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
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
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
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
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
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