Native American Day, Iroquois Confederacy, & Articles of Confederation

Benjamin Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union, basis for the Articles of Confederation, could have inspired the Iroquois Confederation.        
Photo: Red Jacket, Iroquois Cheiftan -public domain

SAN JOSE, September 24, 2013 —  Last week, Constitution Day recognized the beginnings of the United States as the new nation took shape under the fundamental system of laws that had been prepared by the convention delegates in Philadelphia and signed on September 17, 1787. The founding document still had to be ratified by the original 13 states, but it was on its way to becoming the bedrock law of the land.

However, it is quite unlikely that many Americans would make a link between a celebration of the value of the American Indians coming up at the end of this week and the U.S. government that preceded the Constitution.            

This Friday will be a day celebrated in some states as American Indian Day or Native American Day as a way of honoring the indigenous peoples and First Nations that lived in North America long before Europeans arrived. However, because of the history of conquest of the indigenous populations in the Americas, it is doubtful that the majority of Americans would consider any significant contribution from American Indians in helping to give shape to an infant United States. Nevertheless, a case has been made that the Iroquois League, or Iroquois Confederacy, of six American Indian nations may have provided the inspiration for the initial form of U.S. government established under the Articles of Confederation.

A scholarly case has been made in recent years that the Iroquois Confederation may have provided a substantial example for the formation of the Albany Plan of Union authored by Benjamin Franklin just prior to the French and Indian Wars. The Albany Plan of Union was a raw version of the Articles of Confederation, the original government of the struggling nation. Academic linkage examines the time during which the colonies were under British control and the serious indications that a number of founding fathers had been impressed with the unified political and diplomatic organization of the Iroquois Confederacy, both before and after the British government defeated the French in the Seven Years’ War.

Evidence indicates that significant members of the Iroquois Confederation pushed for a stronger internal union within the British colonies in North American in the years prior to the French and Indian Wars. Such an effort would have originally been unthinkable by the British government because the British preferred to keep the colonies divided and weak. But when the French increased their encroachment into the western regions of the British territories, the British sought ways to create a unified effort in order to improve trade with the Indian nations and to effectively deal with the French threat.

Significant members of the Iroquois Confederation challenged the Americans and British for a stronger, and more unified colonial organizational structure due to the Indians’ perceived difficulties in dealing with the distinctly diverse British colonies in North America in the years prior to the French and Indian Wars. Especially, Benjamin Franklin was reportedly impressed with the Iroquois Confederacy. Franklin working on behalf of the British government introduced the Albany Plan of Union in a colonial assembly established to create some significant unity among the disagreeable colonies.

Although debated by some historians, Franklin’s plan is reputed to be somewhat based upon a favorable comprehension of the Iroquois Confederation. His Albany Plan related to government rule by reason and via consent rather than coercion. This came from the way that the six nations of the Iroquois Confederation conducted their Council meetings and the way they governed among their tribes of the region, which became one of the strongest cultural and political unions of American Indian nations in American history. These Indians called themselves the Haudenosaunee or the people of the long house, which was core to the people’s identity and strength of unity.

The Haudenosaunee tribal union was practically implemented by the creation of the longhouses where many families would live together in clans, all of the people (up to 20 or more) all living under the same roof, being of the same familial lineage. The concept of the longhouse was even extended to the way the tribes lived in harmony side by side on each nation’s respective stretch of land to the south and east of Lake Ontario. The concept was the core to the people’s identity and solidified into the Iroquois League, and ultimately evolved into the Iroquois Confederation.

Benjamin Franklin discovered the Iroquois Confederation while a printer in Philadelphia during the early period of his professional life. He had printed contracts between the native peoples and local colonists, and he became curious. The indigenous people became one more object of his inquiring mind. After studying the Iroquois political and social organization, which had been around long before Columbus sailed into the Caribbean, Franklin was genuinely affected by their tribal structure and way of life.

Franklin and other discontented colonists during the period between the French and Indian Wars and the American Revolution, were actively seeking alternatives to the historical European foundations of governmental structure and organization, which in many cases, were built upon tyrannical force. To Benjamin Franklin and others in New England, the Iroquois nations demonstrated a system of political organization that limited oppression, and at the same time, it permitted fair representation for each of the tribes and the greater population. Each group, the Indians and the Anglo-Americans, learned from the other through these official and personal connections.

In June of1754, representatives from the Six Iroquois Nations and delegates from most of the colonies in the north assembled in Albany, New York, and adopted a “plan of union” drafted by Benjamin Franklin. Under his plan, each colonial legislature would elect delegates to an American continental assembly presided over by a royal governor. It resembled the Grand Council in which representatives from each of the six nations would gather to discuss important matters requiring decisions of the leaders. Such decisions, like tribal treaties discussed in public council meetings, usually required unanimity among the representative tribes.

While some scholars still debate the degree of influence that the Iroquois system of government had in Franklin’s drafting of the Albany Plan, or its evolution into the Articles of Confederation, there was significant influence from the Indians, whether academic would want to admit it or not. Scholars are clever people, yet are often biased by their personal values and prejudices as are most human beings. At the time, Benjamin Franklin himself acknowledged:  “It would be a very strange thing, if six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such a Union … and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies.”

Franklin spoke in a sarcastic manner, but it was in showing how much he admired the Indians’ efforts at governance. His Albany Plan contained the seeds of true union, and many of these ideas would be revived and adopted in the Articles of Confederation. Ironically, at the time of the American Revolution, the Iroquois Confederation had trouble taking sides between the British and the disgruntled colonists. The confederation allowed each tribe to decide who they would support if they became involved in the conflict. Unfortunately, the decision split their staunch, long-standing unity and strength, and divided the Iroquois Confederation suffered greatly since four of the six nations supported the British.

This dramatic example is but one of many others that demonstrate a value of the American Indian to the American culture. While it is doubtful that a majority of Americans would spend time thinking much about any significant contribution from American Indians or Native Americans in helping to give shape to our fledgling nation, it is nevertheless important to remember even though it may only be a mere token gesture. It may be possible, however, to keep in mind an admonition of the old Congress of the American Indian Association: to remember and recognize the American Indian for their “early philosophy …love of freedom… and those noble things… worthy of emulation…”

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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.


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