Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Iroquois Great Law of Peace, Mayflower Compact among works that may have influenced writing of Constitution

Henry Hintermeister painted this depiction of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in 1925. Many documents influenced the creation of the the Constitution, including the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.  (Library of Congress)
By Jayce Carral For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Many documents influenced the U.S. Constitution. Name one.

Written in 1787 and ratified a year later, the U.S. Constitution established the country’s federal government and is the oldest national constitution still in effect.

The Constitution has three main parts: the Preamble, seven articles and its amendments. Overall, it creates a foundation for the country, including establishing federalism, popular sovereignty, separation of power, and checks and balances. Several documents, notably the Articles of Confederation and the Federalist Papers, shaped how it was written, but there were also two documents that might have influenced it as well.

The Iroquois Great Law of Peace and the Mayflower Compact had a “tenuous influence” on the Constitution, said Michael Conlin, professor at Eastern Washington University with a specialty in the Constitution. When looking for evidence of influence, historians look for text evidence like notes or letters from among those involved in the Constitution’s drafting.

“You know, historians, we may seem genial and pleasant, but we’re actually argumentative, like most academics, especially when you get us in our areas of expertise,” Conlin said.

Democracy already existed in North America before the Constitution was written. Created around 1140 by the Iroquois Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee, the Great Law of Peace was a constitution that governed six Iroquois nations – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

The Great Law was formed to stop kinship wars between five Iroquois nations. Someone would be killed in one village and then that village would avenge the death, leading to the first village to also seek revenge which continued the cycle. It was a perpetual war, said Donald A Grinde Jr., professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies at the University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences.

Several of the laws established in the Great Law can also be found in the U.S. Constitution, including federalism, the separation of powers and sovereignty in the people, said Grinde, who has a book about the subject titled “Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy.”

The Great Law, however, also included the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and environmental rights, which were not things initially included in the U.S. Constitution. Grinde said it was almost like the founding fathers were picking and choosing what to adopt in their own constitution. The two constitutions also share policies about restricting members to holding only one office, how to remove people from office and establishing who has the ability to declare war.

Grinde, who is of Yamassee descent (Bird Clan), said there is a lot of discourse among historians about how much influence the Constitution writers took from the Great Law. There have been multiple instances where Iroquois leaders spoke at meetings and with the founding fathers. Benjamin Franklin printed a speech by Canassatego, the Onondaga leader, who urged the 13 colonies to unite at a treaty conference in 1744, according to PBS. Grinde said Franklin published a lot of speeches by the Iroquois and other Indian leaders.

“That shows the interest in Indians,” he said.

But proving a direct influence between the Great Law and the Constitution with written documents is a little more difficult. While James Madison’s constitutional notes are most recognized, Grinde said some historians believe Madison revised his notes for several reasons, including to erase Iroquois influence. There have also been written documents from others involved in the drafting and historians that specialize in that part of history noting the influence, he said. Grinde’s “influence theory,” which is further explained in his book, argues that the founding fathers did take direct influence from the Great Law and Iroquois Confederacy.

“This influence starts out with European colonists meeting and living alongside Indians,” he said.

In the case of the Mayflower Compact, there is no direct written evidence that it had any influence while founders were drafting the Constitution. Conlin said the document has likely been conflated with the Constitution in an attempt to argue that the U.S. is a Christian country.

The Mayflower Compact is a short document drafted in 1620 by the people on the Mayflower to stop rebellion before it occurred. The compact had four main parts that were agreed upon: the colonists would remain loyal to King James; they would create laws and follow them; they would create one society; and live following Christianity.

“The Constitution, if you look at it, it’s a completely secular document,” Conlin said.

The compact is often listed as the first example of a governmental system in a constitutional form, but calling it a constitution is very generous, he said. The Mayflower Compact, however, did establish two important things: It was a written document and it was constructed through popular sovereignty, which is a government based on the consent of the people.

While teaching in class, Steven Fountain said it is easy to point at something that looks like democracy and say that is where the constitution came from, but that would not be true. Fountain, a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver, said his students are always shocked when they realize the Mayflower Compact was set to create a society by restricting rights rather than codifying inherent rights as the Constitution does.

The Mayflower Compact was an agreement that was based in the time it was written, Fountain said. At the time, the compact was noteworthy because it was a document agreed upon by the people rather than being imposed by the King of England.

But he said it is a stretch to say it was of any influence, especially because the pilgrims who created the compact were far gone by the time the Constitution was drafted over 150 years later.

“These are very different people and they have very different ideas and understandings of the world that they’re carrying around in their heads,” he said.

There are other documents, movements and ideas that influenced the Constitution. Some connections mentioned by the three professors include the Enlightenment, Magna Carta and the Massachusetts Body of Liberties.

“We have really changed,” Conlin said. “But our constitutions barely change to keep up with this.”