15 Sep 2021
September 17 is Constitution Day, marking the signing of the Constitution of the United States in 1787. Schools often trace the intellectual lineage of the Constitution from ancient Athens to the European Enlightenment. But Robert Miller, a lawyer, tribal court judge and citizen of Oklahoma’s Eastern Shawnee tribe, writes that another source for many of his ideas are the tribal political entities that were the fledgling US government’s closest neighbors. .
Miller explains that many of the Founding Fathers who signed the Constitution had extensive knowledge of Indigenous nations, some having negotiated treaties or maintained diplomatic relations with them.
18th century tribal governments throughout what is now the United States had a wide variety of models of government, from “relatively complex governments to simple governments.”, and from almost autocratic to highly democratic governments. The governments of eastern North America best known to the founders were confederations of tribal nations, including the powerful Iroquois confederacy of upstate New York. The Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and other political parties generally separated military and civilian leadership, protected certain personal freedoms, including freedom of religion, and included somewhat democratic policies for referendums, vetoes, and revocations. . (Most also gave women prominent roles in government, something that wouldn’t be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution for over a century.)
Miller notes that Benjamin Franklin was closely involved in negotiating and printing treaties with Indigenous nations, including the Iroquois Confederacy, and studied their systems of governance. Writing in 1751, Franklin argued that:
It would be a very strange Thing if six Nations of ignorant Savages [sic] should be able to form a plan for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a way that it has endured for ages and seems indissoluble; and yet a similar union should not be practical for ten or a dozen English colonies[…]
John Adams has suggested that those who draft the Constitution should study the governments of “ancient Germans and modern Indians,” which he says divides power between the three branches of executive, judicial and legislative governance. Specifically, he cited the Mohawks, who he said enjoyed “complete individual independence”, while tribal chiefs brought important decisions like declarations of war to “a national assembly”.
Thomas Jefferson also studied Indigenous systems of government, expressing admiration for them, although they mistakenly refer to them as having “no law”. In a letter written after the completion of the first draft of the Constitution, he wrote that “the only condition on earth to compare with ours is that of the Indians, where they have even fewer laws than we do. Europeans are governments of kites on pigeons [sic]. “
While European thought had obvious and substantial influences on the US Constitution, Miller concludes, “Ultimately, the founders developed democratic political theories and principles that were hardly practiced in Europe.”
Editor’s Note: The caption for this article has been updated to more accurately reflect the image shown.
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By: ROBERT J. MILLER
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 159, n ° 1 (MARCH 2015), pp. 32-56
American Philosophical Society