The Founding Fathers certainly studied their history, drawing upon influences from ancient Rome to John Locke to help create their fledgling country. Yet the ideas the Founding Fathers got from Native Americans hardly ever receive due credit from historians, though their democratic procedures largely shaped the democracy Americans know today. As the European settlers waged centuries of war against the “savages” in the Americas while stealing their land and slaughtering innocent people, they also ripped off their ideas. Whose ideas were the Founding Fathers influenced by? The most influential group was the Iroquois, who created the first participatory democracy in North America.
The Native influence on the Founding Fathers provided them with numerous ideas about democracy and politics, and is probably something you never knew about America's founding. Native Americans shaped the Founding Fathers' conception of a successful republic and even the symbols of a new nation. Yet, in the end, they remain shut out of history books in favor of the Magna Carta and ancient Greeks. But no longer will the influence of the Iroquois people be pushed to the side of American history.
The Founding Fathers “borrowed” a number of ideas from Native Americans, especially from the Iroquois Confederacy. Benjamin Franklin in particular pointed to the Iroquois as an example of a sound federal governing system.
Franklin highly respected the Iroquois Confederacy, a grouping of six different tribes united under a banner of diplomacy, and sought to model the colonies' own unity after this system. When Franklin spoke at the Albany Congress, a meeting between Colonists and the Iroquois, he introduced the Albany Plan of Union, where a president presided over a group of colonial delegates, similar to the Iroquois Confederacy.
But even while the Founding Fathers took ideas from Native Americans, they still called them savages.
For centuries, European colonists fought with Native Americans as white settlers continued to seize Native American land. As wars decimated both sides, Europeans often argued Native Americans were only “semi-human" at best, “beasts” at their very worst.
In 1739, Reverend John Callender ranked the Native Americans against other peoples, concluding, “The Indians in this part of America appear to have been some of the least improved of the human species, without any learning or knowledge in any of the politer arts of life.”
These negative stereotypes about Native Americans, born from fear and bigotry, colored colonists' views of the First Americans. Such negative stereotyping only served American colonial interests; by turning tribes into enemies of the people, the people would never feel any issue driving them out.
In 1750, Reverend Johann Martin Bolzius wrote of Native Americans, “Among themselves they are almost always engaged in war, and kill one another." Their "primitive" tools and "uncivilized" dress only served to turn settlers against Natives.
Many colonists believed this narrative, only because they remained in constant war with Native Americans. By claiming that their enemies were “savages” with little to teach Europeans, white colonists managed to assert their agenda as the righteous, civilized path. These battles stretched from 1492 all the way to the 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee (and beyond, by some accounts).
In the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.” In spite of calling them “savages,” he complimented the Native Americans, making note of “Indian rules of politeness” and how such manners played into effective diplomacy. These descriptions featured not a group of bloodthirsty savages, but respectable groups whose customs and traditions could serve the burgeoning American government.
Franklin made this exact point when he wryly noted, “Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs.”