When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in 1787 to debate what form of government the United States should have, there were no contemporary democracies in Europe from which they could draw inspiration. The most democratic forms of government that any of the convention members had personally encountered were those of Native American nations. Of particular interest was the Iroquois Confederacy, which historians have argued wielded a significant influence on the U.S. Constitution.
What evidence exists that the delegates studied Native governments? Descriptions of them appear in the three-volume handbook John Adams wrote for the convention surveying different types of governments and ideas about government. It included European philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu, whom U.S. history textbooks have long identified as constitutional influences; but it also included the Iroquois Confederacy and other Indigenous governments, which many of the delegates knew through personal experience.
“You had the Cherokee chiefs having dinner with [Thomas] Jefferson’s father in Williamsburg, and then in the northern area of course you had this Philadelphia interaction with the Delaware and the Iroquois,” says Kirke Kickingbird, a lawyer, member of the Kiowa Tribe and coauthor with Lynn Kickingbird of Indians and the United States Constitution: A Forgotten Legacy.
Since the U.S. had trade and diplomatic relationships with Native governments, Kickingbird says, thinking the constitutional framers weren’t familiar with them is like saying, “Gosh, I didn’t know the Germans and the French knew each other.”
Similarities and Differences Between the Iroquois Confederacy and the US Constitution
The Iroquois Confederacy was in no way an exact model for the U.S. Constitution. However, it provided something that Locke and Montesquieu couldn’t: a real-life example of some of the political concepts the framers were interested in adopting in the U.S.
The Iroquois Confederacy dates back several centuries, to when the Great Peacemaker founded it by uniting five nations: the Mohawks, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Oneida and the Seneca. In around 1722, the Tuscarora nation joined the Iroquois, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Together, these six nations formed a multi-state government while maintaining their own individual governance.
This stacked-government model influenced constitutional framers’ thinking, says Donald A. Grinde, Jr., a professor of transnational studies at the University of Buffalo, member of the Yamasee nation and co-author with Bruce E. Johansen of Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.
The constitutional framers “cite the Iroquois and other Native governments as examples of [federalism],” he says. “Marriage and divorce is taken care of right in the village; it’s not a thing that the national government or the chiefs have to do with. Each tribe might have its own issues, but the Iroquois Confederacy is about…unification through mutual defense and it conducts foreign affairs.”
The chiefs of the six nations were hereditary rulers, something the framers wanted to avoid, given their grievances with Britain’s King George III. Still, the framers “did seek to borrow aspects of Iroquois government that enabled them to assert the people's sovereignty over vast geographic expanses since they found no governments in Europe with these characteristics,” Grinde and Johansen write in Exemplar of Liberty.
Congress Formally Recognizes Iroquois Influence
The fact that many of the framers looked to Native governments for inspiration didn’t stop them from viewing Native people as inferior. This disconnect is evident in a 1751 letter from Benjamin Franklin describing the need for the 13 colonies to form a “voluntary Union” similar to that of the Iroquois Confederacy:
“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 be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.”
The United States’ bias and violence against Native Americans may have helped obscure the framers’ interest in their governments. However, public awareness of this connection increased around the 1987 bicentennial marking the 200th anniversary of the Constitution.
“Oren Lyons, who was a Faithkeeper for the Iroquois Confederacy, went to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs and broached this subject,” Grinde says. “And then I went down to Washington and testified before the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs.”
This motivated the committee’s chair, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, to help Congress pass a 1988 resolution formally acknowledging the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy on the U.S. Constitution. In addition to this recognition, the resolution reaffirmed “the continuing government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States established in the Constitution”—an acknowledgement of the legitimacy and sovereignty of Native nations and their governments.