible for keeping the oral history of the Iroquois - The Faith Keepers.] When the representatives from the five nations reached the first League meeting, they had brought weapons. The Peacemaker had them bury their weapons beneath the Great Tree of Peace and admonished all who lived beneath the tree to always look ahead for the sake of the League. He then gave each an arrow. He broke an arrow to show that standing apart from each other, they are easily broken. He then bundled the arrows and failed to break them, showing the strength they will have if they stand together. He then told them that in the future people will come who do not understand the Tree and will hack its roots. When the tree begins to fall, they must hold the tree and keep it from hitting the ground. When they can hold it no longer, they must have their children hold the Tree, for it must never hit the ground (Swamp 1996:42-47.)

The Iroquois Constitution

The Iroquois Confederation probably was complete by 1525, but maybe as early as 1450 (Snow 1996:60.) It is designed to protect the peace within the League, but not necessarily coordinate actions outside the League (Lutz 1998:3.) The Iroquois Constitution, or Great Binding Law [called Ne Gayaneshagowa (O'Brien 1989:18)], is an oral history that describes the political relationship between the Five Nations [six, in 1722, when the Tuscarora from the Carolinas joined as a sort of 'junior member'(O'Brien 1989:18)]; these include the "Older Brothers", the Mohawks and Senecas; the "Younger Brothers", the Cayugas and Oneidas; and the "Keepers of the Council Fire", the Onandangas. (O'Brien 1989:18) The Peacemaker, Dekanawidah, was a Mohawk, and the Mohawk, though having no power greater than the others, are regarded as first among equals. The Onandagas, the tribe of Tadadaho, are the head of the council and the moderators of discussions (O'Brien 1989:18.) Representatives from these five tribes formed the Council of Fifty, led by chiefs, or sachems from each tribe. The Council was the institution of debate, discussion, and decision making amongst the Iroquois.

The clan mothers of the five different tribes appoint Council members to serve. These positions are named after the original holders of the post, and each of the clans are named after animals. The posts are eternal and only the occupants temporal; that is, the office is more important than the office holder is. (Snow 1996:63-64) Certain men could be elevated to the level of Pine Tree Chief or War Chief through great deeds, though they were not allowed to decide matters at the Council Fire, only offer input (Snow 1996:62, and O'Brien 1989:20.) The representation on the Council is not equal amongst the tribes. The Onandaga have 14 members, the Cayuga 10, the Mohawk and Seneca 9 each, and the Oneida 8 (O'Brien 1989:18) Even though membership is not equal in numbers, each tribe is equal in importance at the Council Fire. The Council Fire works on consensus agreement, not majority rule. Essentially, each tribe has veto power, so there is no concern about the unequal numbers of representatives (Snow 1996:61-62.)

Any delegation can bring up any matter for discussion, and if as little as one other tribe wished to discuss it, then the whole Council of Fifty was obliged to hear it. The Older Brothers would consider the topic first, then informed the Younger Brothers of their opinions. If the Younger Brothers, after conferring, agreed, they would pass the opinions to the Onandaga for confirmation or re-referral to the Older Brothers for more discussion. In this way, members were to be of "one heart, one mind, one law." (O'Brien 1989:19) If consensus can not be reached, the Onandaga extinguished the Council Fire, and the tribes are free to act anyway they saw fit, as long as they did not harm the other tribes (Snow 1996:61.) In this way, there is a system of checks and balances amongst the tribes, de-centralization of power, and retention of internal sovereignty of the tribes with the League.

The Onandaga were the Faith Keepers, and held on to the wampum. Wampum were beaded belts that told the history of the Iroquois and were very important features of Council meetings. The Roll Call of the Chiefs and the Condolence Ceremony are key rituals that started each Council meeting (Tooker 1985:xv.) The Roll Call consisted of reading of the legendary names of the first Council members in order to honor their memory. The Condolence Ceremony serves to grieve for the members who had died since the previous meeting, and to confirm, in a sense, the new members appointed by the clan mothers. The meeting spot is a longhouse, built to symbolize and stretch over the entire territory of the Five Nations.

Ne Gayaneshagowa and the U.S. Constitution show a number of similarities. First, both constructs provide for a federal government, with internal sovereignty retained within the larger context of national sovereignty. The original intent of both constructions was similar - to promote peace and harmony within the whole. Representation, debate, checks and balances, servitude (rather than lordship) of the leaders, the sanctity of the office ahead of the office holder, government through persuasion rather than coercion are all qualities that these two forms of government share. Since the Iroquois Confederacy and the Great Binding Law existed here on the American continent prior to the U.S. Constitution, how much influence did Ne Gayaneshagowa have on the Founding Fathers and the development of our government?

