It is that time of year again when we celebrate the voyage of the Mayflower, which carried 132 passengers and crew over inclement seas for 10 weeks, before landing just off the coast of present-day Provincetown, Massachusetts, on November 21, (N.S.) 1620, founding the Plymouth Colony. After a very harsh winter and the ravages of new diseases, only 53 of the original passengers and crew survived the voyage of the Mayflower.
In the following spring and summer, the pilgrims interacted with the neighboring Wampanoag tribe and the Sagamores, Massasoit and Samoset. And critically for their survival, the pilgrims were taught how to cultivate maize through the rigorous instructions of Quinto. Having put their backs into it for a full growing season, the first Thanksgiving was celebrated between 90 Wamponoags and the 53 remaining pilgrims, with a meal that featured the first crop of corn produced at Plymouth. But we have far more to be thankful for than corn, owing to the interaction of early settlers and native American Indians.
For the settlers and traders who came to live and work in present day New England and New York, they were blessed to come in contact at a very special time in history with the Five Nations of the Iroquois.
While their European cousins were discovering the ancient ruins of Rome and Athens, and while newly invented printing presses were making available to a wide public the remaining writings of Pericles, Thucydides, Livy and Cicero, which concerned ancient forms of democratic and representative governance which provided common laws and freedoms; traders like John Lawson, were returning to Europe and witnessing about the Great Councils of Onondaga, where assemblies of the Five Nations would “debate issues very deliberately…with all the integrity imaginable, never looking toward their own interest before the public good.” The Council Lords, in council, expressed their steadfast belief that “God made them free…that no man has the natural right to rule another.” The “Constitution of the Five Nations of the Iroquois,” deemed “The Great Law” was published, which had a central principle that was simple: the less government there is, the more freedom the individual has. Does this sound familiar?
From this interblending of ideas of what was new again in the old world with what was old in the new world, came the idea of the freedom and independence of the “natural man,” or the individual, each of whom was born to be free and the sovereign of themselves; at a time when, in old Europe, there was a belief in a divine right of kings to be sovereign over everything and everybody.
The two worlds notably met during a sensational visit of the “Four Kings of the Iroquois League” in 1710 to London. It was as popular an event as one might imagine if Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez were parading through Knightsbridge together today. One of the visitors, Canassatego, was greeted as a “king” by one of the ladies present and he strenuously objected to the title, saying: “Madam, family creates no distinction but by its acts of wisdom and valor…we make no distinction by birth – where mental and bodily qualities are found superior, that person gains authority over our hearts: the good (one) does his country is rewarded by glory and esteem; such are our manners and ideas.” When the lady objected, “Do you not want to be a king?” Sachem answered that he abhorred the office as it was one which allowed an excessive “avarice, which is a detested vice” because the crown “engages in an eternal pillage” of his own subjects. And that “such virtue in want… labors only for pampered idleness.” These words parallel those spoken by the greatest of the ancient Athenians, Aristides.
This conception of the natural man, and individual rights as opposed to the authority of pampered royalty formed the foundations of revolutionary writers, such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Locke and Montesquieu, and lit the fire of a revolutionary age.
During the time when our revolution was at its beginnings, there was a necessity to form a means of organizing 13 former colonies into a defensive alliance capable of defeating the finest army on the planet at the time. Benjamin Franklin found it and based the nascent America’s “Articles of Confederation” on the ties that bound the Five Nations of the Iroquois League.
After the Revolution was won, during the Summer of 1787, Philadelphia was full of representatives of the Iroquois Nations, whose example did so much to found this nation’s freedoms.
So, when our Constitution was written, the concept of the 9th and 10 Amendments, which secured the rights of localities to govern themselves, that owed as much to the precedent of the direct democracy of Athens, as it did to the assemblies of the Seneca Nation. When a means of holding together the various states and how they and their people would be equally represented was considered, the example of the Roman Senate and the Councils of Onondaga were both considered – and our system of a federal Constitutional Republic was born.
We owe a very great deal of our conception of ourselves as a sovereign and free people to the Native Americans, and this too should be celebrated with grateful thanks.
And this contribution of the Iroquois should be taught as an inspiration in every classroom in America.
Richard C. Lyons, author of The DNA of Democracy: Volume I and Shadows of the Acropolis: Volume II is a third generation printer, whose early career centered on religious and special education publishing. Lyons has since engaged in literary pursuits as a poet, essayist, screenwriter and indie publisher.