American Indian Influence on the Founding of the US

The Trial of Red Jacket
John Mix Stanley/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In telling the history of the rise of the United States and modern democracy, high school history texts typically emphasize the influence of ancient Rome on the founding fathers' ideas about what form the new nation would take. Even college and graduate-level political science programs bias this history, while there is substantial scholarship on the influence the founding fathers derived from Native American governing systems and philosophies. A survey of the documentation demonstrating those influences based on the work of Robert W. Venables and others is telling for what the founders absorbed from Indians and what they intentionally rejected in their crafting of the Articles of Confederation and later the Constitution.

Pre-Constitutional Era

In the late 1400's when Christian Europeans began to encounter the indigenous inhabitants of the New World, they were forced to come to terms with a race of people their religious claims to absolute and universal truth had omitted. While the natives had captured the Europeans' imaginations and by the 1600's knowledge of the Indians was widespread in Europe, their attitudes toward them would be based on comparisons to themselves. These ethnocentric understandings would result in narratives about Indians which would embody the concept of either the "noble savage" or the "brutal savage," but savage nonetheless. Examples of these images can be seen throughout European and pre-revolutionary American culture in the works of literature by the likes of Shakespeare (particularly "The Tempest"), Michel de Montaigne, John Locke, Rousseau, and many others.

Benjamin Franklin's Views on Indians

During the years of the Continental Congress and the drafting of the Articles of Confederation, the Founding Father who was by far the most influenced by Indians and had bridged the gap between European conceptions (and misconceptions) and real life in the colonies was Benjamin Franklin. Born in 1706 and a newspaper journalist by trade, Franklin wrote on his many years of observations and interactions with natives (most often the Iroquois but also the Delawares and Susquehannas) in a classic essay of literature and history called "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America." In part, the essay is a less than flattering account of Iroquois impressions of the colonist's way of life and education system, but more than that the essay is a commentary on the conventions of Iroquois life. Franklin seemed impressed by the Iroquois political system and noted: "for all their government is by the Council or advice of the sages; there is no force, there are no prisons, no officers to compel obedience, or inflict punishment.

Hence they generally study oratory; the best speaker having the most influence" in his eloquent description of government by consensus. He also elaborated on Indians' sense of courtesy in Council meetings and compared them to the raucous nature of the British House of Commons.

In other essays, Benjamin Franklin would elaborate on the superiority of Indian foods, especially corn which he found to be "one of the most agreeable and wholesome grains of the world." He would even argue the need for American forces to adopt Indian modes of warfare, which the British had successfully done during the French and Indian war.

Influences on the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution

In conceiving the ideal form of government, the colonist's drew upon European thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Montesquieu, and John Locke. Locke, in particular, wrote about Indians' "state of perfect freedom" and argued theoretically that power should not derive from a monarch but from the people. But it was the colonist's direct observations of the political practices of the Iroquois Confederacy which convinced them how power vested in "we the people" actually produced a functional democracy. According to Venables, the concept of the pursuit of life and liberty are directly attributable to Native influences. However, where Europeans diverged from Indian political theory was in their conceptions of property; the Indian philosophy of communal landholding was diametrically opposed to the European idea of individual private property, and it was the protection of private property that would be the thrust of the Constitution (until the creation of the Bill of Rights, which would return the focus to the protection of liberty).

Overall, however, as Venables argues, the Articles of Confederation would more closely reflect American Indian political theory than the Constitution, and ultimately to the detriment of the Indian nations. The Constitution would create a central government in which power would be concentrated, versus the loose confederation of the cooperative but independent Iroquois nations, which much more closely resembled the union created by the Articles. Such concentration of power would enable imperialist expansion of the United States along the lines of the Roman Empire, which the Founding Fathers embraced more than the liberties of the "savages," who they saw as inevitably meeting the same fate as their own tribal ancestors in Europe. Ironically, the Constitution would follow the very pattern of British centralization that the colonists rebelled against, despite the lessons they learned from the Iroquois.