U. S. Constitution: Thank the Indians

The Constitution of the United States of America was drafted in 1787 and became effective in 1789.  It is an extraordinary document, to which all laws of the land must conform.  By its carefully worded provisions, however, the field of its law stipulations is self-limiting, for the powers of sovereignty of the United States are divided between Federal and State governments.  All states have constitutions of their own, but state laws must conform to both the Federal and to the State constitution.  The Preamble of the Federal Constitution is a stirring declaration, which, unfortunately, is little remembered in today’s hustle and bustle.  We should pause now and then to reconsider the ideals that were set forth in the short Preamble.

“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These wonderful and stirring ideals and intent did not blossom forth out of European models with its long and troubled line of kings, emperors, tyrants and heavy church domination.  The inspiration for such a declaration of noble purpose has been little acknowledged: the democratic principles came from the American Indians—the Iroquois Federation of five native nations which included the Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida and Cayuga tribes.  The Iroquois Federation had, at the time of drafting of the U. S. Constitution, been in existence from around 1500—or for some 287 years.

Each of the five tribes was self-governing, and no king presided over the Federation.  Each tribe was represented in a grand council, and members of the council decided upon a collective policy such as defense and trade agreements, but each tribe followed their own customs and tribal laws. 

The author/consultant/teacher Stan Steiner, whose interest was focused largely on western Indian cultures, wrote that Benjamin Franklin became intrigued with Indian forms of government around 1744.  Franklin attended a meeting of colonial governors in that year which was addressed by Chief Canasatego of the Iroquois Federation.  The Chief explained the Indian confederacy, saying that their means of governing were the same methods established by their wise forefathers.  He also asserted to the assembled governors that by observing the same methods “…you will acquire such strength and power…” as their union had provided.

In 1754 delegates to the Albany Congress met to discuss matters of governing.  Benjamin Franklin was there and his suggestion was to study the Iroquois Federation system of governing.  His recommendation noted that the Indian system “…had subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble.”  But it would be decades before the Iroquois Federation model would inspire the gathering of statesmen in 1787.  Franklin was in attendance then as well when the democratic principles expressed by the Iroquois Federation became incorporated into the U. S. Constitution.

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