The Influence Thesis

Though the idea of Iroquois influence on the development of the U.S. Constitution has long had its adherents, Bruce Johansen, Donald Grinde, and Vine Deloria are the chief proponents of the idea today. Their research has pointed to the contact and influence of the Iroquois on the specific individuals we call the 'Founding Fathers'and the similarities between the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy and the U.S. Constitution, weaving the pieces together with a "mosaic of history" methodology (Johansen 1998:79.) To wit:

life, liberty, and happiness (Declaration of Independence); government by reason and consent rather than coercion (Albany Plan and Articles of Confederation); religious tolerance (and ultimately religious acceptance) instead of a state church; checks and balances; federalism (U.S. Constitution); and relative equality of property, equal rights before the law, and the thorny problem of creating a government that can rule equitably across a broad geographic expanse (Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution). 
Native America had a substantial role in shaping all of these ideas. (Payne 1996:607, quoting Grinde and Johansen, Exemplars of Liberty, xx)

Though these proponents agree that is challenging to find hard and fast historical documentation that creates linear relationships between Iroquois thought and the thinking of the Founding Fathers, they argue that if one were to view the threads of historical information that demonstrate influential ideas, contact, and structural similarities as a whole, one could easily knit together a persuasive case for what is known in scholarly circles as the influence thesis, or the idea that the Iroquois Confederacy had a real and significant influence on the development of the U.S. Constitution.

Johansen makes a persuasive argument that significant contact between the Founding Fathers and Iroquois leaders took place. As early as 1744, Ben Franklin was using his publishing capabilities to turn out quotes from an Onandaga* Tadadaho (speaker) Canasetoga, giving advice to the American colonists as their first whiffs of dissatisfaction with their countrymen in England were brewing:

Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the five nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful Confederacy, and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another. (Johansen 1998:8)


More than a quarter century before the American colonists were even considering independence from Britain, Canasetoga was urging confederation. Not only was independence not a forgone conclusion, but confederation amongst the colonies was long from a forgone conclusion. Their existed a separateness of spirit amongst the American colonies, indeed, right up until the Civil War. Canasetoga's remarks could easily have had some influence on the emerging American mind. One can also easily imagine from this quote that Iroquois thinking and its influence on the framers could have extended beyond this one quote. This in and of itself is noteworthy; when one takes into account that no less an integral figure than Ben Franklin was printing this material, it becomes even more noteworthy. Franklin has been quoted as saying "It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union . . . and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies." (Payne 1996:609) This alone does not win the case for the influence thesis, but it is an example of the type of evidence from which the theses' adherents weave the threads.

Johansen further makes the case through the personage of Ben Franklin. He asserts that Franklin's Albany Plan of Union in 1754, one of the first attempts at colonial union, was based on the Iroquois Confederacy. Franklin had visited the Iroquois earlier and had observed their government in action. Franklin spent his whole life advocating a one-house legislature similar to the one he saw in action in the Iroquois Confederacy. Delegates to the Albany Congress were called using Iroquois terminology. Their purpose was to "brighten the chain" of union, to "sit under the Tree of Peace" (Johansen 1998:9) Johansen further argues that the Mohawk disguises used by the Tea Partiers were not merely for disguise, nor coincidentally Mohawk; it was indeed a tribute to the liberty the Mohawk enjoyed through their Confederacy, as well as a symbolic reminder to themselves of the reasons behind their actions 
(Johansen 1998:9)

John Rutledge, a delegate from South Carolina to the Constitutional Convention, is another of the Founding Fathers thought to be influenced by Iroquois thinking. Rutledge was in charge of the Committee of Detail at the Convention, and it is reported that he opened proceedings of that committee by reading a quote attributed to an Iroquois chief from 1520: "We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order (Johansen 1998:60-61, quoting Charles L. Mee's book The Genius of the People.) Even the most neophyte of students of the Constitution can see the similarity between this quote and the first sentence of the preamble. John Denvir, a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of San Francisco, agreed with this assertion, as did the Christian Science Monitor (Johansen 1998:61.) Rutledge continued to refer to the Iroquois Great Law of Peace while chairing his committee at the Constitutional Convention (Johansen 1998:77.)

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson have left us some additional evidence that the Iroquois and the Iroquois ideals of government may have influenced them. Johansen asserts that Adams, in his book Defence of the Constitution of the United States, discusses the "fifty families of the Iroquois" as a model for the Americans to follow. (Johansen 1998:75) Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the quintessential libertarian in American history, wrote admiringly to John Rutledge during the Constitutional Convention "The only condition on earth to be compared with ours is that of the Indians, where they still have less law than we." (Johansen 1998:75) These are strong words from a man who was no fan of excessive lawmaking.

Iroquois leaders were invited to Independence Hall in 1775 to observe the Continental Congress. They were given positions of honor, indicated by their sleeping quarters in the hall. (Johansen 1998:9.) This bit of history suggests that the Iroquois people were respected, and therefore could have held influence over the thought process of the framers of the emerging American nation.

Much has been made of Iroquois influence on the symbols that were used by the emerging Americans; these comparisons can perhaps be seen as evidence of linkage of thinking between the Iroquois and the framers. The Sons of Liberty utilized the symbol of the 'Tree of Liberty' - perhaps derivative of the Iroquois Great Tree of Peace. (Johansen 1998:51 in a chapter authored by Grinde) The thirteen arrows on the seal of the United States has been traced to Canasetoga's speech where he used a bundle of arrows as a symbol for the strength inherent in a confederate union. (Johansen 1998:84.) As mentioned above, Franklin appealed to Iroquois symbolism in his Albany Plan of Union.

Oral history plays a role in the argument supporting Iroquois influence. The Iroquois legend that tells the story of the creation of the Iroquois Confederacy spoke of a unite-or-perish feeling at the formation of the League. This is similar to the feelings of the Americans when they decided to scrap overly de-centralized Articles of the Confederation in favor of a tighter union at the Constitutional Convention. This similarity speaks to the possibility of Iroquois influence.

There have been a host of scholars and authors who have credited the Iroquois for influencing the thinking of the Founding Fathers. In an 1952 article in American Scholar, Felix Cohen wrote:

. . . it is out of a rich Indian democratic tradition that the distinctive political ideals of American life emerged. Universal suffrage for women as well as men, the pattern of states within a state that we call federalism, the habit of treating chiefs as servants of the people instead of their masters, the insistence that the community must respect the diversity of men and the diversity of their dreams - all these things were part of the American way of life before Columbus landed. (Johansen 1998:24)

Alvin Josephy wrote in praise of Native American government in his book The Patriot Chiefs, suggesting an influential connection while doing so:

So unique a native organization, resting on high-minded principles of republicanism and democracy, eventually quickened the interest of many colonial leaders, including Benjamin Franklin . . . Throughout the eighteenth century, the republican and democratic principles that lay at the heart of the Five Nations' system of self-government had been included among the studies of philosophers of Europe and America who were seeking a more just and humane way for men to be governed. (Johansen 1998:25.)

The noted scholar William Fenton wrote in a paper that was to by published in the Bulletin of the New York 
State Archaeology Society and presented at the World Geophysical Year Science Forum in 1955:

The Six Nations of the Iroquois were very much in the minds of the colonial politicians, several of whom had their first lessons in diplomacy at the fire of the Indian Councils. The old men of the Longhouse, as they styled their confederacy, on several occasions suggested their league as a model for the thirteen colonies. (Johansen 1998:26.)

Virgil Vogel wrote in 1974 in a documentary history of the American Indian:

Montaigne, Rousseau, and Jefferson paid tribute to the Indian capacity to organize human affairs in a libertarian manner. The Iroquois developed a system of confederated government which, according to Benjamin Franklin, served as an example for his Albany Plan of Union, and eventually for the Articles of the Confederation. Felix Cohen has lashed the assumption that our democracy was born in Greece. (Johansen 1998:26)

Paul A. Wallace, an English professor at Pennsylvania, author of White Roots of Peace, compares the structures of the Iroquois Confederacy to the United States, saying "United Nations of the Iroquois . . . provided a model for, and an incentive to, the transformation of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America." (Johansen 1998:25) The school district of Oakland California adopted curriculum that taught of Iroquois influence on the Constitution in 1972. (Johansen 1998:26) Raul Manglapus, the Foreign Secretary of the Philippines, spoke of the "Iroquois Confederacy that preceded the United States Constitution" in a speech about democracy. (Johansen 1998:67) In 1987, the U.S. Senate considered Concurrent Resolution 76, which was meant "To acknowledge the contribution of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the U.S. Constitution." (Johansen 1998:61-62) Johansen himself says "If concepts of freedom and democracy are so purely Western in origin, why did they blossom after Europeans discovered the New World and its societies?" (Johansen 1998:89)

Though these assertions in and of themselves do not prove an Iroquois influence theory, they speak to a significant amount of research and scholarship that defends such a theory. If one does what Johansen and Grinde ask us - that is, to accept a 'mosaic of history' - one might reasonably conclude that there is some merit to the Iroquois influence theory. Iroquois influence does not demand that one believe that the Iroquois Confederacy served as a set of instructions for the Founding Fathers, but rather that the Iroquois Confederacy was at least one of the ingredients in the recipe. Indeed, maybe the Iroquois and other Native Americans were not only influencers of the founding document of our government, but they were also partly responsible for infusing the egalitarian love of liberty that sparked the American Revolution in the first place. It would be hard for the emerging American mind to be ignorant of the native culture and of the Iroquois culture particularly, and to resist admiring their liberty.

