Where Did The Founders Get The Idea Of Democracy?
The largest Native American advocacy group, the National Congress of American Indians, criticized Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon’s “60 Minutes” comment when he stated that “all Americans are immigrants except Native Americans” is a “thing of the leftists.”
As a rebuttal, the National Congress asserted “‘America,’ a term Mr. Bannon uses to refer to the United States of America, owes its founding, its place, and its very survival to the original, Indigenous inhabitants of this land – the ‘First Americans’.”
The group then followed that statement with a curious claim: “America as a democratic society and government was modeled after the Great Law of Peace, the oral constitution of the Iroquois Confederacy.”
It is quite common for Americans to hear that the Amerindians are the real Americans and everyone else is an immigrant, as I noted in my last column. What is less common to hear, however, is the assertion that we as a nation owe our democratic system to the native tribes. (RELATED: Taking Down Christopher Columbus)
The statement was described by the entertainment site The Wrap as a “much-needed history lesson” for Bannon. But, is it actually proper history?
It’s come to be a motif on the Left to imagine the Iroquois were the model par excellence for the Founding Fathers. In 1987, Congress passed a resolution acknowledging the contributions of the tribe to the country. In 2012, a widely-shared article from the left-wing humor site Cracked claimed the Iroquois originated many of the democratic principles we’ve come to hold dear.
While the Iroquois Confederacy may have a few similarities with the republican government set up by the Founding Fathers, anyone who has ever picked up a history book knows there were many European precedents that the Founders based our country on.
In contrast, the claim made by the National Congress of American Indians strongly implies the white man had never heard of democracy before he stole it from the Iroquois.
Even the liberal-leaning Politifact knows that this is a fraudulent notion.
Politifact rated a similar claim made in a viral Facebook meme that the Constitution was based on the tribal confederacy as “mostly false.” The fact checker based its conclusion on scholarly consensus that the Iroquois Confederacy had many sharp differences with the American system, and the Founders modeled their government on European sources instead.
“Even if the Iroquois Confederation was similar to the Constitution, which it was not, and even if some Americans admired aspects of Indian culture, that does not mean the Framers emulated Native American systems,” Stewart Jay, a law professor at the University of Washington, told Politifact at the time of their fact check.
But in spite of their “mostly false” rating, the fact checking site spent most of its article entertaining the idea the Founders copied our democratic system from the Iroquois in a possible concession to political correctness.
Only at the end of the piece is the reader finally served the scholarly consensus dispensing with this faulty notion. The fact check notes that the Iroquois Confederacy was a diplomatic alliance that had more in common with the United Nations then the American union. It was also led by a hereditary, clan-based caste — an idea totally antithetical to American political tradition.
“There is little in this system of governance the Founding Fathers might have been expected to copy,” anthropologist Elizabeth Tooker was noted by Politifact as stating.
The one major element left out of the article is the many European examples the Founders looked to for guidance in creating a new nation.
The makers of America were immersed in the classics and saw Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic as models to study. More recent (as in the 18th century) influences could be found in the intellectual and political developments in Europe at the time.
The Enlightenment served as an intellectual catalyst on the founding with its emphasis on liberty, property rights and numerous other cornerstones of American democratic society. The republican political tradition in Britain provided many of the values of our early Republic, as shown in the work of such respected historians as Bernard Bailyn and Gordon Wood.
Even before the Revolution, American colonists already had a sense of democratic values, such as property rights, and demand for representation in government, based on their status as Englishmen. The Revolution was justified on the grounds that King George III was violating their “rights as Englishmen” as handed down from English common law.
In his famous book “Albion’s Seed,” historian David Hackett Fischer argues that much of American society and culture came to us from the regional cultures of Great Britain, including our notions of liberty. The settlers did not suddenly learn these soon-to-be American trademarks from the Amerindians — they already came to shore with them.
To be fair, there were tribes that the Founders were fond of citing as forerunners to the American experiments — they were the ancient Germans, not the Iroquois.
University of Colorado professor E. Christian Kopff has noted that the Founders were impressed by the lively public debates and voting that occurred at meetings of the Germanic tribesmen. Thomas Jefferson saw in the Anglo-Saxons of yore as the ancestors of American democracy and sought to include Hengist and Horsa, legendary leaders of those tribesmen, in the seal of the United States.
Gilbert Chinard wrote in his biography of Jefferson: “Jefferson’s great ambition was to promote a renaissance of Anglo-Saxon primitive institutions on the new continent. This is the true foundation of Jefferson’s political philosophy.”
The idea the Founders stole all their democratic ideas from the noble Natives is not only false, but it also furthers the malicious worldview that everything good about western civilization is taken from other cultures.
The roots for American democracy lie not with the Iroquois Confederacy, but in Europe. To claim otherwise does a disservice to history.