Manataka American Indian Council








Forgotten Founders
Bruce E. Johansen
Review by Mary Frances Stotler

American Indians, particularly those of the Iroquois Confederation, provided the founding fathers with many of the principles upon which American democracy is based.


The contact of influential statesmen with the Iroquois nations, as well as the statesmen's participation in several treaties under the Great Law of Peace, created a distinct American political philosophy. This new way of governing had its roots in both European and American Indian cultures, making American government a truly unique mixture. While most people recognize the European heritage in modern American government, the Indian influence is usually overlooked. Of America's ties to the American Indians Johansen says, "In so far as the nation still bears these marks of its birth, we are all 'Indians' - if not in our blood, then in the thinking that to this day shapes many of our political and social assumptions".

Although American Indians did not attempt to "indoctrinate" British and other European settlers into their culture or train them in their way of life, cultural exchange did occur. Johansen begins by pointing out relics of American Indian culture present in American society today; nearly half of modern American agriculture products are of American Indian descent and over half of the states in the Union bear Indian names.


Ethnocentrism of many historians combined with the eventual domination and subjugation of American Indians in years following the American Revolution have suppressed the legacy of American Indian contributions to post-revolutionary American life. Felix Cohen, a historian and a contemporary of Benjamin Franklin, is quoted in the book as saying, "see that in agriculture, in government, in sport, in education, and in our views of nature and our fellow men, it is the first Americans who have taken captive their battlefield conquerors". Early American settlers absorbed much of Indian culture and incorporated it into structures and institutions that would provide for its propagation to future generations.

Johansen draws on numerous historians to provide the thesis for his book. Cohen is referenced most extensively, because of his direct contact with the Iroquois in the years preceding the United States' genesis. From these various sources Johansen formulates the theory that tenets of the Iroquois Confederation directly influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in their drafting of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation. The Iroquois and their example of confederation provided the basis for the American system of federal democracy that exists today.

The relation of the six Iroquois nations to the Iroquois league compares to the relation of American states to the union. Johansen also likens the Iroquois Confederation to the League of Nations and the United Nations. In some respects the Iroquois Confederation was more similar to these international governing bodies since each nation under the Confederation was completely sovereign and the Iroquois League, "dealt only with international concerns of peace and war".

Political ideas such as women's suffrage, separation of church and state, federalism, servant leadership, and checks and balances are found in the Iroquois Confederation. According to Cohen anti-establishmentism and social welfare are also strictly Indian ideal. "American disrespect for established authority had Indian roots, as did the American penchant for sharing with those in need," (13). Not only the ideals and values embedded in our government, but also the structure of American government are distinctly Iroquoian. Johansen quotes Francis Jennings as saying, "What white society owes to Indian society, as much as to any other source, is the mere fact of its existence".

After Johansen draws broad comparisons between American and Iroquoian ideals, he shows the striking similarities in structure between the two governments. The Great Law of Peace was a confederation between five sovereign Indian nations - the Senecas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and Cayugas. The Tuscaroras came into the confederation many years after its founding but were not included in the original League structure.


The Senecas and Mohawks make up the "older brothers" or one house of Congress and the Cayugas and Oneidas make up the "younger brothers", the second house of the Iroquois Congress. If there was disagreement between the older and younger brothers, the Onondagas served as an executive power, and made the final decision. If the Onondagas did not agree on a decision they could send it back to the brothers for review. If the four tribes constituting the brothers all agreed on the issue, then the Onondagas' reservation about the decision was overridden. This process was the basis for the American presidential veto and veto override by Congress. Also found in the Great Law of Peace are provisions for amendment to the Law, rule on the basis of public opinion, and the concept of self-determination with the Confederation. Additionally,  "Paragraph 98 confirmed the people's right to seek redress from the Grand Council through their respective chiefs. Paragraph 99 guaranteed freedom or religion. Paragraph 107 denied entry to the home by those not authorized to do so by its occupants".


Foundations of the American legislature, executive veto power, and the Bill of Rights are all found
in the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

The Great Law allowed dual citizenship and had no prohibitions on the basis of race or nationality. The Great Law of Peace, recorded on wampum belts for posterity, provides for the incorporation of conquered nations into the Iroquois Confederation without the loss of internal sovereignty. The Great Law says, "If any man or any nation outside the Five Nations shall obey the laws of the Great Peace and shall make this known to the statesmen of the League, they may trace back the roots to the tree," (23).


America is one of the nations that does trace its roots back the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

Johansen proceeds to talk about influential members on both sides of the frontier that allowed for the transmission of the Iroquoian democratic ideals. Canassatego, Shickallemy, and Hendrick were three extremely influential members of the Iroquois Grand Council. Sir William Johnson and Conrad Weiser were two colonials that were inextricably intertwined with American Indian affairs. They sat at Grand Council and relayed the events to notables, including Benjamin Franklin, who subsequently passed on American Indian values and events to the many colonials through his printing business.

Canassatego was the most influential of the Iroquois in proposing American unification. At the 1744 treaty at Lancaster he urged the American colonies to unite. Canassatego said,"Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another," (61-62).


Johansen then shows the mutually beneficial relationship that existed between the Iroquois and colonials until 1763. The alliance deteriorated after 1763, because the British did not need the Indians anymore to ward off the French, but the institutions observed by close interaction with the
Iroquois in the years prior to 1763 remained influential in the minds of the founding fathers.

Johansen spends the last two chapters discussing Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, and the particular impact their contact with the Iroquois had on shaping their political views. Franklin's main contribution was Iroquoian influenced federalism, that was built into the Articles of Confederation, and later the Constitution. Franklin's Albany Plan, the first plan of American union proposed, closely mimics the Iroquoian system, down to the number of representatives in the
legislature, the veto power of the executive, the unicameral legislature, and the unanimous vote of all colonies needed for action.

Many of these same structures were subsequently incorporated into the Articles of Confederation.

Franklin was one of Jefferson's mentors, and this is apparent in his heavy inclusion of Indian thought in the Declaration of Independence.  Happiness, one of the three inalienable rights provided us in the Declaration of Independence, is a specific reference to Indian society.


To Jefferson this Indian ideal of happiness was, "a sense of personal and societal security," (103). Happiness, rather than property, was chosen as the third inalienable right because of Jefferson's encounters with the Iroquois whom he deemed to be "happy" and free from the want excessive property accumulation forces on a society. The Iroquois Confederation also influenced Jefferson in his penning of the Bill of Rights. "The guideline that Jefferson drew from the Indian example (and
which he earnestly promoted in the First Amendment) allowed freedom until it violated another's rights," (113). Personal liberties and autonomy are a strictly indigenous characteristic. Personal rights and the importance of public opinion in governing are two distinctly non-European values embedded in American society today. These political characteristics owe their legacy to the Iroquois Confederation.

Johansen has a strong thesis, and evidence to back it up, but gets lost at times in his writings. The first chapter is primarily other people's theories; there are really no original thoughts or new ideas presented.


The second and third chapters provide extensive general evidence to support the Iroquoian influence on American government, but Johansen does not synthesize any of this information. There are vague mentions of the Articles of Confederation and Declaration of Independence, but it is
left up to the reader to connect the dots and figure for themselves the connections between the Iroquois Confederation and American democracy.


Additionally, much of the information about Franklin and Jefferson is superfluous and not supportive of Johansen's primary thesis. The conclusion does not seem to fit with the theme of the rest of the book.

Johansen transitions from discussing the contributions of Indian society to Franklin, Jefferson, and the documents of our founding fathers to saying that Indians were marginalized and exploited in years following the revolution. Although this is a valid point, it has nothing to do with the contribution of the Iroquois to American democracy and American values. Johansen has some strong arguments, but gets bogged down with too much information that is extraneous to his primary focus.

Johansen, Bruce E. 1982. Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy. Boston: The Harvard Common Press.

~Submitted by Andre Cramblit, Indigenous News Network