Befitting the Fourth of July holiday, today's New York Times has an interesting piece by Charles Mann recognizing the little-discussed Native American contribution to what eventually evolved into the American democratic spirit, particularly with regard to notions of limited government and individual freedom:
- The Iroquois confederation was governed by a constitution, the Great Law of Peace, which established the league's Great Council [...] What was striking to the contemporary eye was that the 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with constraining the Great Council as with granting it authority. "Their whole civil policy was averse to the concentration of power in the hands of any single individual," explained Lewis Henry Morgan, a pioneering ethnographer of the Iroquois.
The council's jurisdiction was limited to relations among the nations and outside groups; internal affairs were the province of the individual nations. Even in the council's narrow domain, the Great Law insisted that every time the royaneh confronted "an especially important matter or a great emergency," they had to "submit the matter to the decision of their people" in a kind of referendum open to both men and women.
In creating such checks on authority, the league was just the most formal expression of a regionwide tradition. Although the Indian sachems on the Eastern Seaboard were absolute monarchs in theory, wrote the colonial leader Roger Williams, in practice they did not make any decisions "unto which the people are averse." These smaller groups did not have formal, Iroquois-style constitutions, but their governments, too, were predicated on the consent of the governed. Compared to the despotisms that were the norm in Europe and Asia, the societies encountered by British colonists were a libertarian dream.
As many colonists observed, the limited Indian governments reflected levels of personal autonomy unheard of in Europe. "Every man is free," a frontiersman, Robert Rogers, told a disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no person, white or Indian, sachem or slave, has any right to deprive anyone else of his freedom. The Iroquois, Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, held "such absolute notions of liberty that they allow of no kind of superiority of one over another, and banish all servitude from their territories."
In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists' allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members - surrounded by examples of free life - always had the option of voting with their feet.
It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life. But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of American Indian culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, aristocrat and peasant alike. Others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility.
Historians have been reluctant to acknowledge this contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Yet a plain reading of Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine shows that they took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the colonists who held their Boston Tea Party dressed as "Mohawks." When others took up European intellectuals' books and histories, images of Indian freedom had an impact far removed in time and space from the 16th-century Northeast.
Freedom-lovers and libertarians will certainly relate to this sentiment:
- "There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America," a [17th century European] missionary unhappily observed. "All these barbarians have the law of wild asses - they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit."
So when you gather tonight to celebrate the American independence amid fireworks displays and the grand 1812 Overture, please be sure to pay proper respects to the Native American influence on the ideology that spawned this nation.