Opposition to the Influence Thesis
Not all have warmly embraced the idea that the Iroquois Confederacy informed the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. When Deloria, Grinde, and Johansen aggressively advanced the idea in the 1980's, there was quite a backlash of criticism. George Will dismissed the idea as a "fiction", Pat Buchanan labeled it "idiocy", and D'Nesh D'Souza slammed the idea as "neo-Marxist ideology promoted in the name of multi-culturalism." (Johansen 1998:9,16) Robert Bork wrote "The official promulgation of this idea was not due to any research that disclosed its truth." (Johansen 1998:10) Historian Arthur Schlesinger took issue with the theory, calling it "feel good history." (Johansen 1998:16) Michael Newman wrote in the New Republic "This myth isn't just silly, it's destructive . . . even a cursory examination of Indian history indicates otherwise . . . Obviously Western civilization, beginning in Greece, had provided models of government much closer to the hearts of the Founding Fathers than this one. There was nothing to be gained by looking to the New World for inspiration." (Newman 1998:18) The National Endowment for the Humanities rejected a number of research proposals that dealt with the Iroquois influence theory. (Johansen 1998:64) Johansen's first book on the Iroquois influence, Forgotten Fathers, was ordered removed from the shelves of the bookstore at Independence Hall. (Johansen 1998:65) Elizabeth Tooker continues to be a chief critic of the influence theory, rejecting oral histories and demanding clear linear histories rather than the 'mosaic of history' that Grinde and Johansen advocate. 

Samuel Payne attacks many of the assertions that Grinde and Johansen have made in defense of their influence thesis. He disputes the notion that federalism was an idea lifted from the Indian culture, citing the existence of the federalist body United Colonies of New England in 1643 as an example. Payne has stated that this confederation wrote a constitution called the "Articles of Confederation." (Payne 1996:611) Furthermore, Payne argues that this body functioned like a true confederacy, with internal sovereignty of the colonies blended with the power and sovereignty of the total body. Payne argues that this shows that early English settlers were familiar with confederation almost 100 years before Canasetoga's admonishments towards confederacy, and thirty years before New Englanders even made contact with the Iroquois in 1677 (Payne 1996:); thus, the framers did not necessarily have only the Iroquois to thank for the notion of confederacy.

Payne further asserts that the framers had many potential models for confederacy other than the Iroquois. Ben Franklin had a significant knowledge of Indian culture, but Payne asserts that nowhere in Franklin's writings does he state clearly that the Iroquois Confederacy was the model for his Albany Plan. Even if a connection could be shown, Payne argues, the Albany Plan and the idea Franklin proposed almost 20 years later for confederation differed significantly. (Payne 1996:613) Payne continues by saying that the framers simply did not know that much about Iroquois government; only the most informed did, and when they wrote about it, they compared it to more familiar confederacies like those of ancient Greece and the Netherlands. Payne states that the framers knew of confederacy long beforehand, and as such, the influence of Iroquois government is most probably incidental. (Payne 1996:614)

Payne even goes on to claim that the contact that was had with the Iroquois by the nascent American nation was simply diplomatic - to win favor and support against Britain in the war. He argues that that is why the Iroquois were at Independence Hall during the Continental Congress, and not as a sign of homage to the Iroquois system. He claims that Canasetoga's advice for confederation was simply for the purposes of having a strong ally in the Iroquois struggle against the French. As Payne says, the framers had "no reason to believe that what might have served Iroquois interests in 1744 would serve their own interests in 1775." (Payne 1996:616)

