Haudenosaunee Influences on the U.S. Government:
A Debt in Governance Style

by Bruce E. Johansen

As the eighteenth century opened, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy was a major diplomatic and military presence on the frontier as the English colonies became the United States of America. Beginning a remarkable chain of events, a Philadelphia printer, Benjamin Franklin, began printing the proceedings of Indian treaties in 1736. These small books sell surprisingly well in the colonies. In 1744, Franklin sets in type the proceedings of the Lancaster Treaty of 1744, including a speech by the Onondaga Canassatego, the Tadadaho (speaker) of the Iroquois Confederacy, in which he advises the colonists to unite as one nation on an Iroquois federal model.

A decade later, Franklin began his distinguished diplomatic career that later lead him to Europe as Pennsylvania’s envoy to the Iroquois Confederacy. He had already published a letter to James Parker in 1751, cowing the colonists into uniting, invoking the Iroquois as a positive example. Franklin was invited into Iroquois councils; the diplomacy of the frontier is carried out under the rules of Iroquois protocol. He witnessed a condolence ceremony in 1753.

A year later, at a joint meeting of Iroquois and colonial delegates in Albany, Franklin proposed his “Albany Plan,” the first attempt to unite the colonies, a combination of Iroquois and European elements. The Albany Plan failed to gain ratification by the colonies, but served as a rough draft for later federal designs of Franklin for the Articles of Confederation, as well as his part in debates over the Constitution.

At the Constitutional Convention, two factions developed. One, led by Franklin, favors a federal system in some ways akin to the Iroquois. The other, led by John Adams (among others) favored a stronger, more centralized government. Adams’ views dominated, but in the process, precedents of government from around the world are debated. Adams describes the Iroquois “fifty families” in his Defence of the Constitutions, which was used on the floor of the convention as something of a handbook.

The Great Law of Peace stipulates that sachems’ (???) skins must be seven spans thick to withstand the criticism of their constituents. The law points out that sachems should take pains not to become angry when people scrutinize their conduct in governmental affairs. Such a point of view pervades the writings of Jefferson and Franklin, although it was not fully codified into United States law until the Supreme Court decision New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) made it virtually impossible for public officials to sue successfully for libel. Sachems are not allowed to name their own successors. Nor can they carry their titles to the grave. The Great Law provides a ceremony to remove the title from a dying chief. The Great Law also provides for the removal from office of sachems who can no longer adequately function, a measure remarkably similar to a constitutional amendment adopted in the United States during the late 20th century providing for the removal of an incapacitated president.

The Great Law also includes provisions guaranteeing freedom of religion and the right of redress before the Grand Council. It also forbids unauthorized entry of homes—all measures which sound familiar to United States citizens through the Bill of Rights.

The Iroquois also built checks and balances into their processes of consensus based on public opinion. The notion of federalism was strictly followed by the Iroquois. It applied to the sexes as well as between the clans and nations. The hereditary (hereditary is used here in the Iroquois sense because the clan mothers “inherited the right” to appoint and remove Peace Chiefs to the Grand Council) Iroquois sachems were interested only in external matters such as war, peace and treatymaking. The Grand Council does not interfere with the internal affairs of individual nations.

The practical transposition of Iroquois ideas with the practical political needs of the European colonists began at the Lancaster Treaty Council in 1744. Canassatego, an Iroquois sachem, advised colonial representatives on Iroquois concepts of unity, coincidentally, on July 4:

Our wise forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations.

This has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy; and by your observing the same methods, our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire such Strength and power. Therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another. [emphasis added]

Franklin began his distinguished diplomatic career by representing Pennsylvania in treaty councils with the Iroquois and their allies, as he became a forceful advocate of colonial union. In one of America’s first editorial cartoons, Franklin advocated colonial unity in 1754 with the slogan “Join, or Die” under a disjointed snake, each piece of which bore the name of a colony. Franklin wrote that the debates on the Albany Plan “... went on daily, hand in hand with the Indian business.” The Iroquois sachem Tiyanoga (whom the British called Hendrick) not only spoke for the roughly 200 Indians in attendance at the Albany Congress, but also briefed the colonial delegates on Iroquois political systems much as Canassatego had done ten years earlier.

By 1775, the American patriots were attempting to secure alliances with their native neighbors, most notably the Iroquois, for the coming war with Great Britain. For this purpose, colonial commissioners and Iroquois delegates met at Germantown, New York, during August of 1775. The Iroquois were invited to observe debates in the Continental Congress, which was sometimes called “the thirteen fires” at the time by Iroquois and colonists alike. During the Germantown conference, the colonial representatives read from Franklin’s account of the 1744 Lancaster Treaty Council, recalling Canassatego’s advice.

After quoting Canassatego, the Americans said their forefathers had rejoiced to hear his words and that they sank: deep into their Hearts, the Advice was good, it was Kind. They said to one another, the Six Nations are a wise people, let us hearken to their Council and teach our children to follow it. Our old Men have done so. They have frequently taken a single Arrow and said, Children, see how easy it is broken, then they have tied twelve together with strong Cords—And our strongest Men could not break them—See said they—this is what the Six Nations mean. Divided a single Man may destroy you—United, you are a match for the whole World. (according to the official record of the event)


Bruce E. Johansen is a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the co-author of Exemplar of Liberty.