Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 709:
THE IROQUOIS AND THE U.S. GOVERNMENT

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 709.

Today, we find a surprising blueprint for our government. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1744 the Iroquois leader Canassatego spoke at the Indian-British assembly in Philadelphia. Dealing with 13 administrations in 13 colonies was impossible, he said. Why didn't we form an umbrella group? Each colony could keep its sovereignty. Yet the 13 could speak to other nations with one voice.

He offered a model. During Europe's Middle Ages, Hiawatha had founded the League of Iroquois Nations. The Mohawks, Onondagas, Senecas, Oneidas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras formed the League. It was the biggest political unit north of the Aztec nation.

Historian Jack Weatherford says few colonists were ready to listen. But one was. Ben Franklin had studied the Indians. Later, he became the Indian Commissioner. As early as 1754 he wanted to try Canassatego's idea. Later, he and others built that idea into our constitution.

Each Iroquois nation ran its internal affairs with a council of elected delegates. They also sent delegates to a grand council. It ran affairs among nations. It was a pure federal system.

Our constitution has many Iroquois features. Iroquois lawmakers didn't go to war. Civilian and military rule was separate. That wasn't how Europe worked.

The Iroquois had no royalty -- no hereditary rule. Their nations could naturalize new citizens. The League didn't just conquer other nations. It could also admit them to membership.

We use Iroquois ideas to smooth our deliberations. Unlike Europe's senates, we use the Iroquois method of holding silence while each delegate speaks. Like the Iroquois, our delegates give up their personal names. Ted Kennedy becomes "The Senior Senator from Massachusetts," and so on. We use the caucus, or pow-wow, to iron things out before we take the floor.

We didn't adopt the Iroquois unicameral system. They had only one council. Franklin fought for that. Because he lost, we have both the senate and the house.

Franklin also wanted to let soldiers elect their own officers. That's what the Iroquois did. He lost on that one, too.

Like the Iroquois, we allowed for impeachment. But only Iroquois women were empowered to impeach. Only Iroquois women could replace an impeached leader. We didn't copy that feature.

Still, our constitution is a fine piece of engineering design. We looked at the European kingdoms we'd left behind. And we looked at these people who'd governed themselves so well for so long.

In the end Canassatego and the Iroquois tipped the scales in shaping our way of life. And we can be very glad they did.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Weatherford, J., Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988. See especially, Chapter 8. My thanks to Denny Myers for providing the Weatherford source.

The History and Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy (F. Jennings, ed.). Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode