Did Indian Nations Influence the American Founders?

Whether or not the Founders or Framers — the people who helped to form the American government — influenced the structure of the United States government is a fairly raucous debate that recurs again and again. We are reminded of it by the recent posting of Erik Jensen’s 1991 paper repudiating the connection between the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace and the American constitutional structure of federalism (here). Shortly thereafter (in 1993), Robert Miller published a paper purporting to show both significant “positive” and “negative” influences from tribal nations (not just the Haudenosaunee) on the Framers (Miller’s paper here). And there are numerous other studies in other fields, some of which get pretty vituperative.

We are struck by the superficial aspects of the origins of both the Haudenosaunee Confederation and the United States — uniting to confront a common enemy, it would seem.

And we are struck by the amount of scholarly (and other) literature that seeks a connection between the Haudenosaunee and Ben Franklin, and the amount of writing generated to harshly debunk those theories.

We want your opinions on this subject. Why is it important to many Indians that the American Constitution have Indian roots or influence? Why is it important to others that the American Constitution be free of Indian roots or influence?

And finally: Do you think the American Constitution would look the same if the Founders had no knowledge of tribal nations?

6 thoughts on “Did Indian Nations Influence the American Founders?

  1. Bryan Newland August 19, 2009 / 2:27 pm

    I will bite, professor. I don’t think that it is so inconceivable that adjacent Indigenous nations influenced their neighbors. It is undeniable that tribal nations influenced the way that our guests from the east cooked, farmed, hunted, spoke, and lived. Why, then, do so many doubt that the “framers” borrowed political ideas from their neighbors as well?

    I think the real issue here is the degree of legitimacy that is conferred upon tribal political structures, in particular, and tribal nations, in general, through the notion that they influenced the “framers” in establishing the United States. If the “framers” did, in fact, borrow some ideas from the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, it means that tribes had preexisting political systems that allowed them to exercise “legitimate” sovereignty (in the eyes of non-Indians). Thus, modern tribal claims of inherent sovereignty would also be legitimized.

    It is similar to scholarly attempts to retroactively build an ice bridge between North America and Asia, in that those efforts would tend to delegitimize tribal claims to original interest in the lands of North America. After all, if we are all “migrants” to this terra nullius, nobody’s claim to the land is superior.

    Thus, there are modern political consequences to this historical debate.

  2. Johnny Flynn August 19, 2009 / 3:08 pm

    Thanks to Prof. Fletcher for this wonderful website and offer of engagement on this issue. Two different species, a duck and a fish, share the same water, eat essentially the same food, and yet one has feathers and lives on the water and the other has scales and lives under the water. They both use the medium in different ways but can be said to be “of the water.” Same with the Great Law of Peace and the founding of the American Nation. There was an “air of freedom” and wellspring of egalitarianism here on the Turtle continent from which both systems breathed and drank. Jefferson attributed the right of man to ‘laws of nature’ and nature’s god in the D of I which all agreed was different from the Christian god and right of rule by the ‘divine blood’ of royalty. Nuff said.

  3. Darren Bonaparte August 19, 2009 / 4:41 pm

    “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

    From the Declaration of Independence

    “The Expedition you are appointed to command is to be directed against the hostile tribes of the Six Nations of Indians, with their associates and adherents. The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.

    I would recommend, that some post in the center of the Indian Country, should be occupied with all expedition, with a sufficient quantity of provisions whence parties should be detached to lay waste all the settlements around, with instructions to do it in the most effectual manner, that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.”

    Orders of George Washington
    to General John Sullivan
    At Head-Quarters
    May 31, 1779

    Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not feeling the love!

  4. Johnny Flynn August 20, 2009 / 9:41 am

    Mr. Bonaparte, you are comparing apples and oranges. It is possible for the fledgling govt to borrow principles that it does not extend to all citizens and in fact are denied to most (women, blacks, Indians) for a long time. The question Prof Fletcher is asking is; “Did Indian nations influence the establishment of the US?” The short answer is “yes,” of course. Consider that the establishment of a more perfect UNION was an utter rejection of institutions from across the pond. If they reject that blueprint, what else did they use to build that union? They borrowed military tactics, food, agricultural methods, stole the land and resources, what makes one think that it is possible they overlooked worldviews and political acumen? On a final note, answer the question, How did Hillary lose the nomination in ’08? Answer: She ignored the caucus states. Look up the etymology of the word caucus and you will find Algonquin: meeting to establish a consensus among like-minded folks.

  5. Ms. Lee September 9, 2011 / 6:19 pm

    My background is in psychology and information theory, so this debate reminds me of debates about the influence of media. People like to believe they are not influenced by media, but accumulated evidence show that media is more influential than most people acknowledge. So, I’m skeptical of claims that people are not influenced by information their bodies absorb.
    I’m not Indian or European American, have no stake in Indian legitimacy or land claims, and don’t care about such claims (even non-Indian ones). What matters to me is our understanding of how influence works. Like people’s ignorance or discounting of media’s influence, people have failed to take into account many influences. This is often due to influence occurring subconsciously and not made conscious.
    Conscious, effortful asserting or discounting of influence, however, requires some motivation. In the case of discounting media’s influence, people want to maintain a sense of control (also related to: personal integrity/responsibility, autonomy, originality, or free will). Thus, people in the role of influencee (media consumers, US citizens vis-à-vis Indians) want to discount being effected without their consent or against their will or conscience. People in the role of influencer (e.g. advertisers, Native Americans vis-à-vis other Americans) want to impress upon clients or peers their previous contributions and continuing ability to (“positively”) affect beings as much as, if not more than, their competitors.
    What is at stake isn’t just political-economic but also social-psychological. People, whether as individuals or as group members, prefer to feel that they or their groups are in control or helpful, not controlled or helpless. Add to that the desire for oneself or one’s group to be superior, and you get arguments about influence even when land or nationhood isn’t at stake.

    Anyway, the debate isn’t so much about whether influence occurred as it is about what kind of influence occurred. “Roots,” “borrow,” “model,” “based on,” and other such terms are used in describing what kind of influence the Indian nations did or did not have on American politics. The word “borrow” or “model,” especially, implies positive valuations of the things borrowed or modeled, as well as implying the ownership or originality of those from which the things were borrowed or modeled. Attributing to persons the ownership or origin of ideas is fraught with conceptual problems, plus empirical problems once you’ve decided what conception to test. I doubt there’s enough data to test whether “the American Constitution would look the same if the Founders had no knowledge of tribal nations,” controlling for the Framers’ reactions to Indian threats, which has no bearing on whether the Framers modeled their government on Indians’.
    I must say, I’ve been frustrated with the assumption that one’s ideas must have come from others. This assumption is prevalent in academic philosophy, including political theory. Yet, we know that people often come to similar solutions to similar problems without copying the solutions from others. Perhaps if we focus more on problems and solutions, rather than on particular individuals or groups, we will have a more useful understanding of history…and less self-serving assumptions or valuations about beings.

  6. Bryon Watkins March 21, 2012 / 3:39 pm

    I think and vehemently believe it’s EXTREMELY important to give credit where credit is due. Our United States Constitution is a very important piece if literature and if it was influenced by the Indian Tribes like the Algonquin Indian tribe from modern Michigan and Quebec. Then then they need to get credit for the idea of the United States Constitution.

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