Payne makes further arguments that Grinde and Johansen have made assertions about the Founding Fathers that are simply not supported by primary sources. (Payne 1996:616-618) Philip Levy picks up this tack and provides a convincing deconstruction of Grinde and Johansen; he is particularly damning of the assertions made by Johansen in Forgotten Founders. Levy takes on the claims about Ben Franklin's interest in the Iroquois Confederacy and concludes that proponents overstate it. He (Levy) argues that no citations from Franklin's own writings support the influence theorists' assessment of his motivations for meeting with Canasetoga or printing his quotes. That the meetings and printing are real is not in dispute; Levy merely feels that the influence theorists are creating links where no historical evidence exists to support such links. He criticizes Grinde and Johansen's assertion that internal sovereignty inside a federation "had 'no existing precedent in Europe'" as "hyperbolic."(Levy 1996:592) Levy further asserts that the Franklin-Canasetoga connection only shows that "at least some whites and some Indians in the eighteenth century realized the advantages of confederation." (Levy 1996:592) Levy feels that Grinde and Johansen jump to conclusions and use any evidence of contact between the Founding Fathers, such as Franklin, and the Iroquois as solid proof that real and substantive transmission of ideas took place, accusing them of making "revisionist mountains out of historical molehills." (Levy 1996:593) Levy claims that the plethora of solidly supported evidence that the Founding Fathers had numerous contact with Iroquois and other Indians provide ample opportunity for Grinde and Johansen to manufacture proof.

Levy takes issue with the contention that John Rutledge of South Carolina was a conduit for Iroquois ideas; he calls the idea "farfetched." (Levy 1996:593) Levy contends that Grinde and Johansen are guilty of underdone scholarship, using only Richard Barry's book Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, as a source, citing no writings from Rutledge himself. Levy further criticizes their assertions that Jefferson was influenced by the Iroquois, evidenced by his enormous interest in Indian culture. Levy claims that Jefferson's writings are not cited thoroughly by Grinde and Johansen, and offer no other primary sources as evidence. When Grinde and Johansen do cite Jefferson's writings from Notes on the State of Virginia, they actually are taking words from and appendix to the volume written by Charles Thompson and putting them in Jefferson's mouth. (Levy 1996:594)

Levy continues to find fault with Grinde and Johansen's scholarship. Grinde and Johansen state in their work Exemplar of Liberty that Jefferson said to and Indian delegation in 1802, "your blood will mix with ours, and will spread, with ours, over this great island"; the great island, they claim, could be alluding to the Iroquois creation story, thereby establishing evidence that Jefferson revered Iroquois culture and was thus influenced by it [central to their 'mosaic of history' model.] Levy says that this seems to be a blind denial that the "great island" most probably meant the American continent. Moreover, Levy argues, a careful reading of the entire context of that speech in 1802 would reveal clearly that Jefferson did not revere the Iroquois culture to the extent that Grinde and Johansen seem to assert; indeed, Jefferson wanted to Americanize the Indians, in a Eurocentric manner. Levy writes:

He (Jefferson) encouraged them to adopt Euro-American agriculture: "on the lands now given you to begin to give every man a farm; let him enclose it, cultivate it, build a warm house on it, and when he dies, let it belong to his wife and children after him." Jefferson offered American help: "we are ready to teach you how to make ploughs, hoes, and necessary utensils." Finally, in direct opposition to the influence thesis, he prophesied that . . . "You will find that our laws are good . . . you will wish to live under them." (Levy 1996:594)

This last line Levy finds particularly damning to influence thesis theorists like Grinde and Johansen.

Levy does not stop there. He goes on to deconstruct Grinde and Johansen's conclusions and assertions about John Adams and James Madison. Grinde and Johansen claim that Adams was familiar with Native American culture and Indian governments, and that he wrote thoroughly on the subject. Levy argues that this, too is hyperbole, subject to the scrutiny of his earlier 'contact equals influence' theory. Levy points out that Grinde and Johansen base their conclusions almost exclusively on Adams' Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. The problem, Levy contends, is that this is a three volume set analyzing government from the ancient Greeks through the modern English, but it contains a mere six references to American Indians in any manner. (Levy 1996:595)

Moreover, Grinde and Johansen are just plain wrong on some of the facts in their argument surrounding Adams. Grinde and Johansen claim that Adams received lessons from the Iroquois in 1776, and that he later wrote about in Defence. The lessons that Adams received, Levy claims, spoke of Iroquois alliance with the British, but not about Iroquois governmental systems. Levy feels Adams just didn't know anything about the Iroquois. Furthermore, Levy argues, Adams was in London for the winter when Grinde and Johansen claim he received the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant for a visit that might have included a discussion of Iroquois government. Not only is this conjecture, Levy asserts, but it is incorrect conjecture, since Adams was a whole ocean away at the time. (Levy 1996:596) Levy's argument continues for several pages, carefully challenging the veracity and accuracy of the claims that Grinde and Johansen have made regarding the connection that Adams had with Iroquois thought. He then does the same for Grinde and Johansen's claims about James Madison, showing through careful analysis of Madison's papers and other primary sources that Madison was not where Grinde and Johansen say he was, did not have meetings they say he did, and did not have the correspondence they claim him to have. Furthermore, Levy shows through the use of firsthand resources that on the occasions that Madison traveled to Indian territory, he was certainly not on fact-finding missions, but rather nights of revelry and drinking. (Levy 1996:596-602) Payne even points out that in his speeches at the Virginia convention to ratify the Constitution, Madison speaks admiringly of the Swiss Confederacy and United Provinces of the Netherlands, but not the Iroquois; in Federalist 18, 19, and 20, Madison discussed the Holy Roman Empire, the Achean League, Poland, the Swiss Confederacy, the Netherlands, but not the Iroquois. (Payne 1996:618) Levy not only challenges Grinde and Johansen on their conclusions (i.e. criticizes the 'contact as influence' analysis - making sweepingly generalized conclusions from facts most historians would judge as minor, including too much conjecture in their arguments), but further attacks the very quality of scholarship and research of Grinde and Johansen, systematically illuminating shoddy research.

Academic Turf Wars

Grinde and Johansen have certainly stirred up some strong reaction with their influence thesis among those academics who study Native American culture. The turf war on this question is a most interesting display of the creation of histories at work. The seemingly knee-jerk reactions of many academics as well as serious journalists, as mentioned before, indicate strong feelings about the subject, and maybe even suggest that something more than the search for truth is at work. There is certainly a sense in this debate that 'academic turf' is being protected at the expense of truth. Elizabeth Tooker's reaction to Grinde and Johansen is one example of this. She has been quite adamant in her opposition to the influence thesis, arguing for more solid, linear proof, rejecting oral history and the 'mosaic model of history.' It seems that there is little surprising about this; however, Grinde and Johansen have fired back, somewhat convincingly, that her reading of history is too simplistic. Tooker, they argue, is too rigid to conclude that, because Iroquois government worked on consensus rule instead of the American idea of the majority, and that Iroquois council members are nominated by clan mothers, not elected like Senators, that the influence thesis is obviously bogus. This, Grinde and Johansen argue, is over-the-top reductionism. (Johansen 1998:74-75) Moreover, Tooker's insistence on paper history as ipso facto more reliable than oral history is Eurocentric, since Native Americans had no written language and were quite sure of their oral history. (Johansen 1998:76) In the William and Mary Quarterly, they join the debate with Payne and Levy and criticize them for a reading of the history of the development of the U.S. Constitution as too narrow and not taking into account a larger mosaic of history. (Grinde and Johansen 1996:621) They claim that Levy is guilty of criticism without standards - Levy demands proof, but fails to offer what he will accept as proof, he only wishes to show that Grinde and Johansen have not offered it. Indeed, they accuse him of "operating with a moving target." Grinde and Johansen move into a 'tit-for-tat' style argument, accusing Levy of shaping quotes out of context to produce the result he wants. (Grinde and Johansen 1996:622) When William Starna and James Axtell hurl accusations of "awful history" and "weasel history" at Grinde and Johansen, the latter pair argue that they do so without any real sense of the scholarship in the field. (Johansen 1998:86-87) Actions of the NEH, rejecting thesis proposals about influence theory, difficulty getting scholarship published, paranoid removal of books from national park bookstores - Grinde and Johansen find these all to be defensive reactions against a scared academic establishment not interested in truth but rather interested in squashing it.

Grinde and Johansen, it seems, are not innocent of the charges of hysteria. Through their writings, they seem to hint that anyone who opposes their ideas is simply not comfortable with anyone other than a white male writing history. Grinde, who is a Native American, particularly espouses this view. Johansen is eager to point out that he is a white male, somehow suggesting that that fact alone should add legitimacy to his argument, since he should be seen as being free from political agenda advancement. They spend a good bit of time characterizing reactions to their work as borderline hysterical, and find conspiracies percolating in most academic circles. Indeed, a common weapon they use in their defense is to define and categorize their opponents attacks as employing shaky methodology or motivation in an attempt to deconstruct the credibility of these attacks. They seem to conveniently refer to these attacks as an ad hominem attack or a reductio ad absurdum (Johansen 1998:13), ironically using these labels as justification when they fail to counter their opponents' arguments on the merits of history very convincingly. Though they do frequently attempt to fight the fight on historical merits, they are not afraid to resort to the defense of illustrating their opponents supposed political agenda or bias, hoping that that alone will serve as a sound defense of their ideas. They sweep away the challenges of journalists and thinkers like Bork, claiming political agenda on his part rather than defending themselves against the charge that their work is not solidly researched. Indeed, Johansen has the habit of referring to those who he sees as in control of the academic processes (publishing houses, conference organizers, tenure committees) as 'Trolls.' In this he refers to a Troll in children's fables who controls passage over the bridge. His metaphor is obvious; unfortunately, it seems to cast him in a less than serious light.

The fight continues. One thing is certain, however - it has been said that people should not want to see two things being made, sausage and the law - to that, we might add history. This is a messy, emotionally charged, wonderfully interesting grudge match. It is the stuff that makes history as a discipline a real, breathing, organic thing. At this point, Vine Deloria, a supporter of the influence thesis, will get the last word:

Some years ago, Bruce Johansen poolside a little book entitled Forgotten Founders . . . a wave of nauseous panic spread through the old-boy's network of Iroquois studies since a commoner had dared to write in a field already dominated by self-appointed experts. Donald Grinde . . . published The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation [1977], elaborating on this heresy which was becoming an open scandal.

Damage control measures went into effect, and soon Grinde and Johansen found their NEH grant proposals turned down by readers who emphasized the orthodox interpretation of Iroquois studies. Conservative newspaper columnists, learning of the controversy, promptly marched into historical debates of which they had no knowledge whatsoever and chastised Johansen and Grinde, and proposals by the two scholars to have an open debate over the topic were generally turned aside as if mere physical contact with the two would be a sign of incipient heresy.

Into the fray rode Elisabeth Tooker . . . [who] demonstrated, the her satisfaction, the impossibility of the Six Nations having any relevance at all for American constitutional thinking. Tooker's argument is so wonderfully naïve and anthrocentric that it makes the informed observer of the debate weep for her inability to free herself from the blinders which adherence to anthro doctrine has required her to wear.

This debate has not really been joined properly because what Johansen and Grinde are saying is simply that considerably more material must be examined before hard and fast conclusions are drawn. Tooker's argument, it seems to me, is simply that materials, and arrangement of these materials which the entrenched scholars of anthropology have amassed, are sufficient to answer all questions regarding the Six Nations - period. The real debate, therefore, is over authority: to whom shall we listen - about anything? Here the credentials of the past, no matter how valiantly won, are just not enough to dominate or close debate on a subject - period. (Johansen 1998:82)


Conclusions in Favor of the Influence Thesis

It seems that there is sufficient reason to believe there is some merit to the influence thesis. If not an acceptance of its veracity, there seems to be justification for its continued existence so that it may be further debated and studied by professional scholars. There is simply too much evidence to suggest that the influence thesis be put to rest and regarded as simply another fiction out of the world of revisionist historians* Ben Franklin was the consummate borrower of culture. He was one of the earliest American progressivist thinkers. It is not a great leap of faith, in light of this assessment of his character, combined with historical evidence, to suggest that the Iroquois influenced Franklin. Canasetoga's speech, the Albany Plan of Union, and the symbolism of that congress are hard to ignore. 

Symbolism of the early American political movements in general is hard to ignore. The evidence presented by Grinde and Johansen on this front is worthy of inclusion in the debate. The Sons of Liberty with their Liberty Tree, the arrows on the United States seal, the Mohawk pretenders at the Tea Party (especially since Mohawk are not local to the Massachusetts Bay) are all examples of some level of connection with not only Iroquois culture, but examples of some level of estimation of Iroquois government.

As stated earlier, Iroquois and Native American culture could have provided the stirrings of liberty in the emerging American mind. The Iroquois were egalitarian and liberty loving, and it seems that it would be hard to argue that a mighty and powerful nation in such proximity to the American colonies would have no influence on the thought of those Americans. If one were to give the 'mosaic of history' model some validity, then one does not need to make a leap of faith to accept the assertion that Iroquois thinking filtered its way into the shape of the American mind at the founding of the American nation.

Conclusions in Opposition to the Influence Thesis

When one ponders the arguments of the opposition, one finds some real points to consider. Levy makes a particularly damning deconstruction of Grinde and Johansen. Even a layperson can see that there are quite a few "perhaps" and "might haves" in Grinde's and Johansen's arguments; there simply does not seem to be the solid, documented, primary, linear sources that the current historical establishment typically relies on for indicators of veracity. For example, even though Canasetoga gave some good advice does not necessarily mean that the framers heard it. The presence of the Iroquois at the Continental Congress could have just as easily been an early attempt at diplomacy with the people who were to soon become the infant nation's closest neighbor nation.

Other things are troubling when one tries to buy the argument Grinde and Johansen are advancing. A good amount of evidence has been presented by Levy that the Founding Fathers were simply not that interested in Indian culture, and certainly did not hold that culture in high esteem. Why then, one might ask, would these framers rely so heavily on that same culture when building the foundation of their own new nation, cut out of whole cloth? Additionally, the framers spoke of egalitarianism, but they themselves were aristocratic. Adams, Jefferson and the rest did not do a great deal of backbreaking work in their day. One might conclude from a study of American history that the liberty they sought was for the liberty of their own privileged class, not the liberty of all. Indeed, early American democracy was very much like Greek democracy, with its emphasis on class structure, property conditions for participation in the democracy, and even slavery. In any event, it certainly did not resemble the egalitarianism of the Iroquois Confederacy. Furthermore, the English came to colonize in totality. The French and Spanish were looking to advance economic concerns, not necessarily build a home. The English came with families in tow. It is entirely reasonable to think that they would have also brought with them their English culture, including a reverence for British ideals of social organization. They were certainly not looking for new cultural horizons and did not intend to assimilate with the natives. Indeed, the history of English, and then American, cultural growth is also, in part, the history of the 'steamrolling' of Native American culture. One may conclude that the English / Americans, having so little regard for Indian culture, would not have been particularly influenced by it when drafting their government.

Conclusions in General

It seems as though the truth, as is so often the case with disagreements, lies somewhere in the middle. The Iroquois probably held some sway over the thinking of the Framers and the development of the U.S. Constitution and the development of American democracy, albeit perhaps indirectly or even subconsciously. Grinde's and Johansen's 'mosaic of history' model probably has some merit, and even without a 'smoking gun' we can consider the veracity of their arguments. However, the opposition is probably also correct, and Grinde, Johansen, and others overstate the case - the Iroquois influence is not as great as they would like it to be, the framers simply did not revere or even understand much of Iroquois culture, and their influences were European or classical - not wholly New World. If the arguments above have shown anything, they have shown this - both sides are somewhat right, and as Payne graciously observes, the Iroquois influence thesis "deserves serious, critical examination." (Payne 1996:603)

Some Other Conclusions

The academic battle will continue before consensus is reached. There will be those who continue to decry revisionism in our history. Perhaps this revisionist history, whether or not it eventually carries the day, will be a good thing. Stirring the pot challenges assumptions and forces us to continue the search for truth. Revisionism is to the study of history what mutations are to genetics - they keep the whole thing dynamic and evolving. Writing history is a tough thing. The heavens do not open and present us with unassailable history textbooks. We must argue, fight, and disagree about our history as we go through the tough work of interpreting it. Stirring up the blood of the historian establishment is normal and a good thing. Stale history serves nobody.

Cultural evolution is messy thing. Our sense of Americanness is informed by a plethora of cultural influences. When one looks to identify clear, mathematical linear relationships and direct lines of cultural evolution, one might become quite disappointed. To be sure such links exist, but much of cultural development is non-linear. We can see that much through the investigation of the Iroquois influence thesis.


* It is important to note that the Onandaga were the tribe charged with keeping the oral history of the Iroquois nation.
* It has been said that the second historian was the first revisionist!

Sources Cited - Books
Johansen, Bruce E.
(1998) Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.
O'Brien, Sharon
(1989) American Indian Tribal Governments. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Snow, Dean
(1996) The Iroquois. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.
Tooker, Elisabeth, ed.
(1985) An Iroquois Sourcebook. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Sources Cited - Journals
Grinde, Donald A. and Bruce E. Johansen
1996 Sauce for the Goose: Demand and Definitions for "Proof" Regarding the Iroquois and Democracy. William and Mary Quarterly 53(3):628-635.
Levy, Philip A.
1996 Exemplars of Taking Liberties: The Iroquois Influence Thesis and the Problem of Evidence. William and Mary Quarterly 53(3):587-604.
Lutz, Donald S.
1998 The Iroquois Confederation Constitution: an Analysis. Publius 28(2):99-131.
Newman, Michael
1998 Founding Feathers: The Iroquois and the Constitution. The New Republic 199(19):17-21.
Payne, Samuel B.
1996 The Iroquois League, the Articles of the Confederation, and the Constitution. William and Mary Quarterly 53(3):605-620.
Swamp, Jake
1996 The Peacemaker's Journey: Haudenesaunee. Parabola 21(3):42-47.

Other References
Fenton, William N.
(1998) Great Law and the Longhouse. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
Fenton, William N., ed.
(1968) Parker on the Iroquois. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Morgan, Lewis Henry
(1961) League of the Iroquois. New York: Corinth Books.



Native Americans: Past and Present B. Cook
Final Project Iroquois Confederacy and the Influence Thesis
December 11, 2000 3