How an Iroquois Chief Helped Write the U.S. Constitution

History has largely forgotten Canasatego, the Iroquois chief who eloquently introduced American colonists to the federalist ideas that would shape their government.

In 1744 date, the Iroquois chief Canasatego addressed a treaty conference between the American colonists and the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy. The two groups had met in Lancaster, Pennsylvania to iron out disputes over colonial trespassing on Native American territory and to forge an agreement whereby the Iroquois would ally with the colonists against the French. In his speech, Canasatego introduced the colonists to the federalist ideas that bound the disparate tribes into unity: it was a bond that encouraged unity, especially in matters of defense, even as it supported the independence of each tribe when it came to self-government. Though often ignored by historians, this philosophy strongly influenced the founding fathers who crafted the documents that defined America a few decades later. And, as Senator Mike Lee points out in this excerpt from his new book, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government, none of those luminaries was more swayed by Canasatego than Benjamin Franklin.  

It seemed to Benjamin Franklin that he had arrived back in the colonies from London just in the nick of time. Less than 24 hours after his return to Philadelphia in March 1775, he found himself appointed—by a unanimous vote of the Pennsylvania Assembly— as a state delegate to the Second Continental Congress. The following month, at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, a shooting war had broken out with Great Britain.

Of course, these changes had been brewing for quite some time. In 1765 the Stamp Act—which imposed yet another round of taxes on the colonies to pay for Britain’s costly war debts incurred in conflicts with the French—had in framed opinions almost universally in the colonies. In 1773 colonists had dressed as Iroquois warriors before sneaking aboard a British ship and dumping tea into Boston Harbor to protest the British East India Company’s desire—facilitated by Parliament and the Crown—to control trade with the colonies. Increasingly, this led to talk of independence, and even war. Regardless, the colonies needed one another.

And now, working to ensure everyone stuck together at the Continental Congress, Franklin sensed an opportunity. It had been two decades since Franklin had presented his failed Albany Plan of Union. But the man who had used trial and error to pioneer so many inventions—from bifocals to the Franklin stove to the odometer— was not going to give up on his idea just because it had failed once. The warning of Canasatego to the colonists, which Franklin had distributed through the printing press years earlier (planting the seeds for his own Albany Plan) still echoed in his mind: “Whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another.” Now a revolution was brewing—and it was important that the rebelling colonies act as one.

Franklin had taken the measure of the British government while serving as unofficial ambassador in London for the better part of the last two decades. His radical activities in pursuit of colonial unification and independence—including his biting satires and political cartoons that frequently lampooned the King—had eventually caught up with him, making him persona non grata in the British capital. Not only does that explain why Franklin had sailed back to the colonies in March 1775, but it also helps explain why, almost immediately upon his return, he was asked to represent Pennsylvania as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. These were serious times for the colonies, and Pennsylvania needed someone who understood both the challenges facing the colonies and the current thinking in London. It is difficult to imagine anyone better qualified for the task at hand than Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was not given to great speeches. In fact, he spoke very little on the floor of the Second Continental Congress. But behind the scenes he was persistent. In July 1775, he presented his “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union” to nearly every delegate. It was nearly a copy of his Albany Plan, giving broad powers to an assembly of lawmakers elected from each of the colonies, with seats allocated among the colonies according to population. Franklin also insisted on including provisions that would protect Indian interests by, among other things, providing for the mapping of Indian boundaries and the regulation of trade with Indians.

Like the Albany Plan, these articles took their inspiration from the Iroquois Confederacy that Franklin had learned about from reading Canasatego’s words so many years ago. Significantly, the articles were written with an eye toward forming a single, united country. Article I provided that “the Name of this Confederacy shall henceforth be the United Colonies of North America.”

Paying Tribute to the Birth of an Idea

Though the Continental Congress ultimately did not adopt Franklin’s Articles of Confederation, they continued their important work of keeping the colonies united in the struggle for independence from Britain. Franklin’s plan had been an important part of the discussion, supported by other delegates such as Thomas Jefferson. Certain elements of the plan would later emerge in the final Articles of Confederation adopted as the first national system of government in 1777.

While the plan Franklin presented was his own work, it envisioned a system that was unmistakably inspired by the Iroquois Nation. This debt was acknowledged in August 1775, when the Continental Congress appointed delegates to attend a special meeting with the Indians in Albany to inform them of the work the Congress was undertaking in Philadelphia to form a new nation.

The colonists had finally lit their own council fire, and they wanted the Iroquois to know who had inspired them to remain united, and to strike the delicate balance between giving the central government powers to wage war and manage the common interests of the colonies, while preserving the sovereignty and rights of the separate colonies that composed it. The colonial representatives addressed their indigenous neighbors with the intention of “rekindling the ancient council fire, and renewing the covenant, and brightening up every link of the chain.” They reminded the Iroquois of “the advice that was given about thirty years ago, by your wise forefathers, in a great council which was held at Lancaster, in Pennsylvania, when Canasatego spoke to us, the white people, in these very words,” words that had “sunk deep into” the hearts of the colonists.

They announced that Canasatego’s words had been passed down by their forefathers, who had proclaimed: “The Six Nations are a wise people, Let us hearken to them, and take their counsel, and teach our children to follow it.” And so they had.

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Those who were busily crafting not the first, but merely the most recent attempt to unite different territories on American soil explained to those whose people had paved the way just how the Native traditions had been shown to them by their ancestors: “They have frequently taken a single arrow and said, Children, see how easily it is broken. Then they have taken and tied twelve arrows together with a strong string or cord 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.”

“Absolute Notions of Liberty”

There was nothing inevitable about 13 separate colonies becoming a single, united nation. In fact, one generation before Thomas Jefferson put his pen to paper to declare independence from Great Britain in 1776, the idea of such a union was all but unthinkable.

For decades before the American Revolution and for at least 13 years thereafter, the colonies squabbled with one another, in some ways just as they had with the British Crown. They clashed over territorial boundaries, taxes, and trade. Each colony had its own unique culture, defined by the ethnic and religious makeup of its inhabitants. In this respect, the colonies were essentially separate countries with distinct identities—not all that different from the patchwork of countries in, say, central Europe today. Puritan Massachusetts had relatively little in common with Catholic Maryland. The freewheeling, fiercely independent Rhode Island—a colony founded by dissidents banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony—had little in common with the prim, proper, and, by the mid-18th century, exceedingly wealthy Virginia.

But as the 18th century wore on, the colonies grew further apart from their European ancestors, and with the threat of war with France and unjust taxation from the British, the colonists began to recognize that they had common interests. Most of those who had settled in the New World were rebelling against the old, established order in some way. Some left the Old World to escape religious persecution. Some left to pursue economic ambitions, fully aware that for many, success would be far more attainable outside the stratified and class-conscious societies of Europe. And with each new generation of sons and daughters born on American soil, the connection to Europe grew more tenuous. The American colonies quickly became a radical—and wildly successful—experiment in alternatives to the European order.

Benjamin Franklin found such an alternative when he looked to his neighbors in the wilderness to the west. The Iroquois presided over a vast, powerful, and advanced civilization, and had developed and put into practice the basic ideas of federalism and political liberty without having any exposure to the European thinkers who suggested—much later—that such things were possible. As Cadwallader Colden, a colonial official with extensive experience dealing with the Iroquois, put it: “The Five Nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow no kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.” The Iroquois had a federal system in which five (and later six) different tribes maintained control over their own internal affairs but charged an overarching government with responsibilities of mutual interest such as common defense. In some ways, the Iroquois are forgotten cofounders of the magnificent American experiment.

The founders saw in Native American communities—including and especially the Iroquois—societies that were largely free of social stratification and oppression. They weren’t utopias, to be sure, but for the Iroquois at least, there was a kind of egalitarianism, an informal democratic process, and a confederation that tied together different tribes in a permanent alliance. Native Americans like the Iroquois had never read John Locke or heard of the Roman Senate, but, nonetheless, they pioneered their own ideas of equality and the democratic process.

Yet Canasatego remains an enigma, unfairly denied his place in the pantheon of American founders even though, ironically, he was an American long before any of our Founding Fathers. Perhaps early Americans less wise and less worldly than Benjamin Franklin could not comprehend (or lacked the intellectual curiosity to consider) the idea of a Native people creating such a sophisticated system, so they simply chose to ignore it—much less admit to being inspired by it. Perhaps the Iroquois system gave too much autonomy to the individual tribes that composed it, and those who preferred a strong central government—which was not the Iroquois way—did not want any anti-Federalist rabble-rousers to get ideas from Canasatego and his fellow chiefs.

Canasatego was a great peacemaker, a diplomat who brought different cultures together by sharing a system of government grounded in common principles. His is an example that every American can treasure, regardless of personal politics. Yet his name has unjustly faded from history. That needs to change, especially considering that our drift from federalism has occurred more or less contemporaneously with Canasatego’s decline from historical prominence; and because we have accumulated a $20 trillion national debt and created a federal regulatory system that costs the American economy $2 trillion each year, we have never needed federalism more than we do right now.

The third provision of Franklin’s Iroquois-inspired Articles of Confederation of 1775 made clear the freedom granted to the individual colonies in the Union, explaining that “each Colony shall enjoy and retain as much as it may think fit of its own present Laws, Customs, Rights, Privileges, and peculiar Jurisdictions within its own Limits.” In 1777 the later Articles of Confederation ultimately adopted by the new nation made the same point in its second article: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” These articles were ultimately replaced by the Constitution a decade later, and while the Constitution gave the federal government considerably more power than the articles had, it still preserved the sovereign authority of each state.

James Madison, a staunch Federalist and a supporter of a strong national government, nonetheless understood the limits imposed on that government and the importance of state sovereignty. In Federalist number 45, published in January 1788, a few months after the Constitutional Convention, he explains the respective operating responsibilities of the federal state governments:

“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

His language could hardly be plainer. The states are to have more powers than the federal government. According to Madison’s explanation, moreover, the federal government was designed to concern itself with foreign policy almost exclusively, with nearly everything we would today consider domestic policy falling under the control of the states.

Federalist number 45 helped explain the founders’ intent, but it was not itself law. Nevertheless, fewer than four years after Madison wrote those words, the basic concept articulated in Federalist number 45 was incorporated into the Constitution with the ratification of the Tenth Amendment in 1791. The Tenth Amendment made explicit what was implicit in the original text of the Constitution; it confirmed that the powers of the federal government are limited: “The Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

This view was generally accepted for decades, until political expediency got in the way in the 20th century, dramatically undermining federalism. The story of how that happened could fill volumes, but it suffices to say that the Tenth Amendment (and with it federalism) is only as meaningful as the powers granted to Congress are limited. Under presidents, congresses, and Supreme Courts of every conceivable partisan combination, Congress has colluded with the White House to enact legislation that pushes the boundaries of federal power. And since the late ’30s, the Supreme Court has been largely unwilling to police the limits on congressional authority— essentially leaving Congress to police itself. “Hello, Mr. Fox. Here are the keys to the henhouse. Have fun!”

The American federal system is in peril. The founding generation would be horrified by the extent to which the federal government has taken power away from the people and moved it to Washington. We have neglected the words and lessons left behind by founding-era heroes like Canasatego, the visionary Iroquois leader whose service to his people introduced a budding American Republic to the principle of federalism—a principle that, when followed, protects freedom and promotes economic opportunity for all.

Critical to that protection, of course, is a clear understanding of the rights guaranteed to each individual. Unfortunately, as the new nation was gaining its footing, and even as the Constitution itself was being produced, that understanding was far from clear. A few courageous individuals helped bring the importance of individual rights into focus.

Adapted from WRITTEN OUT OF HISTORY: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government by Mike Lee, published by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Mike Lee.