Monday, July 11, 2005

Making the Constitution

Taken from History News Network

Did the Founding Fathers Really Get Many of Their Ideas of Liberty from the Iroquois? JACK RAKOVE
Rakove's article

Editor's Note: On Monday July 4th the New York Times published an op ed by journalist James Mann that made broad claims about the influence of the Iroquois on American constitutional history. Specifically, he argued that the Founding Fathers were deeply influenced by Indian ideas of liberty and that our very form of government was shaped in decisive ways by Indian influences at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. True? Others have advanced this argument in the past and even convinced NY State a few years ago to adopt this view in teaching assignments. We asked Stanford historian Jack Rakove to assess the legitimacy of Mann's argument.

Rakove's field is Constitutional History. His book Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution won the Pulitzer Prize a while back. Read it, it's terrific, but keep a dictionary and coffee cup handy.

In response to the NYT piece, Rakove writes:
The New York Times has just marked the 229th anniversary of American independence by allowing Charles Mann, author of the soon-to-be-published Before 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus to preview his book on its op-ed page. (By the way, am I wrong to think that the NYT has been doing more of this recently? Call your publicist!) Mann is a journalist, so we can expect the work to be something of a synthesis that won't tell historians much that they do not already know. But what disappointed me about this piece is that it recapitulates the tired and dubious argument about the purported Iroquois influence on the Constitution, and the more general proposition that important elements of Euro-American democratic culture have origins in "the democratic, informal brashness of American Indian culture."

Elsewhere Rakove notes that historians have come a long way in recognizing the interaction and importance of the interaction between Indian/White, Indian/African and Indian/African/White cultures. It's now unthinkable that we would teach American History at any level without recognizing these developments. All of my coursework, save those pointless French classes, included these themes. I've discovered, to my joy, that students expect to cover race and gender in even 100 level survey classes, just as a matter of course.

I think a far more powerful use of the Iroqouis' democratic ideals (they also had some great ideas about the role of women) would be in asserting that democratic ideals are not unique to a particular time, place or culture. (makes teaching note to self)


Greg said...

One subject that I've always wanted to read more about is the relationship between black slaves and native americans. Surely they had some things in common, and I wonder if the latter didn't assist the former sometimes.

lemming said...

A+ in that supposition, Greg. Some tribes, particularly the Seminoles in Florida, welcomed escaped slaves and accepted them as members. (This is one of the erasons why the Seminoles fought so hard against being sent west; they knew that any escapees would be returned to slavery.) Other groups, such as the Cherokee, owned slaves. Many slaves married free Indians. Still others were more than willing to help escaped slaves make their way to freedom.

Barry Kort said...

My take on this subject is that American political culture failed to benefit from some of the more enlightened thinking to be found in Native American traditions and insights.

And as evidence to support this thesis, I nominate the useful Iriquois/Algonquin word 'Orenda' which doesn't translate well into any common word in English.

Many writers have struggled to find a way to express the Native American notion of 'Orenda' in their English language writing. It's a challenge.

My preferred translation is 'Community Spirit on a Mindful Path'.

It's a concept not often detected in the turbulent political waters of post-millenium America.