J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Follow by Email


Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Birth of an Iroquois Constitutional Legend

Like any good fiction writer, Richard Barry didn’t just describe a dramatic meeting between John Rutledge and Sir William Johnson in 1765 and leave it there.

He also returned to the moment hundreds of pages later, when Rutledge was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and chairing its Committee of Detail (which Barry called by a different name):
At the first meeting of the Drafting Committee, on the morning of July 27, in Independence Hall, Rutledge, as chairman, drew from his pocket a parchment, which had never been referred to in the Convention or by any of the delegates outside, and read it aloud.

It was a replica of the constitution of the Treaty of the Five Nations (the Iroquois) of 1520. Rutledge read what the Indians had written more than two and a half centuries before: “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity and order. . . .”

The chairman made no speech. He merely read the dry, quaint, and archaic words of the Indian parchment. The inference lay in the act. [Charles] Pinckney, [James] Madison, [William] Paterson, and the others had gone back through England and Greece. The fruit of their research lay to hand in the documents on the table. They would be utilized. But for the first brief moment Rutledge was saying to his committee, in effect: We are American, of this soil and none other.
Barry’s citations offer no source for this anecdote, and we skeptical readers shouldn’t accept such claims without evidence. As I noted yesterday, Barry’s statement that Rutledge had discussed the Iroquois form of government with Sir William Johnson in October 1765 doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Furthermore, words on “a parchment” wasn’t how the Iroquois Great Law of Peace worked. The Five Nations hadn’t “written” anything in 1520 (or in whatever year they allied); they didn’t have a written language yet. Wampum belts served as memory aids for the agreement but didn’t preserve exact language. English interpretations of the Great Law of Peace don’t start with “We, the people,…” but with the first-person voice of Dekanawidah, the Great Peacemaker.

Finally, Rutledge’s Committee of Detail didn’t even draft the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the part that starts “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”—phrasing supposedly adapted from that mythical Iroquois parchment. The first draft of the Preamble came out of the Committee on Style and Arrangement weeks later.

The gaping holes in Barry’s story didn’t stop Charles L. Mee, Jr., from repeating it briefly in The Genius of the People (1987), a popular history of the Constitution. Donald A. Grindé and Bruce E. Johansen then used that “evidence” in their argument in Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of American Democracy (1991) that the example of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced the Founders of the U.S. of A.

The popularity of that thesis in some circles appears in turn to have inspired Joy Hakim to go back to Barry’s book for the tale of Rutledge and Johnson, which she retold in A History of US: From Colonies to Country. That school textbook, published by Oxford University Press, is well regarded. It does a good job of getting beyond traditional power structures to tell the story of the whole American nation. However, in this instance the author was misled by a biographer who had just made stuff up.

No comments: